‘Nothing he was doing was in any way secret’, detained Canadian Michael Kovrig’s employer Crisis Group says
- Arrest sends ‘troubling message’ for those working to build closer ties between China and the international community, according to International Crisis Group president Robert Malley
- He says Chinese officials ‘appreciated’ Kovrig’s work and that he will push for his immediate release
Chinese officials “appreciated” the work of detained Canadian former diplomat Michael Kovrig, and that work has been “transparent”, according to his employer.
Robert Malley, president of non-profit NGO International Crisis Group, which employed Kovrig, said his arrest sent a “troubling message” for those working to build closer ties between China and the international community, like diplomats or NGO staff.
“Nothing he was doing was in any way secret, and nothing he was doing was endangering national security,” Malley told the South China Morning Post.
Kovrig was a diplomat at Canada’s embassy in Beijing until 2016 before he took a leave of absence to work for the ICG as a senior adviser for Northeast Asia.
He was detained in Beijing on December 10 in a move widely seen as retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Sabrina Meng Wanzhou at the request of the United States on December 1.
A second Canadian, Michael Spavor, was detained on the same day as Kovrig. Spavor is a businessman based in the Chinese city of Dandong with connections to North Korea.
Both Kovrig and Spavor were detained for activities “that endanger China’s national security”. On Wednesday, Canadian newspaper the National Post reported that a third Canadian citizen had been detained by Chinese authorities.
While China has not officially said the detentions were connected, China’s ambassador to Canada Lu Shaye wrote in an op-ed in Canada’s The Globe and Mail that those who accused China of detaining “some person” in retaliation for Meng’s arrest should “first reflect on the actions of the Canadian side”.
Malley said he would like to speak with Chinese officials about Kovrig’s role in China, and to push for his immediate release. “Our sense was that it was work that they appreciate … I think they saw benefit from hearing our analysis of conflicts around the world. There’s no mystery,” he said.
Kovrig regularly attended high-level meetings, like the Xiangshan military forum in Beijing and the Shangri-La Dialogue in June, and spoke at events across the country.
The ICG said it shut down its China office in 2016 in anticipation of the country’s new foreign NGO law, which took effect in January 2017 and requires foreign NGOs to work with a local partner to register activities.
Kovrig had been actively searching for a partner on the mainland to comply with the new law, and the authorities were aware of the situation.
“We’ve been transparent about the fact that we are not a registered NGO, and that we want to be, but they understood that, and they still understood that we were doing the work … and saw [its] benefit,” Malley said.
Shawn Shieh, an independent expert on civil society in China, said the authorities had given foreign NGOs some leeway to search for partners so they could register on the mainland.
“People who are trying to find a partner or going to Beijing for meetings could just be people preparing to register, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re carrying out an activity illegally,” Shieh said.
“It all depends on your interpretation of what the [new law] calls an ‘activity’. If you’re not registered, can you engage in an ‘activity’ to prepare to register? If you want to go to China to make these preparations, you have to go on a tourist visa, or perhaps get a letter of invitation from a potential partner.”
He added that if Kovrig’s detention was related to Meng’s arrest, it would mean foreign NGOs had become caught up in the broader conflict between the US, Canada and China.
“If so, this shouldn’t make foreign NGOs feel any safer or set them at ease. We know this dispute will get worse before it gets better. The atmosphere will likely become more toxic, and there is the very real risk of more NGOs getting caught in the crossfire between these countries.”
Malley said Kovrig’s arrest could have a chilling effect on the many foreigners working in China.
“If this was directed at what he did as a diplomat, then this would be a troubling message to diplomats from any country who – years later – may be detained for activities that they engaged in legitimately as diplomats,” he said.
“The other option is that he’s being detained for what he did at Crisis Group and [his work] is about as open and transparent an activity as one could imagine,” Malley added. “That could have a chilling effect not just for NGO [staff], but for academics, businesspeople – for anyone.”