Who is Michael Kovrig, the Canadian ex-diplomat arrested in China
On Tuesday, reports emerged that a former Canadian diplomat was arrested in China.
The arrest of Michael Kovrig came on the third day of a bail hearing for Chinese businessperson Meng Wanzhou, who has been arrested in Vancouver and could face extradition to the U.S.
WATCH: No explanation for ex-Canadian diplomat’s arrest in Canada
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the Canadian government is providing assistance to Kovrig’s family.
“We are in direct contact with Chinese diplomats and representatives,” Trudeau said on his way into Question Period on Tuesday. “We are engaged on the file, which we take very seriously. We are providing consular assistance to the family.”
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said Global Affairs Canada is sparing no effort to find out everything it can about the case “and also to demonstrate to the Chinese government through our diplomatic offices how seriously we view this matter.”
“What we know is that a Canadian is obviously in difficulty in China,” Goodale said in Ottawa.
Meng’s case has sparked harsh criticisms from Chinese officials and worries from Canadians that retaliation was imminent.
WATCH: Freeland comments on Huawei CFO, Canadian diplomat arrests
Who is Michael Kovrig and why was he arrested?
Kovrig is a senior adviser at the International Crisis Group, with a focus on global security issues in North East Asia, and has been since 2017. He is based in Hong Kong.
The company, which reports on global conflict and works to build a more peaceful world, confirmed it is trying to locate him following reports of his arrest.
“International Crisis Group is aware of reports that its North East Asia Senior Adviser, Michael Kovrig, has been detained in China,” the company said in public statement. “We are doing everything possible to secure additional information on Michael’s whereabouts as well as his prompt and safe release.”
He frequently reported on China’s role in the world, such as China’s growing presence in Africa and on China’s relationship with North Korea.
On social media, he frequently commented on both Chinese foreign policy and on Huawei — calling an article titled, “China’s Huawei should not be allowed in UK 5G telecoms” sensible advice.
WATCH: Meng Wanzhou bail hearing overshadowed by threats of retaliation from China
According to his LinkedIn page, he formerly worked at Global Affairs in the Canadian Consulate in Hong Kong and in the Canadian Embassy in Beijing. Before that, he worked in Ottawa for the Foreign Affairs ministry.
During those times, he also worked as a political lead for Trudeau’s 2016 visit to Hong Kong.
Global Affairs hasn’t commented on the issue.
Guy Saint-Jacques, Canada’s former ambassador to China, said on Twitter that Kovrig was on a leave without pay from Canada’s embassy and does not have diplomatic immunity.
WATCH: Huawei CFO case strains relationship between Canada and China
He also previously worked for the United Nations Development Programme.
Before his career as a foreign policy adviser, Kovrig was a journalist.
Two sources told Reuters Kovrig was arrested — but no reason was given for his arrest.
An email to the Chinese consulate from Global News in Canada went unanswered and faxes to the Chinese foreign ministry went unanswered, Reuters said.
WATCH: Arrest of Huawei CFO not ‘in any way’ political: Freeland
What does Huawei have to do with it?
On Dec. 1, Canadian authorities arrested Meng when she was transferring planes in Vancouver. She is charged with fraud and suspected of violating U.S. sanctions against Iran.
Chinese officials say she didn’t violate any Canadian laws and should be released — going as far as calling the arrest a human rights violation.
There is no direct link between Meng’s arrest and the detainment of Kovrig.
The editor of the state-controlled Global Times newspaper of China, Hu Xijin, posted a statement shortly after reports emerged of the detention of Kovrig. Hu’s message stated there is no evidence Kovrig’s detention is linked to Meng’s arrest in Canada — but “people naturally think that China will take revenge.”
WATCH: Possible Chinese retaliation to Huawei CFO’s arrest
Earlier in the day, Hu wrote: “Though there is no sign China will take the same action as retaliation nor will the U.S. make arrest a regular practice, the fear is lingering in the business world.”
Roland Paris, a University of Ottawa geopolitics expert and former senior advisor to Trudeau for global affairs and defence, told Global News it is too early to know whether China has retaliated for the arrest of Meng. But Paris issued a warning to all Canadians considering travel to China, in the context of Kovrig’s arrest and China’s preceding threats of “severe consequences.”
WATCH: China demands Meng Wanzhou’s release
“This arrest may or may not be connected to the Meng case,” Paris said. “But Canadians considering trips to China should be aware that Beijing may seek to retaliate against Canadian interests.”
And in a tweet, Paris added: “Retaliation against Canadian interests or Canadians would be unacceptable and pointless. It would have zero impact on judicial proceedings in Canada. Beijing should already know this from previous experience. Let cooler heads prevail.”
Canadian experts had previously warned that China could arrest Canadians in retaliation and say the situation is still volatile.
“I am not surprised (about the arrest),” Fen Hampson, director of the global security program at the Centre for Governance Innovation, told Global News. Last week he warned that the Chinese would fight back “tit-for-tat.”
“Depending on Meng’s fate and whether we hand her over to the Americans (I assume we will), this crisis will escalate,” he continued.
Goodale said he was looking into the possible link between the two cases.
“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 said. “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.”
Should Canadians living or travelling in China be concerned?
Speaking to reporters in Ottawa Tuesday, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said the government remains “deeply concerned” about the status of the Canadian diplomat being detained in China.
China has detained Canadians in the past
Taking Canadians into custody isn’t new to the Chinese government, explained Stephanie Carvin, national security expert and Carleton University professor.
“It’s widely believed that the Garratt family who was detained a few years ago, was in response to an individual residing in British Columbia who was extradited to the United States for espionage activity,” Carvin said.
Kevin and Julia Garratt were arrested in 2014. Julia was released in 2015, while Kevin was held for two years. The couple — who were missionaries and who ran a coffee shop in China — was accused of espionage. They were never convicted, and told media they were “dumbfounded” by charges.
Their arrest closely followed two incidents; first, the Canadian government accused China of spying on its institutions, and second, Su Bin, a Chinese businessman, was arrested in Canada after an FBI warrant was issued.
Garvin said China may believe arresting Kovrig will help their case because of a misconception of the justice system.
“China doesn’t have free and fair courts. They don’t think we have them either,” she explained. “So I think they think that they’re gaining some kind of leverage.”
“I also feel like politically there’s a need domestically to respond to this because this is seen as kind of an insult to the Chinese people,” she added, noting that Huawei is a prominent, celebrated Chinese company. Meng is even referred to as China’s “tech princess.”
Is China sending Canada a message?
In an interview Tuesday, Brock University professor Charles Burton, a former Canadian diplomat who has served two postings in China, said he believes that Beijing authorized Kovrig’s detention in order to send Canada a warning in the Meng case.
“I can’t help but determine (Kovrig’s arrest) in that way, because of the timing, and it seems to respond to Chinese government statements of serious consequences,” Burton said. “My heart goes out to Mr. Kovrig in this time. I believe that he will be tortured in interrogation.”
Burton said Meng is not simply CFO for Huawei, but a senior member of China’s communist party, along with her father.
“She is someone that is very well connected to the Chinese senior elite,” Burton said.
Burton said he believes China’s government is exerting extreme pressure on Canada, because they fear that if Meng is extradited to face prosecution in the United States, she may plea bargain for leniency, and in exchange provide evidence revealing Huawei’s connections to China’s government and People’s Liberation Army, and in general, the geopolitical goals of large state-connected Chinese corporations.
Burton said that he believes China will prosecute Kovrig as a spy, without stating specific allegations, and that Kovrig will not have access to legal representation. He said that Kovrig likely was targeted because he has “strong friendships” with the Canadian officials that China is pressing in the Meng case.
“So it seems they wanted to inflict maximum emotion toll, on the diplomats that are in direct contact with the Chinese government.”
— With files from Sam Cooper and the Canadian Press
© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.