China decries Canada’s ‘hypocrisy’: Espionage “endangering China’s national security”?

Beijing has defended its prosecution of two Canadians for espionage, after The Globe and Mail reported that Michael Spavor blames intelligence work done by Michael Kovrig for their nearly three-year-long detention.

Mr. Spavor is seeking a multimillion-dollar settlement from Ottawa, two sources told The Globe, alleging he was arrested in China in late 2018 because he unwittingly provided intelligence on North Korea to Mr. Kovrig, which was later shared with Canada and allied spy services.

In a statement Sunday, China’s embassy in Ottawa said the two Canadians were “suspected of committing crimes endangering China’s national security” and their case was handled by the Chinese judicial system “in accordance with the law.”

“Recent relevant reports once again prove that the above facts cannot be denied,” the embassy said. “Canada’s hyping up of so-called ‘arbitrary detention’ by China is purely a thief crying ‘stop thief’ and fully exposes Canada’s hypocrisy.”

Mr. Kovrig served as a diplomat at Canada’s embassy in Beijing from 2012 to 2014, where he contributed to the Global Security Reporting Program (GSRP), which sees diplomats collect information on security in countries of strategic importance to Canada in a non-covert fashion. He took a leave of absence from Global Affairs Canada in 2017 to join the International Crisis Group (ICG), and was working at the independent think tank when he was detained in China the following year.

A third highly placed source told The Globe that Mr. Kovrig — while not an employee of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service — was viewed as an intelligence asset due to his GSRP work, and later when based in Hong Kong at the ICG. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the sources because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the matter.

From the archives: What we know about Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig’s time in China

Canada flatly denied at the time that the Two Michaels were involved in espionage, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, cabinet officials and then-ambassador to China Dominic Barton saying that Beijing had incarcerated the two Canadians on trumped-up charges in retaliation for the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver on a U.S. extradition warrant.

In a statement to Canadian media after The Globe’s reporting this weekend, Global Affairs said, “perpetuating the notion that either Michael was involved in espionage is only perpetuating a false narrative under which they were detained by China.”

Mr. Spavor was charged by Chinese prosecutors with spying for a foreign entity and illegally procuring state secrets. Mr. Kovrig was charged with illegally receiving state secrets and intelligence in collaboration with Mr. Spavor. In August, 2021, more than one month before a deal was reached to send both men home, Mr. Spavor was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 11 years in prison. Mr. Kovrig had not been sentenced before his release.

Chinese media previously reported that both men “confessed guilt” before being paroled “for medical reasons” hours after Ms. Meng flew home to China.

Mr. Spavor’s allegations were a trending topic Monday on Chinese social media, under the hashtag “Canadian Spies’ Internal Strife,” with related posts viewed more than 260 million times, according to Weibo, a Twitter-like service.

The Global Times, a nationalist, state-run tabloid that covered the Two Michaels case closely, quoted Li Haidong, a professor at the China Foreign Affairs University, as saying “information exposed by Canadian media once again demonstrates that China’s legal actions against two Michaels were legitimate, as they indeed engaged in activities inconsistent with their stated identities.”

“Even after so much information has been revealed, Canada remains obstinately unenlightened, failing to honestly disclose the truth of the matter to the public,” Prof. Li told the paper. “Instead, Canada continues to obscure the facts and even falsely accuse China, reflecting Canada’s lack of sincerity in dealing with China-related affairs and its attempt to tarnish China’s image in the international community.”

The prolonged detention of the Two Michaels greatly alarmed many foreigners living in China and was seen as emblematic of an increasingly hostile environment.

In the past year, Chinese police have raided financial research companies and consulting firms, and imposed exit bans on executives. In April, Beijing passed a new anti-espionage law which will make it easier to arrest foreign citizens, expanding the definition of spying and banning the transfer of information concerning national security, an already broad definition which has been used to prosecute journalists in the past.

Ties between Beijing and Ottawa have not recovered despite the Two Michaels’ release, due in large part to ongoing revelations about alleged Chinese interference in Canadian politics. In May, Ottawa expelled a Chinese diplomat accused of targeting Conservative MP Michael Chong, a critic of Beijing, after which China responded in kind.

While Canadians in China previously told The Globe they have not felt any hostility as a result of strained ties between Ottawa and Beijing, almost 80 per cent of Canadians have a negative view of China, according to Pew Research.

With files from Alexandra Li in Beijing and Robert Fife and Steven Chase in Ottawa