China’s embassy in Canada has tried to downplay the detention of a Canadian couple held on suspicion of spying near the Chinese border with North Korea.
“We believe there is no need to over-interpret this case,” Yang Yundong, a spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Ottawa, told Canadian broadcaster CTV. “If we have further information, we will release it timely.”
Yang said the State Security Department of China’s Liaoning province had informed the embassy of the case on Monday, when Kevin and Julia Dawn Garratt were detained in Dandong, China’s main border hub with North Korea.
The couple are suspected of “collecting and stealing intelligence materials” in Dandong, Yang said.
The couple’s son Peter, 21, who also lives in the border city, was briefly questioned by state security officials on Tuesday, but later released, Canadian media reported.
The Vancouverites ran a café in Dandong only blocks away from the Friendship Bridge, a key rail and road link to the reclusive state since 2008.
Both devout Christians, the Garratts hosted regular religious meetings at the venue, their son Simeon, 27, told the South China Morning Post. “They have always been open about their religion,” he said.
“We’re trying to reach North Korea with God, with Jesus, and practical assistance,” Kevin Garratt said in a sermon last year, according to an audio file shared online, which has since been taken off the internet.
Dandong is a major trade hub between China and North Korea, but also a gateway for Christian missionaries trying to proselytise in North Korea.
One missionary told the Post that authorities along the entire border line have recently been cracking down on Christian activists there, pushing their activities further underground.
Charles Burton, a professor of political science at Brock University and former Canadian diplomat in Beijing, said he believed the probe was related to moves to contain the spread of Christianity throughout China.
There was very little the Canadian government could do about the case, except “raising the case at senior levels”, he said.
Chinese law is vague in its definition of state secrets, describing them as any information that could “damage state security and interests in the areas of politics, economy, and national defence”.
Obtaining and sharing such information is a crime that carries harsh penalties in China, ranging from 10 years in prison to the death penalty.
Burton said one alternative outcome could be that the Garratts make a televised confession admitting all charges against them and showing repentance, followed by prison or deportation to Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.
Yuen Pau Woo, the president of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, said the best outcome could be an "early deportation with a rap on the knuckles for inadvertent violation of state secrecy laws."
"It is hard to imagine a scenario where the Chinese authorities will admit to making a mistake in detaining the Garratts," he said.
Woo argued that Canada should not let the investigation affect broader bilateral ties already strained by accusations of Chinese cyberespionage,
Last week, Canada said Chinese hackers had infiltrated the National Research Council of Canada and shut down the council’s network. China's ministry of foreign affairs denied the accusation.
"It will not help the Garratts to harp on any possible linkage with the accusation of Chinese cyberespionage in Canada," he said. "If the issue gets into the hands of hardliners on either side, the Garratts could be in for a long detention."
Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird refused to comment on the case as he visited the country’s new consulate in Hong Kong on Wednesday.
Ian Burchett, the consul general, also declined to take questions from reporters.
But in a speech to mark the opening of the new building, Baird stressed the importance of trade links between Hong Kong and Canada, as well as the promotion of core Canadian values such as freedom, human rights and the rule of law.
Baird is expected to visit Guangzhou tomorrow, but it is not known if the foreign minister will meet with any government officials during his time in Hong Kong or on the mainland.
The Garratts' cafe seen in Tencent's equivalent to Google Street View:
Additional reporting by Peter So