A second Canadian citizen has been detained in China, heightening fears that Beijing is retaliating against Ottawa for the arrest of Chinese telecoms executive Meng Wanzhou.
Entrepreneur Michael Spavor, a prominent consultant on North Korean business issues and one of the few Westerners to have met Kim Jong-un, disappeared in China on Monday, the same day that Beijing detained former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig.
Chrystia Freeland, the Canadian foreign minister, on Wednesday had revealed that Canada had lost contact with a second unnamed citizen in China after he contacted diplomats to report being questioned by the authorities.
“We have also raised this case with the Chinese authorities,” she said during a press briefing on the first arrest of Mr Kovrig, adding that it was a “delicate situation” and that she wanted to protect the privacy of the individual’s family.
Beijing has not explicitly made the link between the detention of the two men and Ms Meng, 46, the chief financial officer of Huawei, who was arrested at Vancouver airport on December 1, accused of conspiracy to defraud banks after the company allegedly violated sanctions against Iran.
She has been bailed by a Canadian court while she awaits an extradition hearing to the US.
However, both Mr Spavor and Mr Kovrig were seized shortly after China threatened “serious consequences” over her case, which it has denounced as “extremely egregious.”
Mr Spavor’s identity was first revealed on Thursday by the Globe and Mail newspaper and later confirmed by Canada’s foreign ministry.
The Chinese authorities finally confirmed his arrest in Dandong, a city which borders North Korea, stating that he was being investigated on suspicion of conducting activities that “endanger China’s national security”, the same charge levied against Mr Kovrig.
The businessman lives in China where he runs Paektu Cultural Exchange, an organisation that arranges sports, cultural, business and tourism visits to North Korea.
Mr Spavor is well-known among consultants and analysts who specialise in North Korean affairs, and he rose to prominence when facilitating a visit to the reclusive state by former NBA star, Dennis Rodman, to meet leader Kim Jong-un.
In a Twitter post on Monday Mr Spavor excitedly announced he would be arriving in Seoul for a few days “for new consulting work”, inviting friends to meet for beers. Multiple sources confirmed to media outlets that he never arrived.
His disappearance has intensified suspicion that he and Mr Kovrig, who currently works as a North East Asia adviser to the International Crisis Group, are being used as pawns to pressurise Canada into releasing Ms Meng.
However, some analysts have also suggested that the arrests could be linked to their interests in North Korea, pointing out the coincidence that both detained Canadians are well-regarded experts on the secretive regime.
“I think the Chinese are trying to exercise scare tactics,” Andrei Lankov, a professor at Seoul’s Kookmin university and friend of Mr Spavor told NK News.
“They want to send a signal that they don’t want outsiders in China to deal with North Korea. They took someone harmless, poorly protected, definitely innocent of espionage, and relatively well-known.”
Mr Lankov described the Canadian as “charismatic and charming” and “with little interest in politics.”
Ankit Panda, a North Korea expert and editor at The Diplomat magazine, told The Telegraph that “arbitrary detention without cause for entrepreneurs like Spavor might harm the business climate in China.”
He added: “I do hope I’m wrong but the common [North Korea] connection in both cases suggests they could face trumped up charges on security or espionage grounds.”
Earlier on Twitter, Mr Panda accused Beijing of “undertaking an opportunistic hostage-taking campaign against innocent Canadians because it’s upset that a Chinese executive is facing legal accountability for alleged bank fraud.”
China watchers are highlighting an apparently familiar pattern where Canadian nationals have been locked up after a Chinese citizen wanted in the US is arrested in Canada.
In 2014, Canadian couple Julia and Kevin Garrett were detained in a move widely seen as a reprisal for Canada’s apprehension of Chinese citizen Su Bin, who was later sentenced by the US to nearly four years in prison for his role in the hacking of technical data for military aircraft.
The Canadian government is said to be weighing whether to issue a new travel warning to Canadians visiting China.
Ms Freeland told reporters that Canadians are currently urged to exercise a “high degree of caution” when considering whether to travel to China.
Additional reporting: Paula Jin