Update: Julia Garratt has been released on bail. This column first ran in August 2014
Vancouver natives Kevin and Julia Dawn Garratt, currently being held in Dandong, China, on suspicion of military espionage, were visited in prison by a Canadian consular official earlier this week. Reports are that both remain well, but that they are "very frustrated and confused."
Well they might be. They are the proprietors of Peter's Coffee House where, with contemporary Christian music playing in the background, patrons can indulge in a burger and apple pie all the while enjoying the view out the front window of the cruise boats on the Yalu River, and in the far distance on the opposite shore, North Korean border guards with their AK-47 assault rifles at the ready.
According to reports, Kevin Garratt told the congregation of the Terra Nova church in Surrey, B.C., last November that God told the couple to go to Dandong and open a coffee house. "We serve the best coffee on the border... and we do some other things too," he said. "We're trying to reach North Korea with God, with Jesus and practical assistance."
Their arrest therefore might not be entirely unexpected. They held illegal Sunday worship services at their restaurant and were active in assisting North Korean Christians who cross the border illegally to trade in China. And they were active in sending desperately needed grain and cooking oil to underground Christian communities on the other side. Thus they would be ripe targets for the Chinese government's current campaign against the rapidly growing Christian church in China.
So how is it that the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs news release makes no mention of the Garratts' religious work but instead indicates that Kevin and Julia Dawn Garratt are "suspected of collecting and stealing intelligence material in Dandong about Chinese military targets and important national defense research projects, and engaging in activities threatening to Chinese national security"?
The key to understanding this appears to be the reference in the Chinese charge to their alleged gathering of intelligence about "important national defense research projects." The parallel to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's very explicit condemnation of China for the cyber-hacking of computers at the National Research Council last week is none too subtle. China's security agencies are not known for their subtlety. Foreign Minister John Baird's direct and forceful follow-up with the government of China about this – he happened to be in Beijing at the time the hacking of the NRC computers came to light – probably exacerbated China's annoyance at Mr. Harper's public outing of entities of the government for their cyber-theft of "important national defense research projects" that the NRC was engaged in relating to aerospace technology.
The claim that Kevin and Julia Dawn Garratt would somehow or other be able to gain access to the hard drives of Chinese defense research establishment computers is hardly credible. This is the stuff of James Bond movies, not real life Christian evangelists in a backwater like Dandong. It really would be a Mission Impossible for the Garratts. But the fact that the charges are so blatantly false is part of the taunting message to our Prime Minister. While it was the normal thing for foreign nationals arrested in China in the 50s and 60s to be accused of being spies for hostile powers, we have not seen this sort of thing since the end of the Mao-era Cultural Revolution. But under the neo-Leninist political rule of Xi Jinping, these are strange and retro political times in China at present.
Nevertheless, the Chinese security agencies may have underestimated the political sensitivities of this matter in Canada. Two committed Christians involved in aid work to North Korea will have a very strong support constituency within Mr. Harper's cabinet and the Conservative Party base. If the Garratts are subject to the usual Chinese police interrogation techniques and end up forced to make a false confession on television, or, worse, they are sentenced to death or a life sentence in the Chinese gulag, this matter will have a long term chilling effect on Canada-China relations.
Hopefully the Chinese authorities will see their way clear to deport Mr. and Mrs. Garratt back to Canada before Mr. Harper makes his next China tour scheduled for November.
These good people are the innocent victims of a geopolitical game that they should have no part in.
Charles Burton is an associate professor of political science at Brock University in St. Catharines, and is a former counsellor at the Canadian embassy in Beijing