Kevin and Julia Dawn Garratt, the Canadian couple accused of stealing Chinese military and intelligence information, may be caught up in a political fight between China and Canada, one of their sons told CBC News Network.
Simeon Garratt, who grew up in China but now lives in Vancouver, said it appears the investigation into his parents has little to do with them.
"It just seems like my parents are caught up in sort of a political mess and it’s not actually anything to do with them. It just happens to be that they’re Canadians and fit the type of people that needed to be made an example of," Garratt said in an interview on Tuesday.
"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 ... from what I can tell, the actual accusations have nothing to do with my parents, it’s just that they happen to be Canadian in a place of vulnerability."
Canadian officials last week alleged the Chinese government was behind a "highly sophisticated" cyber attack on the National Research Council.
Garratt said he had just spoken with Canadian foreign affairs officials, who were still trying to arrange to speak to his parents. He said he's "pretty worried" and that the allegations aren't to be taken lightly.
Son to be questioned
Chinese authorities have requested that Peter Garratt, one of Kevin and Julia Dawn Garratt's sons, come in for questioning. He lives in Dandong, China, with his parents.
Peter said in an email to CBC News that he received a call from the State Security Bureau in Dandong asking him to come in.
"They also asked me to pick up some clothes and toiletries for them, so I assume they are at the bureau," he wrote.
Simeon Garratt said his brother has been assigned a minder who's checking in on him.
The Garratts were identified as suspects by the official Xinhua news agency in a brief report on Monday. Xinhua said the State Security Bureau of Dandong, a city in northeast Liaoning province, was investigating the case, adding it involved the stealing of state secrets.
China's Foreign Ministry said the Canadian Embassy in Beijing was notified on Monday and that the couple's "various rights have been fully guaranteed."
"Kevin Garratt and his wife ... are suspected of collecting and stealing intelligence materials related to Chinese military targets and important Chinese national defence scientific research programs, and engaging in activities that endanger China's national security," the Foreign Ministry said in a short statement.
'It sounds ridiculous'
In an earlier, on-air interview with CBC News Network, Peter Garratt said he had last heard from his parents more than 24 hours earlier, when they texted him about going out for dinner. He said the accusations against his parents are the first problem they've had during their decades in the country, where they moved in the mid-1980s to teach English. They now own a coffee shop in Dandong, a city near the border with North Korea.
"It sounds ridiculous," Peter Garratt said. "Military secrets? It sounds like something out of a movie or something. Those are the accusations, but I have no idea where they are coming from or how it even came about.”
Peter said he has spent most of his life in China and when he heard the news Tuesday, he thought it was a joke.
"I know that I’m being watched because my phone isn’t working properly, my email, everything’s been acting up weird, even my Skype, but I have nothing to hide, so I’m not worried about anything," he said.
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.
'I didn't think it was real'
In a separate interview Tuesday, Simeon Garratt told CBC News that he only learned of the investigation after receiving messages from friends on various social media networks expressing concern and links to local media reports. Believing at first the messages were spam, he called his brother Peter, who confirmed he had not heard from his parents for some time.
Beijing sensitive about North Korea
Dandong is a waystation for North Korean refugees escaping their homeland and also a magnet for foreign reporters seeking information on one of the most isolated countries in the world. The city is also home to an air force base, according to Chinese military blogs.
Beijing is very sensitive about its relationship with North Korea, which has been hit with sanctions by the United Nations several times over its banned nuclear and missile programs and whose ruined economy is kept afloat with Chinese aid.
The website of the Garratts' coffee shop says the cafe is only metres from the Friendship Bridge that spans the Yalu River, calling the venue the "perfect stop off while enroute to or returning from the Hermit Kingdom". - Reuters
"I didn't know how to react, to be honest. I didn't think it was real," he said.
Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs said Monday it is trying get more information. The department said consular officials are ready to provide assistance.
In an updated statement Tuesday morning, the department confirmed its officials are working on the case.
"Canadian consular officials are providing assistance to two Canadian citizens who have been placed under investigation in China. We are in contact with local authorities and are monitoring developments closely," a spokeswoman wrote in an emailed statement.
"To protect the private and personal information of the individuals concerned, further details on this case cannot be released."
The family has yet to receive any word on whether formal charges will be laid, but Simeon Garratt called 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."
Uneven relationship between Canada, China
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.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government has had an uneven relationship with Beijing since taking power in 2006.
Citing human rights concerns, Harper initially kept his distance from China. Under pressure from business in Canada, he sought to reach out to Beijing.
China is Canada's second most important trading partner after the United States, and bilateral trade is growing. Total
Canada-China trade was $69.8 billion in 2012 and $72.9 billion in 2013, according to official Canadian data.
In July, Chinese prosecutors charged British corporate investigator Peter Humphrey and his American wife Yu Yingzeng
for illegally obtaining private information. The couple was detained last year following work the two did for the British
drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline Plc (GSK), and their trial is set to start Friday in Shanghai.