Toronto Star's View: Ottawa must press China to...
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Aug 06, 2014  |  Vote 0    0

Toronto Star's View: Ottawa must press China to justify claim that Canadian coffee shop operators were spying

Were two Canadians running a spy ring out of a popular coffee house in China, between flipping burgers and serving up cheesecake? It defies belief

OurWindsor.Ca

On the face of it, China’s claim that expatriate Canadian coffee shop operators have been spying on “Chinese military targets” with an eye to subverting state security seems far-fetched, if not ludicrous. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government needs to press Beijing, hard, for a credible explanation for the suspicion that has fallen on our citizens.

Kevin and Julia Dawn Garratt are highly visible foreigners who have lived in China, taught there and carried on business for three decades — allunder the relentless scrutiny of a vast security establishment. Are we to believe they were running a coffee house of spies in Dandong on the North Korean border, in between flipping burgers and pushing root beer and cheesecake? Their son Simeon Garratt, who lives in Vancouver, regards the claim as “absurdly crazy.” Certainly, the timing is suspect.

The Garratts were hauled in and held for questioning by the State Security Bureau on Monday, a week after Canadian officials angered Beijing by accusing Chinese hackers of cyber-espionage, saying they attacked the National Research Council, forcing a shutdown of the agency’s computer network. A son, Peter, has also been grilled.

Chinese officials say the Garratts “are suspected of collecting and stealing intelligence materials related to Chinese military targets and important Chinese national defence scientific research programs, and engaging in activities that endanger China’s national security.” That sounds a bit above the pay grade of your garden variety short-order cook.

Their popular café, Peter’s Coffee Shop, opened in 2008. It overlooks North Korea, and is just a short stroll from the Friendship Bridge that serves as a major supply line to the Hermit Kingdom. Kevin Garratt was known to photograph goods crossing to North Korea in defiance of United Nations sanctions over Pyongyang’s nuclear program, including banned items such as luxury cars. That may have raised the authorities’ suspicions, or their hackles. But anyone in Dandong with a camera could have done the same.

While Beijing has offered no details on the alleged espionage, this is serious. Spying can bring the death penalty. And China’s courts are not known for their independence, impartiality and rigour.

This poses a problem for Harper, who is reportedly considering a visit to China in the fall to promote our joint $70-billion-plus trade. China will be a harder sell to Canadian entrepreneurs if it is accusing foreigners of spying under the guise of doing business.

There’s also a potentially explosive religious angle to this murky affair, given Harper’s efforts to promote freedom of belief.

Kevin Garratt is a devout, active Christian who says that God called him to open a cafe in Dandong. He has reportedly described his family as China-based, North Korea-focused and Jesus-centred. They have travelled in poverty-stricken North Korea, helped people plan tours there, and helped church groups send humanitarian supplies including food and oil. Both China and North Korea are highly suspicious of Christian activists.

If the Garratts are being targeted for their religious convictions Harper will have an additional fiasco on his hands. He created an Office of Religious Freedom last year with an explicit mandate to “raise awareness of religious freedom and call attention to its violations.” This could be a classic example.

Canadians deserve an explanation, and Ottawa must get one.

Absent credible evidence of espionage, Beijing’s motives are suspect. Whether this is political payback, over-zealous policing of foreigners or hounding of Christians, it’s all bad. Bad for Canada/China relations. Bad for China’s image. And bad for business.

Toronto Star

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