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The safes are gone, as are the documents, the computers, the books, the money, the Bibles, even an electric piano. Left behind is a trail of white gloves, abandoned by Chinese secret police after they seized the contents of a Canadian couple's life in an investigation that risks a serious showdown between China and Canada.

Relations between Beijing and Ottawa are already burdened by mutual suspicion. Now, the detention of Kevin and Julia Garratt will test Canada's ability to respond to a country whose confidence as an emerging superpower has made it increasingly willing to take prisoners in its bid to seek advantage over other nations.

The Garratts, who run a coffee shop and send humanitarian aid to North Korea, were detained earlier this week by Chinese security agents and accused of stealing military and defence research secrets.

Such charges against foreigners are rare in China, and when they arise set in motion a complicated series of diplomatic parries and thrusts. In four similar cases in the past 15 years – one involving a Canadian and three involving U.S. citizens or permanent residents – there have been high-stakes threats of trade actions, petitions and even direct pleas by presidents. The results have been mixed: As often as not they failed to bring about the release or different treatment of those accused.

State secrets violations in China are serious, and can be punished by death. Secrecy laws can also be applied retroactively and are vague to the point where even seemingly innocent acts – the purchase or drawing of a map in the wrong area or, in the Garratts' case, interactions with military around the highly-sensitive North Korean border – can draw a foreigner into deep trouble. As recent Chinese history has demonstrated, in China even severe charges can be trumped-up in service of political ends or to settle personal scores.

But dealing with China, whose opaque single-party political system is corrupt and often suspicious of foreign influence, poses profound challenges. As a result, efforts to free detained citizens by even the most powerful nations have produced as many failures as they have successes.

The happy outcomes have relied on good fortune and powerful threats. In 1999, Song Yongyi, a college librarian, was accused by China of spying. He held a U.S. green card as a permanent resident, and the late Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter took up his case. He vowed to derail China's ascension to the World Trade Organization if Mr. Song was not released. "That was the lever we had," Jerome Cohen, a New York lawyer specializing in Chinese law, recalled. Within a month, Mr. Song was let go.

Similarly Gao Zhan, a researcher at a U.S. university, was detained in 2001 by Chinese authorities. She was convicted of spying for Taiwan. Four days after being sentenced to 10 years in prison – and following a lengthy outcry from American academics and intervention by president George W. Bush and then-secretary of state Colin Powell, she was released on medical grounds. Success "depends often on the mobilization of support," Mr. Cohen said.

Yet even great support can achieve little. When China accused Chinese-American geologist Xue Feng of stealing state secrets, powerful forces sought to intervene on his behalf, including President Barack Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden. But their efforts failed to prevent Mr. Xue's torture by Chinese interrogators. U.S. officials were also initially kept from seeing Mr. Xue and subsequently barred from the trial, in violation of Chinese law and international agreements. Mr. Xue was sentenced in 2010 to eight years in prison.

The most visible outcome of the intense U.S. diplomatic effort was that in prison, Mr. Xue has been "fairly well treated," said John Kamm, the founder of the human rights-focussed Dui Hua Foundation who helped lobby for Mr. Xue to be set free. "He, for instance, had been given a pair of headsets by the prison so he could listen to music," Mr. Kamm added. But for foreign embassies, "influence is limited, especially in cases involving state security," he said.

Canada has its own experience with failed diplomacy over detained citizens. In June 2006, China took custody of Huseyin Celil, a Canadian imam accused by China of involvement in terrorism. After a series of embarrassing initial missteps – it took the Canadian embassy 10 months to reach out to Mr. Celil's family and consular officials did not attend the opening of his trial because they did not know about it – Canada conducted a broad and voluble campaign to secure better treatment for him.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, numerous cabinet ministers, parliamentarians and former prime minister Paul Martin demanded consular access to Mr. Celil and respect for his human rights. They failed: Mr. Celil said he was tortured, and Canadian officials were not even allowed in to the courtroom for the reading of a verdict that sentenced Mr. Celil to life in prison.

The Garratt case is different in ways that could allow a better outcome. China allowed a Canadian consular officer to meet the couple within 48 hours of their detention earlier this week. And rather than being charged with wrongdoing they have been placed under "residential surveillance" while an investigation proceeds. They can be held this way for up to six months before a formal arrest is made, providing a potential opening for China to change its mind.

For Canada, the Garratt case represents more than the detention of two individuals. Its broader aim is to remove an irritant that, if not addressed, can threaten an economically important relationship. China is Canada's second-largest trading partner, and "you don't want the next year of Canada-China relations to be dominated by this," said Gordon Houlden, a long-time Canadian diplomat who now heads the China Institute at the University of Alberta.

Though Canada has said little about the Garratts, Employment Minister Jason Kenney, a powerful figure in the Conservative cabinet, said, "Canada will vigorously defend and represent the interests of Canadians abroad, particularly if we conclude that Canadians have been unjustly detained."

The outcome for the Garratts will depend on the ultimate reason for their detention.

They were detained a week after Canada accused Su Bin, a Canadian immigrant, of masterminding a hacking operation into U.S. fighter jet secrets. Canada also accused China of spying on computer systems at the National Research Council.

In what many diplomats in Beijing regard as a tit-for-tat action, the Garratts were, like Mr. Su, accused of stealing military secrets.

"They say when two whales play, the shrimps are the ones who get hurt," said David Etter, who until mid-July ran a coffee shop in another Chinese city on the North Korean border, much like the Garratts, whom he knew. "You have two governments trying to play with one another and the Garratts got caught in the middle."

If that's true, Canada must sort out how to assuage China's pique – or force it to back down. Would, for example, China relent if Ottawa threatened its access to Canadian oil and gas? Or, conversely, is there something Canada can offer China? Would an apology by the Garratts satisfy China? Or could Canada appease China by toning down its criticism on espionage grounds?

None of those potential options, however, is likely to bear much fruit if Chinese secret police had other reasons to move against the Garratts.

The couple are Christians who held church services in their home. Although they visited North Korea at the invitation of officials there and have sent in supplies for North Koreans for years, their religious activities made them a potential target. Both China and North Korea take a dim view of Christianity. If the Garratts have been caught up in a sweep of some kind – a U.S. Christian working with North Korean charity has also recently been placed under Chinese scrutiny – Canada may have little influence over what happens to them.

"The Chinese are capable of digging their heels in very deeply where it involves a question of what they see as core concerns," Mr. Houlden, the former diplomat, said. "The Chinese tenacity on their points of principle can be impressive."

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