TORONTO — A former Canadian diplomat has been detained while visiting Beijing amid a dispute between the two counties over Canada’s arrest of a Chinese executive at the request of the United States.
Canadian Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale on Tuesday confirmed the detention and said Canada is very concerned.
Michael Kovrig, who previously worked as a diplomat in Beijing, Hong Kong and the United Nations, was taken into custody Monday night during one of his regular visits to Beijing, said the International Crisis Group, for which Kovrig now works as North East Asia adviser based in Hong Kong.
The detention came after China warned Canada of consequences for its recent arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou at Vancouver’s airport. On Tuesday evening, a Canadian judge granted bail to Wanzhou, who faces possible extradition to the U.S.
“We’re deeply concerned,” Goodale said in response to a question about Kovrig. “A Canadian is obviously in difficulty in China … We are sparing no effort to do everything we possibly can to look after his safety.”
Goodale said there was no explicit indication at this point that it was related to the Meng arrest.
“We have been in direct contact with the Chinese diplomats and representatives,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said. “We are engaged with the file (case), which we take very seriously.”
The International Crisis Group, a non-governmental organization based in Brussels, said in a statement that it was doing everything possible to obtain additional information about Kovrig’s whereabouts and that it would work to ensure his prompt release.
The organization said Kovrig has been one of its full-time experts since February 2017. Its website says Kovrig previously worked as a Canadian diplomat in Beijing and Hong Kong and at the United Nations.
Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China, said Kovrig was on leave from the embassy. He said Kovrig did deep political work when he was working for the embassy. That work would include travel and interviews with dissidents, he said.
“In China there’s a very line between espionage and political reporting,” he said.
Saint-Jacques said the department created a program 15 years ago so it would get more in-depth analysis. Saint-Jacques said there is no doubt Kovrig was detained in relation to the arrest of the Huawei executive.
“In China there is no coincidence,” he said. “Unfortunately Canada is caught in the middle of this dispute between the U.S and China. Because China cannot kick the U.S. they turn to the next target.”
Saint-Jacques noted that Kovrig was a former journalist whose embassy reports were well read in Ottawa.
Kovrig wrote on his LinkedIn profile that he had served as the political lead on a visit Trudeau made to Hong Kong in September 2016. He worked in Canada’s consulate-general in Hong Kong at the time.
Former Canadian Liberal Party leader Bob Rae said it was clear why Kovrig had been detained.
“It’s called repression and retaliation,” Rae tweeted.
Roland Paris, a former foreign policy adviser to Trudeau, said Chinese “retaliation against Canadian interests or Canadians would be unacceptable and pointless.”
“It would have zero impact on judicial proceedings in Canada,” Paris tweeted. “Beijing should already know this from previous experience. Let cooler heads prevail.”
Jorge Guajardo, Mexico’s former ambassador to China, said Canada needs to take dramatic action.
“I’d be summoning the entire Canadian consular Corp in China home for training. If that means they can’t issue visas in the meantime, certainly the Chinese would understand. These are special times,” he tweeted.
Hu Xijin, editor in chief of China’s state-run newspaper Global Times, wrote on Chinese microblogging platform Weibo that there isn’t any evidence Kovrig’s detention was retaliation for Meng’s arrest. But he added that the current situation was “highly sensitive” because of a “American-Canadian conspiracy” to arrest Meng.
“If people in the rest of the world make this association, it’s because Meng Wanzhou’s arrest was really way over the line. Naturally, people would think that China would take revenge,” Hu said.