BEIJING (AP) — China's foreign ministry denied knowledge Wednesday of the detention of a former Canadian diplomat but said the organization he was working for, the International Crisis Group, is not registered in China and so any of its work in the country would be illegal.
"Once its staff become engaged in activities in China, it has already violated the law," ministry spokesman Lu Kang said at a daily news briefing when asked about the case of Michael Kovrig, a Hong Kong-based analyst whose employer said he was taken into custody Monday night by the Beijing Bureau of Chinese State Security.
"I do not have information to provide you here," Lu said about Kovrig, who previously worked as a Canadian diplomat in China and elsewhere. "If there is such a thing, please do not worry, it is assured that China's relevant departments will definitely handle it according to law."
Chinese law makes it extremely difficult for foreign non-governmental organizations to register because they have to find a local sponsor, said James Zimmerman, a lawyer in Beijing and former chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China.
"In my view (Kovrig's custody) is purely for strategic reasons," Zimmerman told The Associated Press.
Kovrig's detention came after Canada detained a top executive of network gear and cellphone supplier Huawei Technologies on Dec. 1 while she was changing planes in Vancouver.
Many Chinese citizens were rejoicing Wednesday over a Canadian court's decision to release on bail Huawei's chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou.
Canadian authorities detained Meng at the request of the U.S, which accuses Huawei of using a Hong Kong shell company to sell equipment to Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions. It alleges that Meng and Huawei misled banks about the company's business dealings in Iran.
After three days of hearings, a British Columbia justice on Tuesday granted bail of 10 million Canadian dollars ($7.5 million), but required Meng to wear an ankle bracelet, surrender her passports, stay in the Vancouver area and confine herself to one of her two homes in the city from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Her case drew an outpouring of support on social media for her and her company, which is based in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen.
Zeng Yuan, a university student in Beijing, was among those who believe Kovrig's case is related to Meng's, which has touched off an uproar among the three countries and complicated high-stakes U.S.-China trade talks.
"It is a kind of declaration to the Canadian government," the finance student said. "This makes sense. China cannot sit and await its fate, and let them make ambiguous accusations against Chinese citizens."
Meng has denied the U.S. allegations through her lawyer in court, promising to fight them if she is extradited to face charges in the United States.
"As we have stressed all along, Huawei complies with all applicable laws and regulations in the countries and regions where we operate, including export control and sanction laws of the U.N., U.S., and EU," Huawei said in a statement. "We look forward to a timely resolution to this matter."
Lu, the foreign ministry spokesman, repeated China's demand for the immediate release of Meng, whose father founded Huawei, a privately held company with strong connections to the Chinese government and military.
While her release on bail was front-page news in China, most media have not reported Kovrig's detention. An exception was the Global Times, an outspoken Communist Party newspaper that cited foreign media reports of his arrest.
Many Chinese, however, have the means to access banned foreign websites and were aware of Kovrig's detention.
Liu Mo, a real estate engineer in Beijing, said he found the detention hard to believe.
"We've only heard that he was detained, but we know nothing about the reason," he said. "I think we need more information transparency. One has to be detained for a reason."
The State Security Bureau handles intelligence and counterintelligence matters.
Rob Malley, president of Brussels-based International Crisis Group, said he thinks Kovrig was in Beijing on a personal trip and definitely not for any illegal purpose or any reason that would undermine China's national security.
Associated Press writer Rob Gillies in Toronto and video producer Olivia Zhang in Beijing contributed to this story.