WASHINGTON – To Americans who watch China closely, the arrest of a coffee-shop-owning Canadian couple this week fits a familiar pattern.
They point to domestic Chinese politics to explain the openly Christian family’s arrest on espionage charges.
China’s new leaders have adopted a broad two-fold strategy for maintaining public support for the ruling party, they say: tighten discipline internally, and play the nationalist card against outside forces.
The detention of Kevin Garratt, 54, and Julia Dawn Garratt, 53, might serve both general objectives, they say. The case has received ample media attention in the United States and elsewhere in the world.
Robert Daly, the head of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, said it’s hard to imagine that actual spies would be operating in a highly conspicuous coffee shop on the main drag of a remote, politically sensitive, tightly monitored city along the North Korean border.
But their arrest sends tough political messages, Daly noted.
He placed it in the context of China’s raids on Microsoft and Daimler; corruption charges against the vanished leader Zhou Yongkang; the disappearance of television host Rui Chenggang; crackdowns on scholars, media, think tanks, and NGOs; and an ongoing campaign vilifying Western thought.
“The leaders that ordered the arrest knew that it would be another blow to China’s soft power,” said Daly, a former diplomat who heads the China institute out of Washington’s Wilson Center think-tank.
“That they went ahead with it indicates that they are playing not to world opinion but to a domestic audience. If this analysis is correct, the Communist Party’s goal is to demonstrate to the Chinese people that it is not cowed by the accusation that Chinese hackers attacked the Canadian National Research Council.”
The spat with Canada comes after a similar tit-for-tat with the United States.
When the U.S. announced criminal charges in May against five members of the Chinese military for corporate spying, Beijing called in the American ambassador, threatened retaliation, and accused the U.S. of hypocrisy given its own recently revealed penchant for widespread espionage.
The Chinese have brushed off the American distinction of spying for corporate gain, versus their spying for counter-terrorism purposes as revealed by the torrent of Edward Snowden leaks.
One academic who’s releasing a book on Chinese cyber-espionage says it’s also true that other countries spy on businesses.
In fact, said Jon Lindsay, the U.S.’s 1996 Economic Espionage Act was prompted by incidents involving staunch American allies — France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, and Israel. But in the nine foreign-espionage cases where the act has been applied, eight have a connection to Chinese companies.
Lindsay said a frequent object of Western suspicion is China’s State High-Tech Development Plan — better known as the “863 Program,” which has been linked to people involved in corporate espionage cases.
Might this program have been stealing material from Canada’s National Research Council, touching off the current dispute?
“There’s lots of pieces of the Chinese state that might be interested in cutting-edge science and technology from the West,” said Lindsay, a University of California academic who co-wrote and co-edited the upcoming book, “China and Cybersecurity: Espionage, Strategy, and Politics in the Digital Domain.”
“It’s reasonable to surmise that 863 might be involved, but there’s no proof.”
What is clear, he said, is that the Chinese leadership is increasingly intolerant of accusations from abroad.
Members of the ruling party are even believed to have crafted a strategy document that lists seven threats to their continued leadership and, according to a version that has leaked out publicly, most of the so-called “Seven Perils” refer to Western influence.
Lindsay said there’s now a crackdown on purported hostile foreign forces — not just political dissenters, but also religious minorities. He said the espionage accusations might serve as a handy pretext to rein in the Garratts.
In addition to operating their coffee shop, the Christian couple routinely provided humanitarian aid to orphanages and nursing homes in North Korea, and hosted Sunday services at their home.
“There is a real effort to crack down on discipline and try and buttress the party’s standing. There’s a fear that the increasing globalization and growth of China, coupled with a potential economic slowdown, could undermine the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party,” he said.
“So having hostile foreign forces, if you will, as a scapegoat to sort of distract attention from these issues while simultaneously buttressing discipline is a convenient way to make sure the regime maintains its hold on power.”