Factbox: Foreigners held in China on national security grounds

(Reuters) - China has arrested a Chinese-born Australian writer on suspicion of espionage, the Australian government said on Tuesday, as tension grows between Canberra and its largest trading partner.

FILE PHOTO - People hold signs calling for China to release Canadian detainees Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig during an extradition hearing for Huawei Technologies Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou at the B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, March 6, 2019. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson

China’s opaque legal system is controlled by the Communist Party, and those charged are almost always found guilty.

The government routinely denies repeated complaints by rights groups about mistreatment of detainees, especially in sensitive cases.

Cases involving state secrets or national security are often treated more harshly than other criminal cases, with the death penalty handed down in serious instances, although China only rarely executes foreigners.

Diplomats say ethnic Chinese holding foreign passports are routinely treated more harshly than non-ethnic Chinese foreign nationals charged with crimes. China says all are equal before the law and denounces criticism of its legal system.

Here are some other cases of foreigners detained in China on national security charges:


Late last year, China detained two Canadian citizens, former diplomat Michael Kovrig, and Michael Spavor, a businessman who worked with North Korea, and in May of this year formally arrested them on state secrets charges.

Where they are being held remains unclear. Sources familiar with Kovrig’s case have said at least initially he was questioned daily without access to a lawyer and confined to a single room.

It is also unclear if, or when, both could face trial.


In 2016, China detained Swedish national Peter Dahlin, who was working for a group supporting public interest lawyers, academics and others to promote the rule of law, on suspicion of acts detrimental to national security.

He was deported after appearing on state television confessing to his crimes. The confession was forced, Dahlin said after leaving China.


In 2015, American businesswoman Sandy Phan-Gillis was arrested in mainland China and held without charge for almost two years before being sentenced to 3-1/2 years in jail for espionage.

Phan-Gillis, a naturalized U.S. citizen who had Chinese ancestry, pleaded guilty to the charges, which involved state secrets, according to her lawyer. She was deported to the United States soon after the sentencing in April 2017.


Kevin Garratt and his wife, Julia, were detained in August 2014 near China’s border with North Korea. He was charged with spying and stealing state secrets.

Julia, who was not charged, was released on bail and left the country. Kevin was freed in 2016 and returned to Canada.


Several unidentified Japanese citizens have been detained over the past decade on suspicion of espionage, in cases that played out against a backdrop of spiking territorial clashes.

In 2017, six Japanese citizens were held for ‘illegal activities’ after Japanese media said they might have been arrested on spying charges. Four were later released.

Three unidentified Japanese citizens were arrested in 2015 over spying accusations. In 2010, four were temporarily detained on suspicion of entering military zones to take photographs.

Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Cate Cadell; Editing by Clarence Fernandez