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China charges two Canadians with espionage following U.S.-Huawei spat

The two were arrested soon after Canada detained Meng Wanzhou, the telecom giant's chief financial officer, on a U.S. extradition warrant.
Image: People hold signs calling for China to release Canadian detainees Spavor and Kovrig during an extradition hearing for Huawei Technologies Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou at the B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver
Demonstrators in Vancouver call for the release of two Canadians detained in China, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, in March 2019.Lindsey Wasson / Reuters file

China charged two Canadians with espionage on Friday in a case widely seen as retaliation for the 2018 arrest in Vancouver of a senior executive of the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei.

Former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor were arrested in late 2018, soon after Canadian authorities detained Meng Wanzhou, Huawei's chief financial officer and daughter of the company's founder, on a U.S. extradition warrant.

The charges Friday represent the next step in judicial proceedings against the pair and mean a formal trial can begin. Canada has called the arrests “arbitrary.”

While China maintains that the case against the detained Canadians are not linked to Meng, former diplomats and experts have said the pair are being used to pressure Canada to release her.

Image: Huawei Technologies Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou leaves her home to attend a court hearing in Vancouver, British Columbia
Huawei Technologies Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou leaves her home to attend a court hearing in Vancouver, British Columbia, May 27, 2020.Jennifer Gauthier / Reuters file

Meng’s arrest in December 2018 unnerved many across China, who viewed the incident as an unjust detention of a prominent Chinese businesswoman and a dramatic escalation in the China-U.S. trade war. Some Chinese businessmen reportedly even delayed or completely put off business travel and plans as a result of her detention, which also ignited a wave of nationalism.

China has warned Canada that it could face consequences for aiding the United States in Meng’s case. The U.S. accuses Huawei — the largest telecom equipment maker in the world — of violating sanctions on Iran and has long fought a public battle with the company, accusing it of being involved in state espionage.

The U.S. has urged its allies to limit Shenzhen-based Huawei's involvement in communication infrastructure, even threatening to cut off intelligence sharing if they don't. However, despite the threats, the U.K. gave the state-owned company a role in building the nation's 5G network earlier this year.

Last month, Meng lost a legal bid to avoid extradition to the United States to face bank fraud charges, dashing hopes for an end to her house arrest in Vancouver.

She recently raised a new argument in a Canadian court in a bid to fight extradition.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said it had ended an investigation into the two detained Canadians in December, and the case had been turned over to prosecutors. Kovrig’s case is being handled by prosecutors in Beijing, and Spavor’s in the northeastern province of Liaoning.

Spavor was charged with spying on national secrets and illegally providing state secrets to entities outside of China, while Kovrig was charged with spying on national secrets and intelligence for entities outside of China, according to two notices posted online by prosecutors on Friday.

China’s envoy to Canada, Cong Peiwu, said this month that Kovrig and Spavor were “in good health,” but that consular visits had been suspended due to coronavirus restrictions.

The Communist Party’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission said last year that Kovrig is accused of “stealing and spying on sensitive Chinese information and intelligence.” It said Spavor provided Kovrig with intelligence, without giving details.

Kovrig works for the International Crisis Group, a nongovernmental organization that focuses on conflict resolution. Representatives of the group could not immediately be reached for comment on Friday. It has said that the accusations against Kovrig are “vague and unsubstantiated.”

Spavor, 44, is a businessman with deep ties to North Korea.

Reuters contributed reporting.