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Peter Wang and Ruqin Zhao in Ottawa, August, 2009. Chinese state media said Mr. Wang and Ms. Zhao, both Canadian citizens, had become the first defection case disclosed by security authorities, after they were sentenced to prison in late 2019.

Chinese authorities have sentenced to prison a couple who immigrated to Canada nearly two decades ago, accusing them of defecting with military secrets. It is the latest case to entangle Canada in a geopolitical battle between the United States and China.

Peter Wang and Ruqin Zhao are Chinese-born engineers who worked in the Toronto area, described by a former manager as immigrants who sought a better life for their daughter when they came to Canada in 2002. The couple was arrested in 2017 on a return to China to visit relatives, according to state media reports.

Last month, Chinese state media said Mr. Wang and Ms. Zhao, both Canadian citizens, had become the first defection case disclosed by security authorities, after they were sentenced to prison in late 2019 – three years for Mr. Wang and two for Ms. Zhao. It’s not clear whether Ms. Zhao remains in prison, since it has been more than two years since her arrest.

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But their conviction adds them to the number of Canadians caught in a Chinese justice system that operates under the control of the Communist Party, which has been accused of employing hostage diplomacy to further its political ends.

Our China showdown has nothing to do with Washington’s Cold War

Canada should stand up to China, ex-Australia PM says

Since December, 2018, when Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was taken into custody at the Vancouver International Airport at the request of U.S. authorities, China has arrested two Canadians and sentenced two others to death.

Mr. Wang’s and Ms. Zhao’s sentencing has also once again thrust Canada into the midst of a deepening rivalry between the U.S. and China over global influence, technological supremacy and the recruitment of skilled workers.

Official Chinese news reports in mid-April intimated that the couple’s arrest constituted a Chinese victory against American espionage, showing a haggard Mr. Wang confessing to a “very, very serious” misdeed. He had “walked into the abyss of crime,” he said.

State television showed a picture of the couple standing outside the Capitol Building in Washington and aired video of Ms. Zhao in a banquet room with a large map of the continental U.S. on a wall. The television report also showed images of a United Airlines aircraft as it described the couple’s alleged defection to a Western country, which was not named.

But that country is Canada. Although the Canadian government has made no public comment on Mr. Wang’s and Ms. Zhao’s case – in contrast to repeated demands for the release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, the Canadians arrested in China in December, 2018 – the couple’s sentencing underscores the risks to educated Chinese who have immigrated to other countries in recent decades. Many of those who have immigrated to Canada have taken up important roles in the country’s universities and in the private sector.

Mr. Wang and Ms. Zhao had worked at a military-linked research institute in China before coming to Canada. They lived in Edmonton and Toronto, with Mr. Wang working to refurbish military transport aircraft in Alberta and as a systems integrator for an aircraft landing-gear company in Ontario.

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The couple’s incarceration “is going to scare a lot of researchers from going back” to China, said Ivana Karaskova, a China research fellow at the Prague-based Association for International Affairs. Teng Biao, a prominent Chinese lawyer and human-rights activist who lives in exile, was more blunt: “Foreign citizens are not safe in China any more.”

Global Affairs Canada said Friday it “has closely followed the cases of Mr. Wang and Ms. Zhao. Canadian officials have had consular access to and are providing consular assistance to Mr. Wang and Ms. Zhao.”

The sentencing of Mr. Wang and Ms. Zhao was made public on China’s National Security Education Day.

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It provided no further details, citing privacy legislation, but the Canadian government has for years warned travellers that “if you previously occupied a position that was in any way affiliated with the government of China, and left your position without receiving authorization or without following formal procedures, you may be considered a defector by Chinese authorities.”

China routinely disregards second passports held by those who have not formally annulled their birth citizenship. In the past few years, Chinese authorities have arrested scholars, writers and even students. Some have been sentenced to lengthy prison sentences when they return to China.

The Globe and Mail has assembled details about Mr. Wang and Ms. Zhao from interviews with former colleagues in Canada, internet research databases, posts the couple made to social media, as well as accounts from Chinese state media and alumni of the Northwestern Polytechnical University in Xi’an, where Mr. Wang studied.

The couple did not respond to interview requests left on their social-media accounts, and The Globe could not confirm their current whereabouts.

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Mr. Wang, whose Chinese first name is Pihong, was born in 1958 in China’s Shaanxi province and built a career in aerospace. In 2000, he was co-author of an academic paper that identified him as working at the Luoyang Electro-Optics Instrument Research Institute, also known as the 613 Institute, a state-owned research arm founded by the People’s Liberation Army and today affiliated with The Aviation Industry Corporation of China, a massive national aerospace and defence conglomerate.

The paper he co-authored used high-level math to help in aircraft targeting. Mr. Wang rose to a position of prominence at the institute, described in China as its deputy chief designer and by former Canadian colleagues as its chief engineer. Ms. Zhao also worked at the institute; Mr. Wang told colleagues his wife was the smarter engineer.

In 2002, according to state media reports, the couple left China. In September of that year, according to his LinkedIn page, Mr. Wang began work in Edmonton at Spar Aerospace, the Canadian company that developed the Canadarm and ran a sophisticated program of maintaining C-130 Hercules aircraft for militaries around the world.

Before joining Spar, Mr. Wang worked for a software company in Toronto, said Scott Mitchell, an air force pilot turned project manager who hired him for the job in Edmonton. Mr. Wang’s résumé – an educated, experienced engineer – stood out.

Mr. Mitchell and his team helped Mr. Wang buy his first car, a Toyota Corolla, and guided him through the basics of life in Canada: changing oil, driving on snow-covered roads.

“He truly appreciated what Canada had to offer, and we took him under our wing to welcome him to the country,” Mr. Mitchell said. In response, Mr. Wang and Ms. Zhao ”had us over for meals – authentic Chinese food.”

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Chinese state media reported that the couple had worked on secret projects of national significance in China and spent three years forging documents and securing passports without permission while working with immigration agencies to leave China. The Globe was unable to verify those details.

No one answered the phone at Luoyang Electro-Optics Instrument Research Institute. Li Junfeng, the judge at the Intermediate People’s Court in Luoyang who oversaw the case against the couple, declined to answer questions, telling The Globe “there is a lot of secrets-related content in the case file.”

Mr. Wang, who did not discuss the content of his previous work with his new Canadian colleagues, told them a simpler story.

“I asked him why he left China. And his answer was, ‘for my daughter,’ ” Mr. Mitchell said. “He wanted a better life for her. He wanted her to be free.”

In Edmonton, Mr. Wang worked as a systems and airworthiness engineer, upgrading the avionics – electronic equipment and instrumentation – on C-130 aircraft for Canada, New Zealand and Greece. “He was reviewing design for compliance with regulations,” Mr. Mitchell said.

Those doing avionics upgrades at Spar worked on systems including “flight control, cockpit display, communications, weather radar, navigation. Nothing of a ‘secure’ nature. All systems available in the open market,” said Gene Manzie, who was a vice-president and general manager at Spar, which was taken over by L-3 Communications.

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Hercules aircraft are used for transport and aren’t designed to carry missiles or bombs.

In 2005, according to Chinese state media reports, Mr. Wang and Ms. Zhao took on foreign citizenship. A year later, Mr. Wang moved back to Toronto to work at a facility now operated by Safran Landing Systems, a French aerospace and defence contractor. On LinkedIn, Mr. Wang said he was involved with Bombardier business jets and the Russian Sukhoi Superjet 100, both civilian aircraft.

“Safran does not wish to make any comment,” press director Catherine Malek said in an e-mail. The company has considerable business interests in China, including partnerships to supply engines and other components to China’s domestic jetliner program.

On social media, Mr. Wang and Ms. Zhao posted pictures of their travels to Washington (where they went to the National Air and Space Museum), to Ottawa (where they visited the Canada Aviation and Space Museum), and to the outdoors, sitting beside a tent and drinking beer around a campfire.

In March, 2017, they attended an alumni event for Northwestern Polytechnical University in Toronto, where both donned costumes of the People’s Liberation Army for a performance of a famous song that lauds the army. “Peter wanted to be a Canadian,” Mr. Mitchell said. But “he did not talk badly about China at all.”

Chinese state media, however, accused the couple of a “treacherous” defection that “poses a major threat to our country’s military and scientific security.” The couple, according to official reports, “had a large number of our scientific research secrets and engaged in work in the same field after going abroad.”

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Their arrest took place in an environment of mounting scrutiny for Chinese researchers in other countries, as suspicion rises about Beijing’s economic and military espionage. The trial for Mr. Wang and Ms. Zhao took place the same month as a U.S. Senate hearing on China’s Thousand Talents Plan, which uses offers of substantial funding to attract skilled researchers to work in China. John Brown, assistant director of counterintelligence for the FBI, called such plans a “national security and economic threat.”

For China to arrest people like Mr. Wang and Ms. Zhao looks like “a tit for tat,” said Alex Joske, a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. “It’s trying to show that the U.S. is doing the same thing” in seeking Chinese secrets.

The sentencing of Mr. Wang and Ms. Zhao was made public on China’s National Security Education Day. It reinforces the Chinese Communist Party’s “constant theme of ‘hostile foreign forces’ trying to impede the inevitable and irresistible rise of China – but of course unsuccessfully,” said Charles Parton, who was a diplomat in China and is now senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.

No matter where Mr. Wang was born, however, “he is a Canadian,” Mr. Mitchell, his former manager, said. “He is not a Canadian of convenience.”

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