SHANGHAI/BEIJING – China is investigating a Canadian couple who ran a coffee shop on the Chinese border with North Korea for the suspected theft of military and intelligence information and for threatening national security, China’s Foreign Ministry said Tuesday.
The official Xinhua News Agency identified the two as Kevin Garratt and Julia Dawn Garratt. In a brief report, Xinhua said the State Security Bureau of Dandong city in northeast Liaoning province was investigating the case, adding it involved the stealing of state secrets.
Neither the Foreign Ministry nor Xinhua said if the couple had been detained, although the ministry said the Canadian Embassy in Beijing was notified Monday and that the couple’s “various rights have been fully guaranteed.”
Canadian newspaper The Globe & Mail said the Vancouver couple had been living in China since 1984 and opened a coffee shop called Peter’s Coffee House in Dandong, a key gateway to reclusive North Korea, in 2008. The couple previously worked as teachers in southern China.
It said the whereabouts of the Garratts was unknown. Calls to the coffee shop went unanswered. A family friend said the Garratts had three children.
“Kevin Garratt and his wife . . . are suspected of collecting and stealing intelligence materials related to Chinese military targets and important Chinese national defense scientific research programs, and engaging in activities that endanger China’s national security,” the Foreign Ministry said in a short statement.
The Canadian Embassy said it was aware of reports that two Canadians had been “detained” in China and was gathering information on the matter.
The investigation into the Garratts comes a week after Canada took the unusual step of singling out Chinese hackers for attacking a key computer network and lodged a protest with Beijing.
Canadian officials have said “a highly sophisticated Chinese state-sponsored actor” broke into the National Research Council, the government’s leading research body, which works with big firms such as aircraft and train maker Bombardier Inc. In response, Beijing accused Canada of making irresponsible accusations that lacked credible evidence.
China’s state secrets law is notoriously broad, covering everything from industry data to the exact birthdates of state leaders. Information can also be labeled a state secret retroactively. In severe cases, the theft of state secrets is punishable with life in prison or the death penalty.
One of the Garratt’s sons told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post newspaper that he didn’t believe the accusations.
“It sounds so wildly absurd,” said 27-year-old Simeon Garratt, who lives in British Columbia. “I know for a fact it’s not true.” He said he last spoke with his parents Monday.
The Garratt’s western-style coffee shop has a view of traffic flowing across the Yalu River that divides China and North Korea, The Globe & Mail newspaper said. The couple also had a side business helping intrepid people plan tours to North Korea, it added.
Beijing is very sensitive about its relationship with North Korea, which has been hit with sanctions by the United Nations several times over its banned nuclear and missile programs and whose ruined economy is kept afloat with Chinese aid.
Dandong is a way station for North Korean refugees escaping their homeland and also a magnet for foreign reporters seeking information on one of the most isolated countries in the world. The city is also home to an air force base, according to Chinese military blogs.
The coffee shop’s website says the cafe is only meters from the Friendship Bridge that spans the Yalu River, calling the venue the “perfect stop off while en route to or returning from the Hermit Kingdom.” The shop also runs a weekly “English Corner” conversation club, where Chinese can practice speaking English.
The Globe & Mail said the shop was named after the couple’s youngest son, Peter. The couple had three children, said David Etter, an American who knew the family and had run a restaurant in another city bordering North Korea. He said the Garratts had lived in Dandong for at least six years.
Canada’s right-leaning conservative government has had an uneven relationship with Beijing since taking power in 2006.
“It’s completely unprecedented. We haven’t had this sort of thing (before),” Charles Burton, a Brock University professor who served as a diplomat at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing in the early 2000s, was quoted by The Globe & Mail as saying.
Citing human rights concerns, Prime Minister Stephen Harper initially kept his distance from China. Under pressure from business in Canada, he sought to reach out to Beijing.
China is Canada’s second most important trading partner after the United States, and bilateral trade is growing.
In July, Chinese prosecutors charged British corporate investigator Peter Humphrey and his American wife, Yu Yingzeng, for illegally obtaining private information. The couple were detained last year following work they did for the British drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline Plc and their trial is set for Aug. 8 in Shanghai.