Expat Canadian couple in Dandong investigated for alleged theft of state secrets

Canadian couple, center, accused of spying in China.
Canadian couple, center, accused of spying in China.

A Canadian couple living on the border with North Korea in Dandong, Liaonong, are being investigated by Chinese authorities for allegedly stealing defense military and defense secrets.

Originally from Vancouver, Kevin Garratt and his wife Julia Dawn first arrived in China in 1984 and were teaching English in Southern China before opening a coffee shop, Peter’s Coffee House, in Dandong in 2008.

The Globe and Mail reports: A brief report on the official Xinhua newswire said only that “two Canadian nationals are under investigation for suspected theft of state secrets about China’s military and national defense research” and that “the State Security Bureau of Dandong City, northeast China’s Liaoning Province, is now investigating the case in accordance with law.”

Foreigners are rarely charged with stealing state secrets. Howard Balloch, a former Canadian ambassador to China who has spent decades in the country, could not recall a previous charge involving a Canadian.

But, he said, “unfortunately over the years we’ve seen the violation of secrecy laws in China often abused for other political reasons. And while I would view such a step as retrograde, I wouldn’t be very surprised by it.”

The couple’s son, Peter, who also lives in Dandong, said in an interview with CBC Radio’s As It Happens, that Chinese officials spoke to him Tuesday. They wouldn’t let him see his parents, but informed him that they are both ok. He is hopeful that he’ll be able to speak to them by phone on Wednesday, though he wont be allowed to talk to them about the case.

CBC News reports: “They told me my parents were all right and that they’re being looked after and they also told me to make sure that I look after myself and get a good sleep and eat and stuff like that,” he said in an interview to air at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Garratt said he was also told not to speak to reporters, but he agreed to be interviewed because “I feel it’s better people know what’s going on.”

China’s state secrets law is notoriously broad, covering everything from industry data to the exact birth dates of state leaders. Information can also be labelled a state secret retroactively. In severe cases, the theft of state secrets is punishable by life in prison or the death penalty.

Kevin Garratt outside his coffee shop in Dandong, Liaoning, China.
Kevin Garratt outside his coffee shop in Dandong, Liaoning, China.

Opinion from major Canadian news outlets, as well as the Garratts’ son, Simeon, seems to feel that the Garratts may have been caught up in retaliation for Canadian officials alleging last week that the Chinese government was behind a cyber attack on the National Research Council.

Charles Burton, an associate professor at Brock University in St. Catharines who spent several years working at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing, said it seems clear the investigation into the couple comes in retaliation for Canada’s denunciation of the Chinese government.

“I think that the Chinese government may have miscalculated the extent to which the Government of Canada, members of the cabinet and the public at large would feel about Canadian do-gooders who send food and oil and religious tracts into North Korea being subject to very, very serious charges of military espionage of which they may well be entirely innocent,” he said in an interview on CBC News Network.

The best option, Burton said, is for China to deport the Garratts.

“The only solution that I can really see is if Chinese authorities think better of it and deport them back to Canada before the prime minister [Stephen Harper] goes to China in the fall,” he said, warning that the Garratts could be tortured if they are imprisoned.

“The ideal solution would be a rapid repatriation. If the matter goes on too long, it will be very hard for us to get them out of the Chinese prison system,” Burton said. [source]

Another dimension to the case is the fact that the couple are Christians in a rather volatile region for Christians, due to the proximity to North Korea and the number of refugees that are routinely helped by South Korean Christian organizations operating in North East China. It was reported that Kevin Garratt also works with an aid organization that provides help to orphanages and seniors homes in North Korea.

According to a Reuters report, Kevin Garratt “said he ran a prayer and training facility outside the Chinese city of Dandong that was frequented by North Koreans, many of whom became Christians before returning to the isolated country.”

Kevin Garratt leads the tours and knows North Korean tour guides, some of whom frequent the shop on rare visits to China, said a source familiar with the trips. The source declined to be identified because of North Korea’s sensitivity to religious groups.

The case bears similarities to that of U.S. missionary Kenneth Bae, who was sentenced by Pyongyang last year to 15 years hard labor for attempting to overthrow the state.

Bae operated businesses in Dandong and he used his tour company, Nation Tours, to take foreign missionaries across the border into North Korea. [source]

Neither the Chinese Foreign Ministry nor the official Xinhua news agency, which first announced the investigation, mentioned religious activities.

Doing anything that could be seen as overtly religious along the sensitive border with North Korea was risky, experts said.

“North Korean authorities cooperate really closely with China basically throughout the border region … of course there is more risk along the border,” said Adam Cathcart, a specialist on China-North Korea ties at the University of Leeds.

The Garratts did little to hide their Christianity, according to people who had been to their Dandong cafe, which they said was known as a meeting point for foreign Christians in the area.

“It couldn’t be any more Christian. It’s always busy and they play Christian rock music in there,” said Gareth Johnson of Young Pioneer Tours, a travel company based in China that takes tourists to North Korea and who has visited the shop. [source]

Be sure to read the whole Reuters article for more in depth analysis on the Christianity/North Korea angle.


  1. Pingback: Update: Suspected Canadian Christian spy in Dandong released on bail

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