China on Thursday said it is now holding two Canadian nationals on suspicion of "harming national security," amid ongoing diplomatic tensions with Ottawa over the arrest of a top executive with the Chinese telecoms giant Huawei.
"Spavor, Michael Peter Todd was detained on Dec. 10, 2018 by the state security police bureau of Dandong city, Liaoning province, for the lawful investigation of activities suspected of harming national security," a news website affiliated with the Liaoning provincial government reported on Thursday.
Meanwhile, ruling Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily repeated the exact content of the report via its Twitter account, citing local media reports.
Spavor, a tourism consultant with contacts among high-ranking North Korean officials, has previously been photographed shaking hands and laughing with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
His detention came on the same day as that of Michael Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat held by the Chinese authorities in the wake of the arrest of Huawei's chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou during transit in Vancouver, but was initially less widely reported.
Kovrig, who works for the nongovernmental organization International Crisis Group (ICG), is also under investigation for "harming state security."
Chinese law allows police to detain those suspected of vaguely worded "national security" crimes and hold them under residential surveillance at a secret location for up to six months, with no access to lawyers or family visits.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang confirmed that China is holding two Canadian nationals under investigation by state security police in Beijing, where Kovrig was detained, and in the northeastern city of Dandong, where Spavor lived.
"The legal rights of the two Canadians are being safeguarded," Lu told a regular news briefing in Beijing on Thursday, adding that they are currently under "coercive measures."
Canadian officials have been unable to contact Spavor "since he let us know he was being questioned by Chinese authorities," the Associated Press quoted Canadian Global Affairs spokesman Guillaume Berube as saying.
"We are working very hard to ascertain his whereabouts and we continue to raise this with the Chinese government," Berube said.
As a diplomat on current leave of absence, Kovrig technically remains an employee of the Canadian foreign affairs department, but has no diplomatic immunity.
"The fact that Mr. Kovrig is an employee of my department means a lot of us know him and that adds another layer to the concern," Canadian foreign minister Chrystia Freeland said on Wednesday.
But she added that there was "no direct link" between Meng's detention in Vancouver, where she faces possible extradition to the United States on alleged charges of bank fraud in relation to the sale of technology to Iran.
Benson Wong, a former politics professor at Hong Kong's Baptist University, said it was impossible to confirm at this stage whether there was a direct relationship between the detention of the two Canadians in China and Meng's arrest in Canada.
But the timing of their detentions made it hard not to link the two cases, he said.
"The closeness in terms of timing means that one can't help feeling to a greater or lesser extent that the Chinese government wants to get itself some hostages, that they can use to threaten the Canadian government with in its handling of the Meng Wanzhou case," Wong said. "To ensure that they take China's views into account."
But Guo Yiping, a current affairs commentator who has lived in the United States and Canada for more than 30 years, said the link is "obvious."
Nonetheless, Guo said he expects Ottawa to fully support the U.S. extradition process.
"Any Canadian administration, regardless of which party is in power, has to go along with the U.S.," Guo said. "Their interests—security, defense and diplomatic—are as close as lips and teeth."
"We [in Canada] can't turn down requests like that from the U.S.," he said.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Liu Fei for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.