A former Canadian diplomat held by the Chinese authorities in the wake of the arrest of Huawei's chief financial officer in Vancouver is being investigated for "harming national security," state-run media reported on Wednesday.
Michael Kovrig, who works for the non-government organization International Crisis Group (ICG), was detained days after the arrest of Huawei's Meng Wanzhou, who faces extradition to the United States, which has accused her of violating its sanctions with Iran.
Kovrig is currently under investigation by the Beijing municipal state security police, according to the Beijing News.
"Canadian citizen Michael John Kovrig was on Dec. 10 investigated in accordance with the law by the Beijing State Security Bureau on suspicion of engaging in activities that harm China's state security," the newspaper said in a brief report. There has been no official confirmation of Kovrig's detention by authorities.
Chinese law allows police to detain those suspected of vaguely worded "national security" crimes and hold them under residential surveillance at a secret location for up to six months, with no access to lawyers or family visits.
In March 2017, 42-year-old Lee Ming-cheh, a former local activist with Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), became the first overseas NGO worker known to be detained in China since a draconian law gave police control over foreign nongovernmental groups.
He was detained by the ruling Chinese Communist Party's state security police on suspicion of "endangering national security" on his arrival in the southern border city of Zhuhai and was later jailed for "subversion of state power."
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government is in contact with Chinese officials regarding Kovrig's detention.
"This is obviously an issue that we are taking very seriously and it is ongoing," he said on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, ICG chief Robert Malley said his group didn't engage in any activities related to China's national security, saying the group's work isn't secretive.
"I don't want to speculate as to what's behind it but I am prepared to be categorical about what's not behind it, and what's not behind it is any illegal activity or endangering of Chinese national security," Malley told Reuters.
"Everything we do is transparent, it's on our website. We don't engage in secretive work, in confidential work."
But foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Kovrig could have broken Chinese law, as the ICG wasn't registered in China as a non-government organization (NGO).
"If they are not registered and their workers are in China undertaking activities, then that's already outside of, and breaking, the law, revised just last year, on the management of overseas non-governmental organizations operating in China," Lu told a regular news briefing in Beijing.
Meanwhile, a court in Vancouver released Meng on bail Tuesday following a three-day hearing. She will be confined for much of her day to her residence in Vancouver, and must wear an electronic GPS tag at all times, and comply with all court and police summonses and instructions.
U.S. investigators must now file a formal extradition request by Jan. 8, 2019, after which Meng will appear at a hearing on Feb. 6, before the extradition hearing is scheduled.
Canadian lawyer Qian Lu, who attended the bail hearing in the public gallery, said Meng's actions will need to be recognized as illegal under both U.S. and Canadian law before any extradition can proceed.
"Furthermore, if the Canadian court believes that the United States has political considerations in requesting the extradition, it will never agree to it," Qian said.
Meng was accused of fraudulent behavior during the bail hearing, that covered up her company's breach of U.S. sanctions against Iran, he said.
"They don't want this case to become tainted by politics," he said.
U.S. investigators allege that Meng, a Hong Kong passport-holder, set up a company called Skycom to re-sell U.S.-made computer equipment to Iran, bypassing sanctions, and then sought to cover up the company's links to Huawei through the alleged fraud.
The case has raised questions, according to one commentator, about the use of Hong Kong as a "backdoor" to carry out illicit business with Beijing's blessing.
"There is nothing particularly surprising about this case," Hong Kong commentator Ho-Fung Hung said in a commentary broadcast by RFA's Cantonese Service. "The Chinese Communist Party has used the special status of Hong Kong [as an independent customs territory] to do a lot of things internationally."
The U.S. could, however, decide to revoke Hong Kong's status for trade purposes, should it judge the city to have insufficient autonomy to qualify as a separate customs jurisdiction, Hung wrote.
"China has set up a number of shell companies in Hong Kong, and has been using these companies to import controlled equipment, and then transport it to mainland China, or even to North Korea and Iran," he said.
If companies are found out, their founders merely shut them down and open new ones in Hong Kong, and carry on as before, he said.
"Now, European and American countries have clearly understood that Beijing is abusing Hong Kong's status by using it as a backdoor," Hung said.
"If Hong Kong people want to maintain its status as an international city, they should think about how to help Europe and the United States to detect and expose China's use of Hong Kong's special status to do evil in the world," he said.
Reported by Shi Shan and Liu Fei for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Fok Leung-kiu and Lau Siu-fung for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.