Chinese officials are reassuring the family of a Canadian couple detained over allegations they stole China's state secrets that they're being looked after, the couple's son says. 

Kevin and Julia Dawn Garratt are being held in an undisclosed location in Dandong, China, as they're investigated for stealing Chinese military and intelligence information. The pair own a coffee shop called Peter's Coffee House in Dandong, on the border between China and North Korea, and have lived in China for decades.

One of the Garratts' sons, Peter, said in an interview with CBC Radio's As It Happens, that Chinese officials spoke to him Tuesday but wouldn't let him see his parents. He lives with his parents in Dandong and said he hopes to be allowed to speak to them by phone on Wednesday but that the officials told him that he wouldn't be allowed to talk to them about the case.

"They told me my parents were all right and that they’re being looked after and they also told me to make sure that I look after myself and get a good sleep and eat and stuff like that," he said in an interview to air at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Garratt said he was also told not to speak to reporters, but he agreed to be interviewed because "I feel it’s better people know what’s going on."

China's state secrets law is notoriously broad, covering everything from industry data to the exact birth dates of state leaders. Information can also be labelled a state secret retroactively. In severe cases, the theft of state secrets is punishable by life in prison or the death penalty.

Questioned about couple's work

Complicating matters is the couple's religion: the Garratts are Christians and had a Bible on the bookshelf in the shop, leading to speculation they may be under persecution because of their religion.

"My parents are Christian, yes, and they don’t hide that, but they aren’t doing anything against the Chinese government or trying to proselytize or anything like that," Peter Garratt said. 

The Chinese officials asked him whether his parents had any other jobs aside from running the coffee shop. His father also works with an aid organization that provides help to orphanages and seniors homes in North Korea.

In an interview with CBC News Network, Simeon Garratt, ​another of the couple's sons who grew up in China but now lives in Vancouver, said it's possible his parents are caught up in a diplomatic dispute between Canada and China. Last week, Canadian officials alleged the Chinese government was behind a "highly sophisticated" cyber attack on the National Research Council. Simeon Garratt called it "a political mess" and said it's nothing to do with them.

"I think it’s just the relations between Canada and China right now are quite heated, especially over all the hacking accusations that have gone on over the last two weeks," he said.

Charles Burton, an associate professor at Brock University in St. Catharines who spent several years working at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing, said it seems clear the investigation into the couple comes in retaliation for Canada's denunciation of the Chinese government.

"I think that the Chinese government may have miscalculated the extent to which the Government of Canada, members of the cabinet and the public at large would feel about Canadian do-gooders who send food and oil and religious tracts into North Korea being subject to very, very serious charges of military espionage of which they may well be entirely innocent," he said in an interview on CBC News Network.

Best for Garratts to be returned to Canada

The best option, Burton said, is for China to deport the Garratts.

"The only solution that I can really see is if Chinese authorities think better of it and deport them back to Canada before the prime minister [Stephen Harper] goes to China in the fall," he said, warning that the Garratts could be tortured if they are imprisoned.

"The ideal solution would be a rapid repatriation. If the matter goes on too long, it will be very hard for us to get them out of the Chinese prison system," Burton said.

Michel Juneau-Katsuya, an expert in cybersecurity and Chinese hacking, said the Chinese may have felt they had to retaliate against the Canadian allegations.

"Because they are Christian they are a certain irritant. Because they are foreigners in an isolated area, they are a certain irritant. And because also we have accused the Chinese of spying on us, they are capable of sort of bullying us in the same perspective," Juneau-Katsuya said.

'My parents are innocent'

'Various rights of the couple have been fully guaranteed. We believe there is no need to over-interpret this case.'- Yang Yundong, spokesperson, Chinese Embassy

A spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Canada, Yang Yundong, said in a statement that "various rights of the couple have been fully guaranteed."

"We believe there is no need to over-interpret this case," the statement went on, adding that any further information would be released in a timely manner.

Yang said the State Security Bureau in Dandong investigated the couple on Monday, and that the case remains open for further investigation. He said the Canadian Embassy in China was notified by the Lioaning province's State Security Department the same day.

Peter Garratt said he's been in touch with Canadian consular officials by email, but that they and others who have tried to reach him by phone haven't been able to get through. He said he knows his communications are being monitored.

But he said he isn't worried about his safety or that of his parents.

"I know my parents are innocent, so I’m trusting the Chinese legal system will work. The only thing I would be worried about is if they fabricate evidence or something like that, but I think everything is going to be all right," he said.

Audio file of sermon deleted from website

The Garratts did little to hide their Christianity, according to people who frequented their café, which is among several Western- and Christian-run restaurants and cafés along the Chinese-North Korean border. Some offer free English lessons, and are staffed by locals or visiting Christians.

The Garratts' café advertises tours to North Korea on its website.

The porous border with North Korea near Dandong is crossed by hundreds of North Korean refugees every year escaping their homeland.

In an audio file dated November 2013 that has since been deleted but was, at one time, posted to the website of Terra Nova Church in B.C., Kevin Garratt can be heard addressing the local B.C. congregation of the South Korean-Canadian church, apparently describing North Koreans who make it China but choose to return to North Korea.

"All these people could have stayed in China, where it's easier, where they could eat three meals a day," he says in the recording.  

"But they chose to go back — every one of them. And 99 per cent of the people we meet go back to North Korea, because they have to preach the gospel in North Korea — they have to. Because God's compelled them to go."

The claims could not be independently verified, but they were likely to cause consternation in North Korea, where religion is banned and proselytizing is severely punished.

In China meanwhile, experts say, authorities can be suspicious of Christian groups but underground churches and foreign missionaries usually operate without too much harassment.

With files from Reuters