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Canadian Christian Couple Detained by China in Tit-For-Tat Spying Saga

Two Canadians who ran a cafe near the China-North Korea border are jailed on espionage charges, days after Canada accused China of spying.

by John Dyer
Aug 5 2014, 9:05pm

Image via Reuters

Here’s a spy story that begins with Chinese hackers and ends with a pair of Canadian Christians in a jail cell on the North Korean border.

Last week, Canada Prime Minister Stephen Harper condemned China for supporting cyber-spies who apparently broke into Canadian government computers to steal industrial secrets.

On Monday, in the Chinese city of Dandong that lies on the frontier with North Korea, the Canadian husband-and-wife team who run a popular coffee shop went missing as Chinese authorities announced an investigation into the pair on charges of espionage and stealing state secrets.

Now the world is awaiting news of the fate of Kevin and Julie Garratt, the owners of Peter’s Coffee House, a hangout named after their son that has a view of North Korea on the other side of the Yalu River.

China is accusing the couple of crimes that carry the death penalty.

Like any good spy tale, it’s hard to parse out the Garratts, who came to China as teachers in the 1980s. Since 2008, their establishment has served Dr. Pepper, root beer, hamburgers, and other Western fare to natives and expatriates. They ran an English conversation club and, as Christians, they held in-house church services. Kevin is a Pentecostal pastor, as reported by the Globe and Mail.

Now China is accusing the couple of crimes that carry the death penalty. Their son Peter reportedly brought them toiletries and clothes in a detention center, suggesting they’ll be staying a while. Police raided their coffee shop, apparently seizing their Bible and other English-language books off the shelves.

"Kevin Garratt and his wife... are suspected of collecting and stealing intelligence materials related to Chinese military targets and important Chinese national defense scientific research programs, and engaging in activities that endanger China's national security," said a Chinese Foreign Ministry statement to Reuters.

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Chinese authorities could be targeting them to send a message to Ottawa. Canada had never accused China of cyber-espionage until last week. China had never accused a Canadian citizen of stealing state secrets until Monday.

But there’s more to the Garratts’ story.

They had led trips into North Korea, ostensibly for tourism but possibly for also sharing their faith, or the evangelizing that is explicitly forbidden by Pyongyang. Evangelizing is illegal in China, too. Peter Garratt told the Globe and Mail that his parents did not hide their beliefs and held religious discussions at their coffee house. “They are not spreading the gospel, but if people have questions, they are open to talk,” he said.

Curiously, Kevin regularly took photographs of shipments going across the Friendship Bridge that links China and the Hermit Kingdom, Peter added. His father had been documenting the trade in luxury items that international sanctions are supposed to keep out of North Korea, rather than recording military vehicles, he said.

'They are absorbing information because they are there getting a tremendous feel for what’s going on in the area, just by having this little coffee shop and dealing with tourists.'

Peter Earnest, a former CIA agent who is executive director of the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. didn’t know whether the Garratts were spies, guilty of breaking China’s undemocratic laws, or unfortunate innocents. There’s no doubt they’re intelligence assets, he noted. But they aren’t necessarily agents.

“They are absorbing information because they are there getting a tremendous feel for what’s going on in the area, just by having this little coffee shop and dealing with tourists,” Earnest told VICE News. “It’s one thing to simply be an observer, like a journalist, but it would be another thing to collate that material and report it in some way to a government agency.”

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A Christian coffee shop would certainly be a suitable staging area for intelligence missions, according to a hiding-in-plain-sight strategy, Earnest said. The Garratts could be genuinely good-hearted people, too, of course. Either way, he was a little skeptical about China’s accusations. Beijing has a low bar for what counts as a state secret.

But, unfortunately for the Garratts, if taking photographs of trucks crossing the Friendship Bridge is the only evidence Chinese prosecutors have to support their charges of espionage, it will be enough to convict the pair if Chinese leaders want to make an example out of them.

“Anything can be a spy front for heaven’s sake,” said Earnest. “The problem is, when you are dealing with a closed state, anything is spying.”

Follow John Dyer on Twitter: @johnjdyerjr

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