Canada Detentions Show Peril of Foreigners in China's Gray Zone

(Bloomberg) -- The detention of two Canadians by China’s spy agency underscores the increased difficulty foreigners face operating there, and is fueling concerns they could be swept up under vague and powerful national security laws.

Canada Detentions Show Peril of Foreigners in China's Gray Zone

Former diplomat Michael Kovrig, who now works for Brussels-based non-profit the International Crisis Group, was detained Monday in Beijing by China’s spy agency. Michael Spavor, who organizes North Korea trips for foreigners including ex-basketball star Dennis Rodman, was also detained the same day. It was unclear whether the cases were related.

The detentions came nine days after the arrest of Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver, leaving Canada squeezed between the U.S. and China in the midst of a trade dispute. The timing fueled speculation about whether the detentions might be retaliation by Beijing, although China has deflected questions about any links.

The cases have sent shock waves through China’s community of foreign diplomats, business consultants, journalists and non-profit workers, especially after the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Thursday that both men were “suspected of activities endangering national security.” That comes a day after the same ministry suggested that Kovrig’s employer, the Crisis Group, could be violating a 2017 law regulating non-governmental organizations if it wasn’t registered.

“This is going to be alarming even for people who have no real threat to national security and who see themselves as researchers working for the common good,” said William Nee, a Hong Kong-based China researcher for Amnesty International. “Even an NGO with their papers in working order may start questioning whether they could be impacted.”

Canada Detentions Show Peril of Foreigners in China's Gray Zone

Just operating in China’s opaque, one-party political environment -- where most important decisions are disclosed long after being made -- requires everyone from business consultants to charity workers engage in activity that could be construed as intelligence gathering. At the same time, Chinese laws are drafted with sweeping, open-ended language that gives authorities wide latitude to decide what’s acceptable -- and suddenly change course.

Since taking power in 2012, President Xi Jinping has presided over the passage of a raft of new or expanded national security laws to defend China from perceived threats both inside and outside its borders. Rules strengthening the country’s anti-espionage law in 2016 clarified what poses a danger to public security -- including providing suspected spy organizations with funds, venues, and materials, and any form of assistance or even contact with groups seen as harming China’s national security.

Xi’s government has also begun offering financial rewards to citizens who report spies, issuing public information pamphlets to help with the task. He’s overseen a series of crackdowns on everything from official corruption to civil rights activism.

The NGO legislation requires organizations to get a Chinese government sponsor and register with the police, rather than the Ministry of Civil Affairs. Crisis Group, whose work focuses on conflict prevention, was among the organizations that decided to relocate from China.

The change reflects concerns that such groups could provide a platform for foreigners and domestic dissidents to influence politics. Such fears were driven home by an April cartoon series published by the spy agency showing a foreign NGO employee meeting with a Chinese workers’ organization, paying for worker training abroad and organizing protests.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Wednesday that Crisis Group hadn’t been authorized to do work in China, raising concerns that the government intended to increase enforcement of the NGO law. “We welcome foreign travelers, but if they engage in activities that clearly violate Chinese laws and regulations, then it is totally another story,” Lu said.

Canada Detentions Show Peril of Foreigners in China's Gray Zone

Crisis Group opened an office in China in 2007 after consultations with the Foreign Ministry and relocated to Hong Kong, where Kovrig was based, before the NGO law took effect. The organization has been trying to formalize its status in the country ever since, spokesman Karim Lebhour said in an email.

“This is the first time we hear such an accusation from the Chinese authorities in a decade of working with China and we are trying to gather additional information,” Lebhour said.

The national security allegations may be even more alarming. Under Chinese law, police are able to detain anyone suspected of vaguely-worded “national security” crimes at a secret location -- such as a hotel -- for as long as six months, with no access to lawyers.

“In general, the situation has gotten a lot more tenuous,” said Peter Mattis, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst and research fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation who is co-authoring a reference guide on Chinese intelligence. “If I were an executive, I would be careful and to the extent that I could, I would avoid traveling to China.”

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