BEIJING — China’s Foreign Ministry said Wednesday that it had no information about a former Canadian diplomat detained in Beijing in apparent retaliation for Canada’s arrest of a leading Chinese executive.
While declining to confirm the detention of Michael Kovrig, ministry spokesman Lu Kang said the International Crisis Group, where Kovrig is a Hong-Kong-based analyst, was not registered in China and its activities in the country were illegal.
Kovrig was previously a diplomat in China and elsewhere. His current employer said he was taken into custody Monday night during a regular visit to Beijing by the Beijing Bureau of Chinese State Security, which handles intelligence and counter-intelligence matters in the Chinese capital.
“I do not have information to provide you here,” Lu said when asked about Kovrig. “If there is such a thing, please do not worry, it is assured that China’s relevant departments will definitely handle it according to law.”
Because Kovrig’s group is not registered as a non-governmental organization in China, “once its staff become engaged in activities in China, it has already violated the law,” Lu said.
Lu also repeated China’s demand for the immediate release of Meng Wanzhou, a leading executive with Chinese communications equipment maker Huawei, which has strong connections to the Chinese government and military.
“Our request is very clear, that is, the Canadian side should immediately release the detained Ms. Meng Wanzhou and to protect her legitimate rights and interests,” Lu said.
Meng was detained at the Vancouver airport on Dec. 1 at the request of the U.S., which accuses Huawei of using a Hong Kong shell company to sell equipment to Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions.
Her case has set off a diplomatic furor among the three countries and complicated high-stakes trade talks.
A B.C. judge released her on bail and under strict conditions late Tuesday afternoon after a three-day hearing. The 46-year-old could also face extradition to the U.S.
Earlier Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government has contacted Chinese authorities about Kovrig’s detention.
“We are engaged on the file, which we take very seriously and we are, of course, providing consular assistance to the family,” Trudeau said in Ottawa.
So far, it’s unclear whether there is any link between the two cases, though a former Canadian ambassador said he has little doubt of it.
“It’s clear that China is trying to put as much pressure as possible on the Canadian government to force us to return Ms. Meng to China,” Guy Saint-Jacques, a career diplomat who was Canada’s ambassador to China from 2012 to 2016, told The Canadian Press on Tuesday.
“I can tell you that based on my 13 years of experience in China, there are no coincidences. … The Chinese government wanted to send us a message.”
Active diplomats can be expelled by a host country fairly easily, but arresting and holding one would be extraordinary.
“In this case, it’s getting as close to that as possible,” Saint-Jacques said. “Clearly, they wanted to catch the attention of everyone in Ottawa.”
The former ambassador said he expected retaliation after Meng’s arrest. Cancelled official visits, aborted contracts perhaps.
“But to escalate that to that level, at this stage, took me a bit by surprise,” he said.
He said the Canadian government must seek clarity on whether Kovrig is accused of something specific yet and should explain to the Chinese that “we must find ways to lower the temperature because this could get out of control very rapidly.”
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale was asked Tuesday about the possibility Kovrig’s detention was retaliation for Meng’s arrest.
“We’re obviously worried about whenever a Canadian is put in a situation that puts them at some risk or jeopardy, where there’s no apparent or obvious cause or trigger for that,” Goodale said.
“So, before we characterize it, we want to make sure we get all the facts. But at the same time we are sparing no effort to do everything we possibly can to look after his safety.”
— With files from The Canadian Press
By The Associated Press