Ottawa (Toronto Star) – A respected former Canadian diplomat has been detained in China, a development observers fear is an alarming tit-for-tat move after Canada’s arrest of a Chinese business executive wanted by the U.S.
Michael Kovrig worked at the Canadian embassy from 2014 to 2016 and for a few months in the Hong Kong consulate where he was the political fixer for Justin Trudeau’s 2016 visit. He is now senior adviser on north-east Asia for the International Crisis Group, a non-governmental organization that promotes ways to prevent and resolve deadly conflict.
Kovrig had been splitting his time working out of ICG offices in both Hong Kong and Beijing and travelled around the east Asia region for research, he told a Star journalist earlier this year.
On Tuesday after news broke of his detention, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed he took the matter “very seriously” as he stopped short of identifying Kovrig by name.
“We are aware of the situation of a Canadian detained in China,” Trudeau said as he entered the Commons. “We have been in direct contact with the Chinese diplomats and representatives. We are engaged on the file which we take very seriously and we are of course providing consular assistance to the family,” Trudeau said, echoing comments by his Foreign Affairs Department.
Kovrig’s organization, the ICG, said in a statement on its website: “We are doing everything possible to secure additional information on Michael’s whereabouts as well as his prompt and safe release.”
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale wouldn’t say if the government believes Kovrig’s detention is retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Meng Wanzhou, the high-profile chief financial officer of China’s Huawei Technologies Inc. in Vancouver Dec. 1, on an American extradition request. But he signalled Kovrig is in “jeopardy.”
Goodale told CBC that Canadian “mid- to senior-level” officials have been dealing with the Chinese government on Kovrig’s file, but it hadn’t yet been directly taken up by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland or the prime minister with their counterparts.
“We’re obviously worried about whenever a Canadian is put in a situation that puts them at some risk or jeopardy where’s there’s no apparent or obvious cause or trigger for that,” he earlier told reporters. “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.”
Freeland told an audience at Toronto’s Rotman School of Management Tuesday evening the Canadian government has been in touch with Kovrig’s family and has raised the issue with Chinese authorities.
“This has our attention at the very highest levels of our government, we’re very very focused on it,” she said at a joint University of Toronto/New York Times event.
“We have a tremendously important duty of care that we take really seriously.”
Freeland also wouldn’t say if the detention is related to Meng’s case.
But Kovrig’s former boss and a former Canadian ambassador to China, Guy Saint-Jacques, was blunter, and worried Kovrig’s ordeal is just beginning.
Kovrig could be charged with espionage, and the legal process in China could “take years,” said Saint-Jacques, in an interview with the Star.
“I know Michael well. When I learned the news I was pretty distressed. In my view, this is part of China’s efforts to put pressure on Canada on the Huawei case,” Saint-Jacques said, referencing the Dec.1 arrest of Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver.
Beijing has expressed fury over Meng’s arrest, and had demanded her immediate release, while threatening “grave consequences” if the Canadian government didn’t comply.
“I was wondering who they would go after in retaliation but I thought this would happen at a later stage in the process, but they may have come under conclusion that someone who was a diplomat who worked for the Canadian government would get the attention of people in Ottawa,” Saint-Jacques said.
Saint-Jacques confirmed that Kovrig is currently on an unpaid leave of absence from Global Affairs Canada so he is still a federal employee but not travelling on a diplomatic passport.
“Michael loves China and he wanted to get a good idea of what was going on in China … He was a political officer who travelled to many parts of the country and met with people including dissidents and (ethnic minorities) in Xinjiang and he provided great reports (to the government).”
“I can confirm that he is a good political officer. He has no involvement in any espionage activities,” Saint-Jacques said.
Kovrig’s detention raises the stakes for the Liberal government. A court will initially weigh the merits of the extradition request and may approve it, but it is up to the minister of justice to sign off on the American request. The United States asked Canada’s Justice Department to issue a provisional warrant to arrest Meng on fraud allegations. Canada has insisted it cannot influence the court’s decisions on bail or at the early stages, repeating it is in the hands of the judicial system.
The charges against the Huawei executive, outlined at her bail hearing by a Canadian prosecutor, allege Meng was part of a scheme to circumvent U.S. sanctions against Iran. She is alleged to have misled a financial institution into thinking that Huawei and a company called Skycom were separate, putting the institution at risk of financial harm and criminal liability.
It all comes as Canada and Britain are the last of the “Five Eyes” intelligence and security allies to decide whether to allow Huawei Technologies to participate in developing the next generation of 5G wireless telecoms networks.
Security agencies and bipartisan critics in the U.S. say Huawei is a security risk, that its equipment could provide a “back door” way for China to spy on or cripple critical infrastructure networks, as the company is obliged to follow Beijing’s orders under China’s national security laws. The U.S., Australia and New Zealand have already barred Huawei from the 5G project in their telecoms sectors.
Just last week, Kovrig tweeted approvingly on Dec. 7 about a column published by the Financial Times that said Huawei should be barred from British telecommunications development of 5G networks. “Sensible cautionary advice on Huawei,” he wrote online.
David Mulroney, a senior fellow with the Munk School for Global Affairs and another former ambassador to China, said in an interview that Kovrig, who joined embassy staff after Mulroney, was known as a very capable and “very smart guy,” very knowledgeable about China.
“It doesn’t look good,” he said of Kovrig’s detention. He too was reluctant to say it was a retaliatory move by China until more facts are known, “but I’m not reluctant to say that China could help end our concern by coming forward and explaining what they’re doing in this case.”
“At the heart of this entire controversy is the continuing concern that China doesn’t respect the rule of law, that it doesn’t play by the rules. Detaining Mr. Kovrig only reminds us of how valid that concern is.”
China hauled in Canada’s current ambassador John McCallum on Saturday to its Beijing foreign ministry offices and threatened Canada with “grave consequences” if Meng is not released.
Experts have been warning China could retaliate against Canadian nationals living or travelling in China.
Kovrig frequently provided interviews with international media on topics such as China’s relationship with North Korea and South China Sea territorial disputes, and he also wrote commentaries for newspapers.
Messages sent to his social media accounts were not responded to, and there were no indications that anyone had read the messages.
Kovrig wrote in his online profile he has worked in 20 countries and travelled through more than 50.
In all, he worked for Canada’s Foreign Affairs Department internationally and domestically for about a decade, including with its international security branch in Ottawa, in Afghanistan and with Canada’s UN mission in New York.
He studied at Columbia University, New York University, the Sorbonne in Paris, and University of Toronto.
Fluent in English and French, he says he had professional proficiency in Mandarin.
Guillaume Bérubé, spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, said no more information would be disclosed due to provisions of the Privacy Act.
The Chinese embassy in Ottawa did not respond to requests for information and comment.
By Joanna Chiu and Tonda MacCharles with a file from May Warren