They live on the North Korean border. They’ve been accused of illegal espionage. And now they’re being detained by the Chinese government. But Kevin and Julia Garratt didn’t lead lives of intrigue, according to their son, Simeon. His parents and his younger brother, Peter, run a small Western style cafe in Dandong, in the PRC’s far eastern hub. “I always thought of it as a safe, small little city,” he says.
That outlook has, of course, changed since his parents were detained on Monday. According to the PRC’s Xinhua state media, the couple (who hail from Vancouver) are being held under the suspicion of “theft of state secrets about China’s military and national defence research.” Several news outlets have since pointed to the Christian missionary work that they may have conducted with North Koreans, questioning whether or not that activity lead to the Garratts’ detainment.
Reuters quoted an audio recording of Kevin Garratt (a Pentecostal pastor) claiming he had converted many North Koreans to Christianity during their visits to Dandong. A story in The Globe and Mail said the couple “has spent years sending food and aid to North Korea, financed by donations from a British Columbia church.” They may have carried out these activities despite religion being strictly illegal in North Korea, and despite the recent imprisonment of Kenneth Bae, an American sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for shuttling missionaries from Dandong to North Korea via his tour company.
Simeon (who lived in Dandong with his parents from 2009 to 2010, before returning to Vancouver) says he knows nothing about his parents’ alleged conversion of North Koreans, adding: “I think that audio recording was taken out of context. Also, their cafe isn’t some sort of crazy Christian hub. They’ll have small church services at home with family or whatever. But the media is crazy for calling this a religious scandal.”
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But many experts still wonder if the Garratts’ detainment is part of a growing crackdown on religion in China. While freedom of belief is guaranteed in the Chinese constitution, said activities are restricted to state approved religious spaces. It is illegal to host such gatherings at home. James Miller, a professor at Queens University who studies religion in China, says officials have often been soft on such cases: “In practice, the authorities tend to be quite tolerant of these activities, unless there is some factor which brings them to the government’s attention.” But that leniency may be waning. Sophie Richardson, China director of Human Rights Watch, cites recent State efforts to demolish crucifixes and entire churches in Zhejiang province, adding: “When you send provincial officials to cut down church crosses with blow torches, I think you’re in a different era of hostility against organized religion.” Miller says foreign Christians are doubly scrutinised in China, because PRC policy dictates that the Chinese should lead their own religious activities.
Some experts say China detained the Garratts to appease North Korea and its anti-religious stance, mimicking North Korea’s treatment of Bae. But others, like Scott Snyder, a Senior Fellow for Korea Studies at Washington D.C.’s Council on Foreign Relations, have their doubts. “China has usually handled these cases very differently from the North Koreans, and currently the Sino-DPRK relationship is troubled,” Snyder says, adding: “So this link is a bit of a stretch.”
Simeon also doubts that his parents will be punished like Bae. In fact, he and Peter received a message from their father on Tuesday, via a Canadian embassy official who was granted a meeting. Kevin told his sons that he and Julia are safe, but also “confused and frustrated.” Simeon shares that sentiment, especially as theories run rampant online. One prevailing notion is that Kevin and Julia are being used as leverage, after the Canadian government recently rebuked alleged Chinese cyber espionage. But Simeon takes umbrage, above all, with his parents being depicted as radical fundamentalists bent on brainwashing North Koreans.
“They just wanted to do aid work,” he says of Kevin and Julia, who first arrived in China in 1984, and have mostly lived there ever since. In 2008 they opened Peter’s Cafe in Dandong, because living on the border helped them experience the region’s impoverished past and prosperous future. Simeon adds: “In their minds, China has grown up a lot since they first arrived, but North Korea seems like what China was like in the 80’s. So living in Dandong allowed them to have the best of both— running their own business and doing aid work.”
Despite this week’s turmoil, Simeon is doubtful that Kevin and Julia will abandon Dandong once they are freed, adding: “I definitely hope this isn’t the end. My parents’ entire life work has revolved around China. I think that would be a huge shame, if this leads to them leaving.”