Late last month, China confirmed it had detained British businessman Ian Stones, five years after he first disappeared in Beijing and almost 18 months after he was put on trial in secret and convicted of “illegally providing intelligence” to overseas parties.
Mr. Stones’s case, and the long delay between his detention and Beijing’s confirmation of his fate, has renewed concerns for the safety of foreigners in China, particularly businesspeople in the country who may not have a true understanding of the risks they face amid a crackdown on alleged espionage and the sharing of state secrets.
According to Global Affairs Canada, some 92 Canadians are currently detained in China, as well as an unspecified number subject to exit bans – extralegal measures that prevent them from leaving the country. The United States and Britain do not publicly disclose such figures, but the San Francisco-based Dui Hua Foundation estimates that at least 200 Americans are arbitrarily detained in China.
Peter Humphrey, a former corporate investigator in China and advocate for detainees, said there was a “growing number of arbitrary and unjust detentions and imprisonments of foreign nationals.” Mr. Humphrey, a British citizen, was himself convicted by a Chinese court of spying in 2014, a widely criticized case that hinged on a confession he says was forced.
“I have known Ian on and off for 45 years and I have no doubt that he is innocent of any crime and that his captors had a hard time interrogating him and failed to extract a false confession,” Mr. Humphrey told The Globe and Mail. “Just as I and my wife were innocent when we were arbitrarily detained in Shanghai in 2013 and held for two years, our only crime being that of due diligence and treading on some corrupt people’s toes.”
China has long been uneasy about research into domestic companies and the economy, which can at times result in foreign businesses deciding not to invest or reducing exposure for fear of running up against anti-corruption or forced labour legislation back home. Last year, China passed a sweeping new espionage law with a broad definition of state secrets as any “documents, data, materials or items related to national security and interests.”
That followed high-profile raids on international consultancies such as Bain & Company, Mintz Group and Capvision, with the latter accused of paying people in its 300,000-strong expert network to “illegally obtain various types of sensitive data,” posing a “major risk” to national security.
The crackdown has continued this year, with the Ministry of State Security last month saying it had arrested a foreign consultant from an unnamed third country on suspicion of spying for Britain. MSS – which has described itself as a “staunch guardian of financial security” – has also ramped up propaganda warning Chinese people to be wary of potential spies in their midst and attacking those who “badmouth” the country’s economy.
Chinese nationals working for foreign companies have also been caught up in the situation. Earlier this month, the state-run People’s Daily reported on the arrest by MSS of an environmental researcher surnamed Li who “received instructions from overseas forces and fabricated ‘evidence’ of environmental problems in China’s seafood industry, playing an important role in instigating relevant countries to enact trade restriction laws.” Similarly, last week MSS published details of an unnamed foreign intelligence agency allegedly recruiting an overseas Chinese student, “ruining his bright future and beautiful youth.”
Wang Xiangwei, an expert on Chinese politics and international relations at Hong Kong Baptist University, wrote recently that foreign investors and businesses in China were already “very nervous” about MSS turning its attention to them, and the ministry’s “forceful comments could make them even more so.”
Little is known about the case against Mr. Stones, a self-described “China veteran” who spent decades working for the Chinese arms of multinationals such as BP, Pfizer and General Motors. His family has said he maintains his innocence, after an unsuccessful appeal of his five-year sentence in September.
According to the Financial Times, Mr. Stones was picked up by state security agents in late 2018, at about the same time Beijing detained Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, after the arrest in Vancouver of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition warrant.
But while the two Michaels became an international news story, resulting in intense pressure on Canada, the U.S. and China to come to an agreement for the release of Ms. Meng, Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor, the British government chose not to publicize Mr. Stones’s case, nor did his family or friends, preferring to lobby Beijing behind the scenes in the hope of securing his freedom.
Similar calculations are often made in cases of arbitrary detention around the world. While publicity can sometimes help, particularly in forcing a detainee’s home government to lobby more aggressively on their behalf, it can also back the other party into a corner, making it more difficult to approve a release without public embarrassment or tacit admission that the original trial was unfair.
The identities of the majority of the 92 Canadians detained in China are not public, nor are those of many who are subject to exit bans. Canadian privacy law means officials cannot release the names of detainees without their explicit permission.
Decisions on whether to go to the press are often made by families back home, sometimes without significant input from the detainees themselves, who often have limited communication with the outside world, generally through consular visits.
It can be difficult for family members to properly gauge the risks, leading many to err on the side of caution. The Globe interviewed the relative of a Canadian currently detained in China for this article, but they eventually decided not to participate for fear it could damage their loved one’s case.
While such decisions are understandable, it is unclear how much a lack of publicity in situations like Mr. Stones’s may have led other businesspeople in China to needlessly expose themselves to risk, perhaps assuming they were safe, as the most high-profile cases tend to involve human-rights activists or clearly political prosecutions such as those of the two Michaels.
Countries have attempted to raise the alarm in recent years. In July, 2022, the U.S. introduced a new designation for countries where there is an elevated risk of wrongful detention, including China, Russia and Iran. While Canada does not have a similar formal category, its advisory for China warns travellers to “exercise a high degree of caution in China due to the risk of arbitrary enforcement of local laws.”
Awareness of the risk is growing and influencing some Canadians’ willingness to travel to China, particularly with relations on a downturn after the two Michaels case and revelations of Chinese political interference in Canada.
About 30 per cent of respondents to a recent survey by the Canada China Business Council cited concerns about the “security of our executives in China” as a reason not to travel there. One anonymous respondent told CCBC that “insecurity” was the biggest problem facing their business in China and called on Ottawa to work with Beijing “to guarantee that there will not be any indiscriminate holding of Canadian citizens.”
While greater awareness can reduce risk, it is contributing to a “reduction in connectivity, which is not in itself a good thing,” said Vina Nadjibulla, vice-president for research and strategy at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. “At a time when we need to understand China the most, it’s difficult for people to travel.”
This is a problem for China as well, Ms. Nadjibulla said, one she hopes might be a deterrent against future arbitrary prosecutions, given that Beijing is actively trying to increase foreign investment and stop the trend of companies moving operations out of the country.
But with skepticism of China growing in the West and MSS apparently ramping up its anti-espionage push, reassuring foreign businesspeople may be easier said than done, particularly if, as Mr. Stones’s case suggests, there may be countless prosecutions yet to be made public.