SHANGHAI - China said a former Canadian diplomat detained in Beijing is working for an organisation that is not legally registered and he may have broken China’s foreign non-governmental organisation (NGO) law.
Mr Michael Kovrig, a North-east Asia senior adviser with the International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based non-governmental organisation, was arrested in Beijing on Monday (Dec 10) night, said a statement by his current employer.
His detention comes days after Huawei’s top executive Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Vancouver at the request of United States authorities who have accused her of violating US sanctions against Iran. Shortly after she was arrested, China summoned the Canadian ambassador to demand that she be released, warning of “grave consequences”.
When asked if Mr Kovrig’s arrest was in retaliation, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said on Wednesday (Dec 12): “If there is indeed such a case, please rest assured that the relevant Chinese authorities will certainly handle it according to the law.”
He maintained that China has “no information to provide” on this matter.
But he added that as far as he is aware, the ICG is not legally registered in China and if Mr Kovrig was carrying out “relevant activities” for the ICG within Chinese borders he would have broken the law.
The spokesman told reporters in a regular briefing that China has an “open policy” and foreign organisations as well as foreigners should not be worried.
“We maintain normal contacts with people from all walks of life in other countries. There are many tourists coming to China every year. Why are they not worried? All foreigners have nothing to worry about as long as they comply with Chinese laws and regulations,” he added.
The ICG said on Wednesday that it had received no information from Chinese officials about the detention and it was seeking consular access to Mr Kovrig.
Mr Kovrig’s arrest was confirmed by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who said he was aware of the situation.
“We have been in direct contact with the Chinese diplomats and representatives,” Mr Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa.
“We are engaged in a file which we take very seriously and we are of course providing consular assistance to the family,” he added.
Before joining the ICG in early 2017, Mr Kovrig had served in Beijing and Hong Kong for Canada’s foreign service.
President and chief executive of the ICG, Mr Robert Malley, told The New York Times that he was sure Mr Kovrig did not “engage in illegal activities”.
“He was not endangering Chinese national security. He was doing what all Crisis Group analysts do: objective and impartial research and policy recommendations to end deadly conflict,” said Mr Malley.
According to Mr Kovrig’s LinkedIn profile, his work with the international organisation involves research related to China, Japan, the Korean Peninsula and South-east Asia. It says he aims to help “reduce tensions and promote the peaceful resolution of disputes” by “constructive engagement with all parties”.
Several former Canadian ambassadors to China told the media that they believed Mr Kovrig’s case was linked to Ms Meng’s arrest.
The chief financial officer of Huawei, a Chinese telecoms giant, is accused of personally being involved in tricking banks into violating US sanctions. She has been granted bail of C$10 million ($10.3m) and could face charges if extradited to the US.
An expert on Chinese law at Georgetown Law School told The Straits Times that “it’s highly likely that Michael Kovrig was detained in order to send a message to the Canadian government”.
“Beijing is signalling that they are watching Canada’s actions in the Meng case very closely,” said Mr Thomas Kellogg, executive director of the Center for Asian Law at Georgetown Law School.
Mr Kovrig’s diplomatic background could be seen as a “net positive” such that his “detention sends an even clearer message to Ottawa”, said Mr Kellogg.
While hard to speculate what could happen next, Mr Kellogg said the Chinese authorities could release Mr Kovrig having made their point about Canada’s vulnerability to retaliation.
“Or they could hold on to him for the time being, as they wait to see whether Canada agrees to send Ms Meng to the US," Mr Kellogg added.
“Beijing certainly should release him, immediately and unconditionally, if they have no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.