A Canadian government spokesperson confirmed in a written statement that 13 Canadian citizens have been in China’s custody since Dec. 1, when Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou was arrested while passing through Vancouver International Airport at the request of the United States.
“Global Affairs Canada is aware of 13 Canadian citizens having been detained in China, excluding Hong Kong, since December 1, 2018. Of those, we can confirm that at least eight have been released,” Guillaume Bérubé, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, said in an email.
Bérubé didn’t confirm what charges, if any, China had laid. Previously, only three Canadian citizens were known to have been detained in China since Meng’s arrest.
China’s prosecutor-general Zhang Jun told a briefing in Beijing that Canadian detainees Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor “without a doubt” broke the law. The two men are charged with endangering national security.
Diplomatic tensions between Canada and China have escalated since Meng’s high-profile arrest. The Canadian government has demanded the “immediate release” of some of the Canadian citizens but hasn’t said that there is a link between the detentions of the Canadians and Meng’s arrest.
However, Beijing-based Western diplomats and former Canadian diplomats have described the detentions as a “tit-for-tat” reprisal by China’s communist regime.
Conservative Party foreign affairs critic Erin O’Toole believes China could be using “administrative harassment” of Canadians as retaliation for Meng’s arrest, saying he has spoken with parents who are anxious about their grown-up children teaching in China.
“In one case, there was a mother speaking to me about her son who had seen some other Western-looking teachers picked up by authorities on the street,” O’Toole told The Globe and Mail. “Now, I have no idea if those were Canadians but this was a son telling his mother, ‘I’m a little concerned about what I see to be a bit more of a security interest in westerners.'”
Former Canadian ambassador to China David Mulroney doubts Canadian citizens detained in China would receive the same treatment as back home.
“Foreigners who work in China notice this,” he told The Globe and Mail. “It’s sending a chill through that broad community–diplomats, journalists, academics, [non-governmental organization] workers, and business people–who try [to] understand and interpret China.”
Meng was released on Dec. 11 after paying $7.4 million in bail and is now living in one of her two multimillion-dollar Vancouver homes as she fights extradition to the United States. The 46-year-old must wear an ankle monitor and stay at home between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m.
According to court documents, Meng is charged with misleading multinational banks about Huawei’s influence over a company based in Hong Kong doing business with Iran, which allegedly put the banks at risk of violating U.S. sanctions.
The 13 Canadians detained include Kovrig, Spavor, and teacher Sarah McIver, according to Global Affairs Canada.
McIver, who taught English in China, has since been released and returned to Canada. Kovrig and Spavor remain in custody. Canadian consular officials visited them once in mid-Dec. Global Affairs Canada didn’t confirm the identities of the other 10 Canadians.
A spokesperson from China’s foreign ministry said it was not “convenient” to discuss charges against Spavor and Kovrig at a news conference on Dec. 3.
There are a total of 200 Canadians who have been detained in China over the years for a variety of alleged infractions and many continue to face on-going legal proceedings. Some of them have been released on bail or are on probation.
“This number has remained relatively stable” in recent year, Bérubé said, adding that there has been no significant increase or decrease.
The United States has issued a travel advisory to China through its state department, warning U.S. citizens that they could be targeted in a similar fashion, without directly mentioning the Canadian cases.
“U.S. citizens may be detained without access to U.S. consular services or information about their alleged crime. U.S. citizens may be subjected to prolonged interrogations and extended detention for reasons related to ‘state security,’” the advisory said.
Additional reporting by Reuters.