Is Canada caught in the middle of a China-U.S. tech war?
Who is Michael Kovrig?
The former Canadian diplomat who has written about some of the touchiest geopolitical issues in the world, including China’s expanding military footprint in Africa and the North Korea nuclear crisis, is now at the center of a stand-off between two global super-powers.
Kovrig was detained by China’s spy agency during a visit to Beijing on Monday, just nine days after Canadian authorities, acting on a U.S. request, arrested a top Huawei Technologies Co. executive in Vancouver. Details about Kovrig’s detention are scarce, but Chinese media reported Wednesday the researcher with a Brussels-based non-profit research group is being investigated for activities that endanger national security.
The Chinese government confirmed Kovrig has been detained, according to a Canadian government official briefing reporters Wednesday evening in Ottawa. Canada has asked to see him, and doesn’t know his whereabouts, the official said.
Kovrig represented Canada in Beijing and Hong Kong between 2014 and 2016, according to his LinkedIn profile. He’s on leave from the foreign service but is still an employee of the government, the Canadian official said. His current employer is the International Crisis Group, which describes itself as an independent organization that conducts research and offers policy recommendations to help end deadly conflicts.
“He was a very good officer,” said Guy Saint-Jacques, who served as Canada’s ambassador to China from 2012 to 2016. “Going after him I think was their way to send a message to the Canadian government.”
Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said she’d spoken to a relative of Kovrig, and that Canada was, first and foremost, pressing to be able to see him in person.
“It is agonizing when a Canadian is detained outside Canada. We take this very personally,” Freeland said Wednesday at a news conference in Ottawa. “A lot of us know him and that adds another layer to the concern.”
Kovrig speaks Mandarin and received a Masters degree in International Affairs from Columbia University in New York, according to LinkedIn. He has a degree in English Literature from the University of Toronto and studied French at the University of Paris-Sorbonne. He also worked for the United Nations Development Program in addition to his work for the Canadian government and the International Crisis Group.
“Throughout his time with the organization, Michael has distinguished himself for his rigorous and impartial reporting, regularly interviewing Chinese officials to accurately reflect their views in our work,” the ICG said in a statement. The group has called for his release and continues to seek information.
Kovrig may have been caught up in recent rule changes in China that affect non-governmental organizations. The ICG wasn’t authorized to do work in China, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Lu Kang said during a regular press briefing in Beijing Wednesday. “We welcome foreign travelers. But if they engage in activities that clearly violate Chinese laws and regulations, then it is totally another story.” He said he didn’t have information on Kovrig specifically.
Foreign non-governmental organizations must register with the Chinese authorities under a 2017 law that subjects them to stringent reporting requirements. Under the law, organizations without a representative office in China must have a government sponsor and a local cooperative partner before conducting activities.
Kovrig, who lived in Hong Kong, was detained by the Beijing bureau of state security, the Canadian official said. He worked for ICG since early last year.
“If they’re the ones who are picking him up, they’re likely to be related to espionage or subversion rather than run of the mill lawbreaking,” said Peter Mattis, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst and research fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation who is co-authoring a reference guide on Chinese intelligence.
The arrest of Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou, meanwhile, has left Canada in a tough spot, squeezed between the U.S. and China in the midst of a trade dispute that threatens global growth. Kovrig, who helped arrange a visit to Hong Kong by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, may be collateral damage, some analysts say.
“NGOs, journalists and diplomats all play a role in connecting China to the wider world. The alternative is a China that is isolated, poorly understood and cut off from important ideas and conversations,” David Mulroney, who served as Canada’s ambassador to China from 2009 to 2012, said by email. Mulroney knows Kovrig by reputation only, saying he’s talented and highly professional.
Canada needs to treat the dispute as “background noise” and continue Meng’s extradition process after she was granted bail Tuesday, Mulroney said. At the same time, Trudeau’s officials need to push for Kovrig’s release. Failure to secure that will “further worry foreign nationals in Beijing, many of whom are justifiably uneasy about the opaque and capricious workings of the Chinese state and its vast security apparatus,” Mulroney said.
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