Authorities in China detained 13 Canadian nationals following the arrest in Vancouver of a top executive with Chinese telecoms giant Huawei, Canadian officials said.
Ottawa's Global Affairs Canada spokesman Guillaume Bérubé said 13 Canadians have been detained in China, excluding Hong Kong, since Dec. 1, 2018, according to Reuters and the Toronto-based Globe and Mail newspaper,
Only former diplomat Michael Kovrig, consultant Michael Spavor, and English teacher Sarah McIver have been named, however.
All 13 Canadians were detained after the ruling Chinese Communist Party vowed to retaliate for the arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, wanted for questioning by investigators in the U.S. over alleged bank fraud linked to the breach of sanctions against Iran.
However, the Globe and Mail cited Bérubé as saying that at least eight of the 13 have since been released. McIver returned to Canada last month.
China's top prosecutor Zhang Jun said on Thursday that Kovrig and Spavor, who are accused of "endangering national security," had broken Chinese law.
"Without a doubt, these two Canadian citizens broke our laws here in China, and they are now under investigation according to due process," Zhang told a news conference. "I am confident that the investigation will continue according to those processes."
Spavor is a China-based tourism consultant with contacts among high-ranking North Korean officials, while Hong Kong-based Kovrig had been working for the nongovernmental organization International Crisis Group (ICG).
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.
"It seems as if China is engaging in a form of hostage diplomacy with regard to the international community, and especially Canada," Wu Qiang, a former politics lecturer at Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University, told RFA.
"Either that, or it's a reaction to what they see as a kind of hostage crisis, now they've released the detainee who is most like an ordinary person," he said.
"It's very hard to predict whether they will drop this hostage mentality at the moment. We will have to wait and see," Wu said.
Meng was granted bail by a Vancouver court last month, is confined under curfew to her residence in the city, and must wear an electronic GPS tag at all times.
U.S. investigators must now file a formal extradition request by Jan. 8, 2019, after which Meng will appear at a hearing on Feb. 6, before the extradition hearing is scheduled.
Chinese constitutional scholar Zhang Lifan said McIver's detention for contravening the terms of her visa may not have been ordered by the highest levels of government in the first place.
"Who ordered the detention of the two [Canadian nationals] on spying charges is highly significant. Was this a local decision or was it on orders from the top?" Zhang said.
"Right now, it's hard to know how China will deal with the other two, but it definitely has the feel of hostage diplomacy," he said.
A chilling effect
The Globe and Mail quoted David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China, as saying that the detentions will have a chilling effect on other foreigners living and working in China.
“Foreigners who work in China notice this," he told the paper. "It’s sending a chill through that broad community—diplomats, journalists, academics, [non-governmental organization] workers, and business people—who try [to] understand and interpret China.”
Meanwhile, the United States warned its citizens Thursday they could face arbitrary action by authorities when they visit China.
"U.S. citizens may be subjected to prolonged interrogations and extended detention for reasons related to 'state security'," the State Department warned in an updated travel advisory.
It said security personnel could detain or deport U.S. citizens "for sending private electronic messages critical of the Chinese government."
The State Department warned that travel bans are now increasingly being applied to U.S. nationals living in China, who have been "harassed and threatened" when they try to leave.
"In most cases, U.S. citizens only become aware of the exit ban when they attempt to depart China, and there is no method to find out how long the ban may continue," the statement said.
But Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang denied the warnings were necessary.
"The travel warning issued by the U.S., frankly speaking, does not stand up," he said.
"China always welcomes foreign citizens -- including U.S. citizens -- to visit China, and protects their security and legal rights, including freedom of entry and exit," Lu told a regular news briefing in Beijing.
While Huawei has repeatedly insisted that it has no links to the government, industry analysts point to the firm's close involvement in the ruling Chinese Communist Party's flagship technology projects, including internet censorship technology and facial recognition systems deployed in neighborhoods across the country.
Reported by Lau Siu-fung for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Liu Fei for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.