Chinese media reported yesterday that two married Canadian nationals are being investigated by authorities for stealing state secrets, an allegation that their son called "absurd" early Tuesday.
The suspects are identified as Kevin and Julia Dawn Garratt, who own a coffee shop in the city of Dandong. The city sits along the Yalu River, which forms part of the border between China and North Korea. The couple have lived in China since the mid-1980s, owning multiple businesses and working different jobs throughout the country during that period.
The allegations against the Garratts relate to China's military and defence research, but the reports gave no other details.
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 with life in prison or the death penalty.
In an interview with CBC News early Tuesday morning, Simeon Garratt, one of the couple's sons who was raised in China and currently lives in Vancouver, said no one has heard from his parents since about 6:30 p.m. local time Sunday.
Allegations are 'absolutely absurd'
Simeon only learned of the investigation after receiving messages from friends on various social media networks expressing concern and links to local media reports, he said. Believing at first the messages were spam, he called his brother currently living in Dandong, who confirmed he had not heard from his parents for some time.
"I didn't know how to react, to be honest. I didn't think it was real," he said.
Simeon told CBC News he has spoken with the Canadian Embassy in Beijing and with representatives at the foreign affairs department in Ottawa, who confirmed they knew of the reports but couldn't tell him "much more than I already knew."
The family has yet to receive any word on whether formal charges will be laid, but Simeon calls the news of the investigation concerning because Chinese authorities "don't need a reason to do what they want to do."
"The possibilities start running through your mind."
The suggestion that his parents may have been involved in the theft of state secrets is "absolutely absurd," he continued.
"I think a lot of this has been blown out of proportion."
Foreign Affairs ready to help
The Foreign Affairs Department said Monday it is trying get more information. The department said consular officials are ready to provide assistance.
"We are aware of reports that two Canadians have been detained in China. We are gathering information and monitoring developments closely," the statement said. "To protect the private and personal information of the individuals concerned, further details on this case cannot be released."
Last week, Canada blamed Chinese hackers for infiltrating computers at the National Research Council of Canada, something the Chinese embassy in Ottawa denied.
A spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said the minister took up the matter with Chinese officials in Beijing during his visit to Asia.