By Ben Blanchard
BEIJING (Reuters) – A former Canadian diplomat detained in China amid a growing row over a Chinese executive arrested in Vancouver also has Hungarian nationality, sources familiar with the matter said, potentially raising the stakes by pulling the EU into the case.
Chinese state security agents detained Michael Kovrig, who works for the International Crisis Group think-tank, in Beijing last week on suspicion of endangering China’s national security. A second Canadian, businessman Michael Spavor, was detained a few days later for the same reason.
The detentions of the Canadians followed the Dec. 1 arrest in Vancouver of Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of the Chinese telecommunications equipment giant Huawei Technologies Co Ltd [HWT.UL], at the request of the United States, which is engaged in a trade war with China.
Both Canada and the United States have expressed deep concern about the detention of the two Canadian men. Canadian diplomats have held at least one meeting with each of the men but it was unclear where they are being held or whether they will eventually be charged.
Several sources familiar with the situation told Reuters that Kovrig also has Hungarian nationality, a factor that could escalate the situation and put further pressure on China by involving the European Union, China’s largest trading partner.
Two of the sources said that the Hungarian embassy in Beijing has been seeking access to Kovrig too.
“It’s not been granted yet,” one of them said.
The second source said the Hungarian embassy in Beijing is treating it as a consular case and going through the “normal process”, also confirming consular access had not been granted yet.
Kovrig spent much of his 20s in Budapest, singing in a rock band, teaching English and writing for a city newspaper, a third source said.
China’s Foreign Ministry, in a statement sent to Reuters, said: “At present what we can confirm is that Michael Kovrig entered the country on a Canadian passport. If there are other issues, China will handle them in accordance with the law and rules”.
The ministry did not elaborate.
Neither the Hungarian nor Canadian governments responded to requests for comment.
The EU embassy in Beijing, in a separate statement to Reuters, did not directly address the Hungarian nationality issue.
“The arrest and detention in China of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, both Canadian nationals, and the declared motive for their investigation raises concerns about legitimate research and business practices in China,” it said.
“The denial of access to a lawyer under their status of detention is contrary to the right of defence. The EU fully supports the efforts of the Canadian Government on this matter.”
As a Hungarian national, Kovrig is also an EU citizen. The EU has been involved in another case of an EU citizen detained in China, Swedish citizen and Hong Kong-based bookseller Gui Minhai.
A fourth source said the EU had directly raised the issue of Kovrig with China’s foreign ministry, and was in close touch with the Canadian ambassador in Beijing.
Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland and the EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini may speak by telephone in coming days on Kovrig, the source added.
Another source noted that Kovrig was in China on his Canadian passport, meaning access for Hungarian diplomats was unlikely. Kovrig has also requested Canadian consular services, the source added. China does not recognise dual nationality.
Another issue is that Hungary’s right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban has cultivated close ties with China, and the country has been unwilling to criticise Beijing for rights concerns under his leadership.
All of the sources declined to be identified, citing the extreme sensitivity of the situation.
China’s Foreign Ministry on Thursday confirmed a third Canadian had been detained, naming her as Sarah McIver and saying she was undergoing “administration punishment” for working illegally.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Wednesday it was “a very separate case” from Kovrig’s and Spavor’s.
Trudeau also urged caution and said he would not be “stomping on a table” about the detentions.
(Additional reporting by John Ruwitch in Shanghai and Krisztina Than in Budapest; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)