Feds likely in the dark on family accused of spying in China, says expert

A Chinese national flag

Credits: REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon


OTTAWA - For a second day, the prime minister and the Foreign Affairs minister maintained radio silence on the two Canadians suspected of espionage in China.

While opposition politicians suggested the tensions between China and Canada are due to diplomatic failures by the Conservative government, analysts warned that provoking the Chinese could further endanger the security and fate of the detained couple.

Christian Leuprecht, national security expert with the Royal Military College of Canada and Queen's University, said the Canadian government is right to be cautious.

Kevin and Julia Garratt, accused of stealing Chinese military secrets, are evangelical Christians who moved to China 30 years ago.

Most recently they owned a successful coffee shop in the town of Dandong, on the North Korean border, where they reportedly sent food and aid into North Korea.

Canada's Foreign Affairs department likely doesn't have much more information, Leuprecht said.

"The fact that we don't have a statement from the Foreign Affairs minister is because the department doesn't feel it has sufficient evidence and background from both the family and the Chinese authorities," Leuprecht said.

He added that it's dangerous to suggest that the recent detention of the couple is tied to last week's accusations by the Conservative government that Chinese state-sponsored actors hacked into the computers of the National Research Council.

Leuprecht said that despite the claims by the Chinese government that the Garratt family stole secrets, the reason for their arrest could very well have nothing to do with the stated charges.

He said that in authoritarian countries it's convenient to accused suspects of espionage because it makes them easier to detain and "keep them out of circulation for a while."

Leuprecht said the area where the couple worked is a hotbed of illicit human smuggling activity, into which North Korean defectors go to be moved through an underground railroad into Thailand.

University of Toronto PhD student Steven Denney, who researches Korean politics and who travelled the borderland regions between China and North Korea, said there are plenty of opportunities for the

Garratts to make contact with people involved in helping North Korean defectors.

Denney and Leuprecht said the couple could have interacted with Christian missionaries helping North Korean defectors without even knowing.

"(Dendong) is a safe spot for Christians, missionaries are known to be active in this region," Denney said.

Denney and Leuprecht said the Chinese could have used the espionage charges as a convenient way to detain the couple at the behest of North Korea.

The complexity of the case hasn't stopped opposition parties from taking their shots at the government, however.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said Tuesday that "the current back and forth (between China and Canada) is an indication that the Harper government doesn't have a good particular relationship with China - or anyone around the world at the moment."

Helene Laverdiere, NDP foreign affairs critic, said Trudeau's comments are "a little simplistic," however, she also noted that the Conservatives' foreign policy towards China is inconsistent.

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