Beijing yesterday confirmed that it has detained a second Canadian citizen this week as signs point to an escalating spat with Ottawa following the arrest of a top Chinese executive in Vancouver earlier this month.
China's Foreign Ministry said that businessman Michael Spavor had been detained by officials from the national spy agency in the border city of Dandong on Monday, the same day that former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig was detained in Beijing.
At a regular press briefing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said "compulsory action" had been taken against both men by the Ministry of State Security for "engaging in activities that endanger the national security of the People's Republic of China", without elaborating further.
While Beijing had earlier confirmed Mr Kovrig's arrest, it only confirmed Mr Spavor's status after Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland disclosed the second case during a news conference on Wednesday.
Mr Spavor runs Paektu Cultural Exchange, a China-based company that organises trips to North Korea. He is known for having organised American basketball star Dennis Rodman's visits to North Korea, and for having met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Yesterday, Mr Lu deflected questions on whether the detention of the two Canadians was retaliation against Canada, as the move came in the wake of the arrest of Ms Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Chinese tech giant Huawei, in Vancouver on Dec 1 at the request of the United States.
Ms Meng and Huawei have been accused by the US of violating sanctions against trade with Iran.
China last week summoned the Canadian ambassador in Beijing to demand Ms Meng's release, warning of "grave consequences" otherwise.
State media such as the People's Daily also ran editorials in recent days that said Canada risks "paying a heavy price" if Ms Meng is not released soon.
Mr Lu said: "The relevant state security organs are taking actions according to the law, and the case is under investigation, so I cannot make any prejudgment here."
He also dismissed concerns that the two cases are politically motivated and may have unsettled Canadians living and working in China.
Some 780,000 trips were made by Canadians to China between January and last month , a far higher proportion than the number of Chinese who visited Canada, he said.
"These figures can tell you whether China is safe," he added.
"Conversely, since the Canadian government's wrongful detention of Ms Meng Wanzhou under US direction, many Chinese are weighing whether it's safe to travel to Canada."
Despite the Chinese authorities not framing the latest developments as an act of reprisal, observers saw the arrests of the Canadians as part of ongoing negotiations to free Ms Meng.
Beijing's confirmation of the two arrests drew mainly praise on Chinese social media, with netizens seeing the move as a justified response to Ms Meng's arrest.
This despite the Huawei executive having been granted bail on Tuesday, while awaiting extradition to the US.
"The world is a small place and some forget that when they take certain actions, their own people may get in trouble," said Weibo user Liu Meng.
"Anyway, they usually do not serve the full sentence but are deported or allowed to leave the country for medical treatment."
Mr Hu Xijin, editor of nationalistic tabloid Global Times, agreed, noting that Beijing's move makes possible a quid pro quo for both sides to drop respective charges against each other's citizens.
"It's very simple. Canada should completely restore Ms Meng's freedom," he wrote in a Weibo post which drew more than 2,000 shares and likes within six hours.
"In the past, Westerners arrested in China were basically 'deported', and I believe Canadian citizens who have violated Chinese laws this time will soon be 'deported' too."
The relevant state security organs are taking actions according to law.
CHINESE FOREIGN MINISTRY SPOKESMAN LU KANG, dismissing concerns that the cases against the two Canadians for endangering national security are politically motivated.
It's very simple. Canada should completely restore Ms Meng's freedom.
MR HU XIJIN, editor of nationalistic tabloid Global Times, noting that Beijing's move makes possible a quid pro quo for both sides to drop charges against each other's citizens.