China has detained a former Canadian diplomat

Growing tense.
Growing tense.
Image: AP/Wu Hong
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This post has been updated.

Michael Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat, has reportedly been detained in China.

His employer, the International Crisis Group, confirmed he was detained Monday (Dec. 10) night in Beijing, and is calling for his release. The reasons for his arrest were not immediately clear, Reuters reported.

“Crisis Group has received no information about Michael since his detention and is concerned for his health and safety,” it said in a statement released today (Dec. 11). “We are making every effort to learn more and to secure consular access to Michael from the Chinese authorities.”

Kovrig’s detention comes after last week’s arrest of Huawei’s chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou in Canada, at the bequest of the US. Meng, daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, is suspected of violating trade sanctions on Iran. The move raised fears that China could retaliate against foreign executives working there.

“For the Chinese public, the arrest of such a notable executive and the daughter of one of the most revered businessmen in China strikes a very deep chord,” said Victor Shih, a professor and China expert at University of California, San Diego. “Retaliation by the Chinese government will likely be very popular among the Chinese public.”

He says that US and Canadian citizens in China, particularly business people, should be somewhat concerned about the possibility of being detained.

Kovrig has been a China adviser for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based NGO that focuses on resolving conflict, since 2017. Before that, he served as a Canadian diplomat in Beijing, Hong Kong and at the United Nations.

In its statement, the Crisis Group said Kovrig no longer works for the Canadian government, but Guy Saint-Jacques, Canada’s former ambassador to China, said Kovrig was on an unpaid leave of absence, adding he didn’t travel with a diplomatic passport.

His biography on the think tank’s website features a quote he gave to the Miami Herald in late October. “US-China relations have deteriorated to their worst point since the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests in Beijing,” he said at the time.

Heather Timmons contributed to this story.