By Danielle Bochove and Josh Wingrove
The former Canadian diplomat who has written about some of the touchiest geopolitical issues in the world, including China’s expanding military footprint in Africa and the North Korea nuclear crisis, is now at the center of a stand-off between two global super-powers.
Kovrig was detained by China’s spy agency during a visit to Beijing on Monday, just nine days after the arrest in Canada of a Huawei Technologies Co. executive at the request of the U.S. Details about Kovrig’s detention are scarce, but China media have reported the researcher, with a Brussels-based non-profit research group, is being investigated for activities that endanger the country’s national security.
The Chinese government has confirmed that Kovrig has been detained, according to a Canadian government official briefing reporters on the case. The official said Canada has asked to see him, and don’t know his whereabouts.
Kovrig, who represented Canada in Beijing and Hong Kong between 2014 and 2016, according to his LinkedIn profile, is on leave from the foreign service, but is still an employee of the government, the Canadian official said. His current employer is the International Crisis Group, which describes itself as an independent organization that conducts research and offers policy recommendations to help end deadly conflicts.
Columbia UniversityKovrig speaks Mandarin and received a Masters degree in International Affairs from Columbia University in New York, according to LinkedIn. He has a degree in English Literature from the University of Toronto and studied French at the University of Paris-Sorbonne. He’s also worked for the United Nations Development Program in addition to his work for the Canadian government and the International Crisis Group.
“Throughout his time with the organization, Michael has distinguished himself for his rigorous and impartial reporting, regularly interviewing Chinese officials to accurately reflect their views in our work,” the ICG said in a statement. The group has called for his release and continues to seek information.
Kovrig may have been caught up in recent rule changes in China that impact non-governmental organizations. The ICG wasn’t authorized to do work in China, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang said during a regular press briefing in Beijing Wednesday. “We welcome foreign travelers. But if they engage in activities that clearly violate Chinese laws and regulations, then it is totally another story.” He said he has no information on Kovrig specifically.
Chinese RegisterForeign non-governmental organizations are required to register with the Chinese authorities under a 2017 law that subjects them to stringent reporting requirements. Under the law, organizations without a representative office in China must have a government sponsor and a local cooperative partner before conducting activities.
ICG believes Kovrig, who was based in Hong Kong and has worked for ICG since early last year, was detained by a branch of China’s Ministry of State Security.
“If they’re the ones who are picking him up, they’re likely to be related to espionage or subversion rather than run of the mill lawbreaking,” said Peter Mattis, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst and research fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation who is co-authoring a reference guide on Chinese intelligence.
The arrest of Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver has left Canada in a tough spot, squeezed between the U.S. and China in the midst of a trade dispute that threatens global growth. Kovrig, who helped arrange a visit to Hong Kong by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, may be collateral damage, some analysts say.
Canada needs to treat the dispute as “background noise” and continue Meng’s extradition process after she was granted bail Tuesday, Mulroney said. At the same time, they need to push for Kovrig’s release. Failure to secure that will “further worry foreign nationals in Beijing, many of whom are justifiably uneasy about the opaque and capricious workings of the Chinese state and its vast security apparatus,” Mulroney said.
— With assistance by Sandrine Rastello