Entrepreneur Michael Spavor and former diplomat Michael Kovrig were taken into custody Monday on suspicion of "engaging in activities that endanger the national security" of China, said foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang.
Lu said Canada was informed but declined to say whether the men have been provided with lawyers. He said the cases are being handled separately by local bureaus of the national intelligence agency in Beijing, where Kovrig was picked up, and the northeastern city of Dandong, where Spavor lived.
"The legal rights of the two Canadians are being safeguarded," Lu told reporters at a daily briefing. The two cases ratchet up pressure on Canada, which is holding Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei Technologies Ltd. She was arrested Dec. 1 at the request of the United States, which wants her extradited to face bank fraud charges.
Despite the escalating frictions resulting from the detentions, trade talks between Beijing and the Trump administration remain ongoing. The two sides have taken pains this week to emphasize that their trade talks are entirely separate from the U.S. case against Meng and any retaliatory moves by Beijing.
Canadian officials have been unable to contact Spavor "since he let us know he was being questioned by Chinese authorities," said Canadian Global Affairs spokesman Guillaume Berube. "We are working very hard to ascertain his whereabouts and we continue to raise this with the Chinese government."
Kovrig is an analyst on northeast Asia for the International Crisis Group, a think tank, who took a leave of absence from the Canadian government. He lives in Hong Kong. Spavor runs tours of North Korea along with sports, business and other exchanges through his company, Paektu Cultural Exchange. He has met leader Kim Jong Un and was instrumental in bringing former NBA star Dennis Rodman to the North's capital, Pyongyang, in 2013.
Acquaintances said Spavor was due Monday in Seoul, the South Korean capital, but failed to arrive. The detentions echo that of another Canadian, Keven Garratt, who was picked up in 2014 in what was seen as retaliation for Canada's arrest of a Chinese spying suspect wanted in the United States. Garratt was held for 750 days in 2014-16 and sentenced to eight years in prison on spying charges but then deported.
The broadly defined national security charge encompasses both traditional espionage and other forms of information gathering such as interviewing dissidents and contacting non-governmental organizations.
Meng was arrested while changing planes in Vancouver but has been released on bail. The U.S. accuses Huawei of using a Hong Kong shell company to deceive banks and do business with Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions.
China earlier warned of unspecified dire consequences if Meng wasn't released. The editor-in-chief of the Global Times, a Communist Party-run tabloid known for its provocative views, warned in a video Wednesday night of "retaliatory measures" if Canada doesn't free Meng.
"If Canada extradites Meng to the U.S., China's revenge will be far worse than detaining a Canadian," said Hu Xijin, speaking in English. Canada has asked China for extra security at its embassy because of protests and anti-Canadian sentiment and has advised foreign service staff to take precautions, a senior Canadian official told reporters.
The United States and China have emphasized that trade talks are separate from Meng's case, though President Donald Trump said Tuesday he would intervene if it would help produce a deal. "If I think it's good for what will be certainly the largest trade deal ever made — which is a very important thing — what's good for national security — I would certainly intervene if I thought it was necessary," Trump told Reuters in an interview.
The suggestion that Meng could be a political pawn makes the situation more awkward for Canada. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau bristled at Trump's assertion, saying: "Regardless of what goes on in other countries, Canada is, and will always remain, a country of the rule of law."
Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said it was "quite obvious" any foreign country requesting extradition should ensure "the process is not politicized." "Trump's remarks could be interpreted as creating the appearance that the arrest also had political motivations," said Gregory Yaeger of the Stroock law firm, a former Justice Department attorney.
"This could undermine the U.S.'s reputation as a country that follows the 'rule of law,' and could ultimately undermine both the Meng prosecution and the trade talks." Earlier this year, Trump drew fire for intervening on behalf of Huawei's smaller Chinese rival, ZTE Corp., after the company was barred it from buying U.S. technology over exports to Iran and North Korea.
Trump restored access after ZTE agreed to pay a $1 billion fine, change its board and executives and install a team of U.S.-selected compliance managers. Also Thursday, Ministry of Commerce spokesman said Chinese and U.S. officials were in "close contact" over the trade dispute but gave no timeline for possible face-to-face talks.
Asked whether a Chinese delegation would go to Washington, spokesman Gao Feng said, "China welcomes the U.S. side to come to China for consultations, and also is open to communicating with the United States."
Gao said the two sides had reached a "common understanding" on agricultural products, energy and automobiles, which the two sides previously announced. He said additional details would be announced later.
Gillies reported from Toronto. Associated Press writer Paul Wiseman in Washington and video journalist Dake Kang in Beijing contributed.