China investigates Canadians for suspected espionage

Consular officials are aware of the detainment

TORONTO — A Canadian couple detained in China on suspicion of stealing state secrets about the country’s military spend their days running a coffee shop and have never been in a position to gain access to classified government information, their son said Tuesday.

Kevin Garratt, 54, and Julia Dawn Garratt, 53, who have lived and worked in China for the past 30 years, were out for dinner with friends in the city of Dandong, near the border with North Korea, when they were detained Monday night.

“As of right now my parents are being held in an undisclosed location. I have heard that they’re safe but they’re just a bit confused. They actually have no idea what’s going on,” Simeon Garratt told The Canadian Press in an interview from Vancouver.

The 27-year-old said his younger brother, who lives in Dandong, was told of his parents’ detention by Chinese authorities and instructed to bring spare clothes and toiletries for them on Tuesday, but wasn’t allowed to speak with the couple.

“He was brought in for questioning and that was relayed to him. He didn’t get to talk to them. (Officials) said ‘maybe later,”‘ Garratt said, adding that the allegations against his parents weren’t explained to the family.

China’s official Xinhua News Agency has reported that the couple are being investigated by the state security bureau on suspicion of stealing state secrets about the country’s military and national defence research.

The accusations come just a few days after the Canadian government blamed Chinese hackers for infiltrating computers at the National Research Council of Canada, something Bejing has vehemently denied.

The fresh allegations in China have led to much bewilderment among the couple’s children.

“At this point it just seems like my parents are getting caught up in something that’s a whole lot bigger than them,” said Garratt, who grew up in China.

“My parents basically run a coffee shop, my mum taught some courses at the university there, and they’ve done some human aid work in North Korea, but nothing ever detrimental or negative towards China, or anything like that.”

The couple has lived in Dandong since 2008, running Peter’s Coffee Shop, located within sight of a bridge which leads to North Korea. They offer weekly sessions in their cafe where customers can come practice English, according to the coffee shop’s website.

“They’ve been there for a long time and everything they’ve done has always been above board,” Garratt said of his parents. “It’s not like they’d ever try to push the limits or get around the system.”

A spokesman for the department of foreign affairs said Canadian officials are in contact with local Chinese authorities and are providing assistance to the detained couple. Garratt added that government officials had told him a Canadian consular official in Dandong was expected to be able to meet with his parents on Wednesday.

The biggest immediate concern for the couple’s children is how long their parents might be detained.

“The Chinese government has the ability to detain people for months at a time without really giving any answer,” Garratt explained, adding that he was also eager to find out just what sort of conditions his parents were being held in.

At least one observer said there is a possibility the Garratts might be detained for weeks or months, not days, as Chinese and Canadian officials negotiate.

“Time is required to solve these issues,” said Gordon Houlden, director of the University of Alberta’s China Institute, who spent years working in the country for the Canadian government.

The offence of stealing state secrets is a serious crime in China, said Houlden, noting that the allegations against the Garratts came as a surprise to him.

“These people living on the North Korean border have been there for a very long time. They’re operating a coffee shop…this would not appear to be the profile of people who might be attempting to purloin military secrets,” he said, emphasizing that he did not personally know the couple or the specifics of their case.

The timing of the Garratts’ detention, is noteworthy, Houlden said, as it comes on the heels of Canada’s accusations that China hacked into a government agency’s computers.

“If these people were an annoyance or a hindrance to the Chinese, they would have been lots of ways quietly they could have dealt with them — not renew their visas, send them home,” said Houlden. “But to bring forth these tremendously serious charges, is unusual and of concern.”

Likely the best way to secure the couple’s release would be for discreet diplomatic negotiations out of the public spotlight, said Houlden.

“Both sides, I suspect, will want to find ways in which they can deal with these issues in a quiet manner,” he said.

The detention of the Garratts, as well as the cyber hacking incident come at a time when Prime Minister Stephen Harper is planning a possible state visit to China in November, coinciding with his attendance at an Asian economic summit in Beijing at the end of that month.

Canada and China have also already been wrestling with several thorny issues, such as Ottawa’s delay in signing an investment treaty with China and new Canadian rules imposed on state-owned foreign investors.