Michael Kovrig speaks in his defence after lawsuit accuses him of spying in China

Michale Kovrig says China often inviting him to government meetings, undermining charges he was arrested because he functioned as a spy

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Michael Kovrig says China never objected before arresting him to his activities as a diplomat and think-tank researcher, and even invited him to speak at a Peoples Liberation Army conference — two months before they threw him in jail.

In some of his first public comments since being freed in September 2021 after nearly three years of imprisonment by China, Kovrig took further aim at accusations he was working as a de-facto Canadian spy, prompting Beijing to arrest both him and Canadian businessman Michael Spavor.

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It’s widely believed instead that the “two Michaels” were captured as part of Beijing’s diplomatic war with Canada over the arrest of a prominent Chinese businesswoman.

“We and our families suffered horribly during the 1,019 days we spent detained in China,” Kovrig said in an email interview. “Repeating gaslighting and disinformation about why we were detained only prolongs pain that we’re all trying to heal from.”

Those charges have come from two disparate sources.

China accused Kovrig of espionage during his detention and closed-door trial. And recently Spavor himself — whose tour company brought him close to the North Korean leadership — has reportedly charged that Kovrig misled him by gathering information from the businessman that was eventually passed on to intelligence agencies in Canada and elsewhere.

Michael Spavor and Kim Jong-un
In this 2014 photo released by North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency, Michael Spavor is shown behind North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Photo by Korean Central News Agency

According to a Globe and Mail report, Spavor is attempting to gain millions in compensation from the federal government, arguing that it was his meetings with Kovrig that persuaded China to imprison him.

Global Affairs Canada, the International Crisis Group (ICG) that employed Kovrig after he left the foreign service in 2016, the former Canadian ambassador to Beijing he worked for and other experts have rejected the accusations as unfounded.

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Some have speculated that the leak to the Globe was part of a turf war between the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and Global Affairs. “Headline-promoting bun fights and sensation-tinged accusations won’t get us anywhere,” commented leading national-security expert Wesley Wark on his blog.

Kovrig has said he’s baffled by the allegations, echoing statements from those other experts that China orchestrated the detentions for one reason only — to gain leverage over Canada after it arrested Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou under a U.S. extradition request.

His interactions with Chinese officialdom until just before his arrest certainly make it seem unlikely Beijing truly viewed him as an espionage threat.

“Prior to Dec. 10, 2018 (when he was detained), the Chinese government gave me no indication that it objected to my work or travel to China. I was regularly invited to meet with Chinese officials, analysts and scholars,” Kovrig told National Post.

“My Chinese counterparts welcomed my participation in their events, conferences and seminars. For example, in October 2018, I attended the PLA’s 8th Xiangshan Forum as an invited panelist,” he said.

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Michael Kovrig at a panel in China
Canadian Michael Kovrig (centre) while appearing on a panel at a People’s Liberation Army conference in October of 2018, two months before Chinese authorities detained him. Photo by Courtesy of Michael Kovrig

Kovrig provided the Post with copies of a photograph of him and other members of the forum’s panel on maritime security, as well as the official letter inviting him to take part in the event, co-sponsored by the China Association for Military Science. His name and picture remain on the Forum’s website.

Guy Saint-Jacques, Kovrig’s boss as Canadian ambassador to Beijing, told the Post that a Mandarin-speaking diplomat like him traveling the country would have been closely monitored by Chinese authorities, his activities anything but secret.

“The PRC (People’s Republic of China) wrongfully detained me as a political hostage to blackmail the Government of Canada,” said Kovrig. “To imply that I was detained for any other reason is false and amplifies the Chinese government’s propaganda.”

Neither Spavor nor his lawyer, John Phillips, have commented on the case, leaving the Globe’s reporting — based largely on unnamed sources — as the only account of what the other Michael is apparently alleging.

The newspaper says Spavor claims he gave information to Kovrig about his visits to North Korea, not knowing his observations could end up with intelligence agencies. The story quotes one anonymous source as saying that Kovrig was considered in Ottawa to be an “intelligence asset” as part of Global Affairs’ Global Security Reporting Program (GSRP).

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Saint-Jacques said diplomats in the program worked completely overtly, but that their reports to Global Affairs may sometimes have ended up in the hands of spy services.

My Chinese counterparts welcomed my participation in their events, conferences and seminars

Interestingly, Kovrig says not even the Chinese authorities who held him in a spartan prison cell for close to three years levelled allegations like those in the Globe.

“The trumped-up charges brought against me when I was arrested and again in a Chinese court in March 2021 did not allege that I was an intelligence officer or ‘asset’ and did not mention Michael Spavor,” he said.

He says that he was open about his identity, his employer and his work with everyone he interviewed in both jobs. “My top priority with any Canadian citizen was their safety and wellbeing.”

Spavor was convicted at his in-camera trial of “gathering state secrets and illegally providing them to overseas forces.” Kovrig was tried for “secretly gathering state secrets and intelligence for overseas forces.” China has offered no evidence publicly to back up the charges.

Most China watchers and governments in the West concluded that the arrests were a form of hostage diplomacy. The two Michaels were detained within days of Meng’s arrest in Vancouver. And they were freed by China immediately after a deal with American prosecutors allowed Meng to leave Canada. She had been on bail as the extradition process worked its way through B.C. courts, living in one of her Vancouver mansions and relatively free to move around the city.

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Kovrig says he never failed to deny Beijing’s allegations, even in the face of “months of confinement, coercion, interrogation, psychological torture, loneliness and uncertainty.”

Chinese media reports in September 2021 that I had confessed to the Chinese government’s fabricated charges prior to my release were entirely false. I did not

“Chinese media reports in September 2021 that I had confessed to the Chinese government’s fabricated charges prior to my release were entirely false. I did not.”

Kovrig has noted that he had been living in Hong Kong and was visiting Beijing for just a few days when Chinese authorities rounded him up in December 2018. In comments to the Post, he said the possible reasons for that fateful act plagued him throughout his ordeal.

“Why the two Michaels specifically? I asked myself that question a thousand times for a thousand days,” he said. “It seems unlikely that Chinese officials have a grievance against people named Michael.

“I think they just wanted a hostage equation in which their leverage over Canada equaled at least one Huawei executive. For the record, I like to think I’m worth more than half a Meng.”

If not him, the Chinese may well have detained another Canadian doing some form of research or other work that could be spun into a cover story that gave Beijing “plausible deniability” for putting them behind bars, said Kovrig.

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