China on Thursday announced the formal arrest of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who have been held on suspicion of "spying" since Canada arrested a top executive at Chinese telecoms giant Huawei on Dec. 1, pending a U.S. extradition request.
Kovrig, a former diplomat, faces charges of "collecting state secrets and intelligence," while Spavor, who owns a tourism company, was arrested on charges of "stealing and illegally offering state secrets abroad," foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a regular news briefing in Beijing.
Lu said the men were formally arrested "recently." Both are being held at an unknown location under "residential surveillance at a designated location," although their formal arrest means they could be transferred elsewhere. Neither has been allowed access to a lawyer; only monthly visits from consular staff.
Lu said: "Chinese judicial authorities are handling the cases according to law ... [Their] legitimate rights and interests are fully guaranteed."
The change in Kovrig and Spavor's status means that state prosecutors have approved their continued detention on the charges listed, but have yet to issue an indictment, which would set in motion the processes leading to a trial.
The Canadian foreign ministry hit out at the announcement, and called for Kovrig and Spavor's immediate release.
"Canada strongly condemns their arbitrary arrest as we condemned their arbitrary detention on December 10," the ministry said in a statement. "We reiterate our demand that China immediately release Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor."
The announcement came just hours after U.S. President Trump announced an executive ban on the purchase of equipment from foreign providers deemed a national security risk, a move that is widely seen as targeting Chinese tech companies including Huawei.
Authorities in the democratic island of Taiwan said they would follow suit.
"Huawei forms part of the red supply chain, and it's the only [Chinese] supplier of core network infrastructure," Taiwan economics minister Shen Jong-chin told reporters on Thursday. "Taiwan-based factories supplying Ericsson, Alcatel and Nokia will reap the benefits."
Doing party's bidding
At the heart of the ban is growing international concern that Huawei cannot refuse to act on behalf of the Chinese state, which is in turn fully controlled by the Communist Party of China, analysts said.
"Huawei has made significant verbal assurances, such as saying that it is a staff-owned private company, that it will reject any Chinese Government demand to spy on or disrupt the network of its clients, and that it will sign a ’no-spying’ agreement," Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute, wrote in a recent blog post. "But such assurances need to be tested on the basis of their credibility against what is known of the Chinese political system."
According to Tsang, Huawei's claims that it is employee-owned do not hold water, given the fact that the staff union is itself controlled by the Communist Party.
"It is hard for any independent China Studies person to agree that Huawei’s ownership will make it not susceptible to the will of the Party," Tsang said. "Some may see such a structure to imply Huawei is more tightly controlled by the Party than the regular state owned enterprises."
Tsang also cited current Chinese legislation requiring all Chinese companies to cooperate with state intelligence agencies when requested to do so.
The arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou at Vancouver airport on Dec. 1, 2018 at the request of federal investigators in the U.S. sparked a diplomatic row between Ottawa and Beijing, which has tried to frame her arrest as politically motivated.
China detained Canadian nationals Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor on Dec. 10, and has accused them of working together. Their detentions came hard on the heels of an announcement allowing the extradition process for Meng to proceed.
The U.S. wants to extradite her to face charges of bank fraud linked to the breach of sanctions against Iran. Meng has also filed a lawsuit against the Canadian government, alleging procedural errors by officers who arrested her.
Reported by Hwang Chun-mei for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wong Lok-to for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.