Chinese court jails Canadian for 11 years on spying charges

A court in China has found Canadian businessman Michael Spavor guilty of spying, sentencing him to 11 years in prison, in a decision likely to further undermine already poor relations between China and Canada.

Spavor, who for years ran a travel and cultural exchange business between China and North Korea, “was convicted of espionage and illegally providing state secrets”, Dandong city’s Intermediate People’s Court said in a statement on Wednesday.

Spavor and Kovrig have been held virtually incommunicado since they were first detained two-and-a-half years ago. Limited consular visits were stopped because of the coronavirus and only resumed last October, and neither man has been able to see lawyers or their family. Meng, meanwhile, was granted bail and is living in one of her Vancouver mansions while her case goes through the courts.

Or... Guardian:

On Wednesday, the court in Dandong announced Spavor had been found guilty of spying and illegally providing state secrets to other countries. He was sentenced to 11 years in jail, confiscation of personal property, and fined 50,000 yuan ($7,715), according to a statement by the Liaoning Dandong intermediate people’s court.

Also, from an earlier Reuters article:

China has a conviction rate of well over 99%, and public and media access to trials in sensitive cases is typically limited.

In a statement, Spavor's family said the charges against him are vague and have not been made public, and that he has had "very limited access and interaction with his retained Chinese defense counsel."

It is not very difficult to find people accused of spying for China over the years. Their sentencing usually details, if not the secrets they stole, at least the circumstances of their spying.

A quick sample from Wikipedia:

Walter Liew In July 2014, Walter Lian-Heen Liew (aka Liu Yuanxuan) was sentenced to serve 15 years in prison for violations of the Economic Espionage Act, tax evasion, bankruptcy fraud, and obstruction of justice. Liew was convicted in March 2014 on each of the twenty counts charged. His company was found by the jury to steal trade secrets from E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company to state-owned companies of China, Pangang Group companies

Jerry Chun Shing Lee In January 2018, the F.B.I. arrested former C.I.A. officer Jerry Chun Shing Lee, charging him with unlawful possession of defense information. He may have compromised the identities of numerous CIA spies in China

Bo Jiang

Bo Jiang, a researcher working on "source code for high technology imaging" at NASA's Langley Research Center, was arrested for lying to a federal officer on March 16, 2013, at Washington Dulles International Airport before returning to China. Jiang allegedly told the FBI that he was carrying fewer computer storage devices than he was. He was accused of espionage by Representative Frank Wolf, and was investigated for possible violations of the Arms Export Control Act.[60] An affidavit said that Jiang had previously brought a NASA laptop with sensitive information to China.

The key point here is that these people had access to secret material and what they were alleged to have done has been made public.

How did Spavor manage to access anything in the way of Chinese state secrets while running a travel agency? The closest I saw to actual charges were that Spavor passed on state secrets to Kovrig, the other Canadian arrested on unspecified spying charges.

In March China’s state media tabloid, the Global Times, said Spavor – who lived near the North Korean border and arranged cultural exchanges – was accused of supplying intelligence to Kovrig, a former diplomat turned analyst for the International Crisis Group.

Will Kovrig now be convicted of getting state secrets from Spavor, thus neatly completing the circle of evidence?

  • I've not seen evidence regarding Spavor, but he wasn't just arranging trips to the beach. As a travel agent dealing with North Korea he probably has awareness of contacts between China and North Korea which may be highly sensitive, of Chinese procedures regarding North Korea (information on border control procedures would be sensitive as well as potentially useful to smugglers), or information regarding North Korea which may be embarrassing to the Chinese (e.g. seeing lots of Chinese trucks in Pyongyang or sanction-busting activity).
    – Stuart F
    Aug 12, 2021 at 12:42
  • IIRC the trial was closed-doors, so I don't expect a factual answer anytime soon. Do note however that besides the travel agency "Spavor is a founding member of the Paektu Cultural Exchange, an organisation which facilitates international business and cultural ties with North Korea." (source: BBC) Which is wee bit unusual for a Westerner to do. Aug 12, 2021 at 15:30
  • FWTW, Spavor was also pictured with Kim Jong Un france24.com/en/live-news/… I'm just saying he's not exactly an "average Joe". Since he was running in "high circles" in the region and laws against passing info to foreigners are quite draconian in China, it's not inconceivable he fell foul of some of those, intentionally, or not. Aug 12, 2021 at 15:41
  • Frankly, I'm more surprised in this case that we didn't have any concession on TV, which China is quite capable of extracting. That to me suggest that either the whole thing is made of thin air, or there are some embarrassing aspects to the matter on the Chinese side they'd rather not make public in this case. Aug 12, 2021 at 15:48
  • @StuartF Yes, he is running a special travel agency and is close to Kim too. However, the border security hypothesis seems iffy wrt China. Yes, it would be standard ops for the Russian border to be assessed for US penetration from say Finland. But what moronic Canadian govt would try to infiltrate China from North Korea??? Hypothetical sanction busting by China? He'd have met an "accident", that's way too sensitive to just imprison him. Plus, he's a NK sympathizer, he'd be the last person to rock that boat. Aug 12, 2021 at 16:06

2 Answers 2


China has vague laws and crimes to punish people whose actions are technically not against the state constitution, for example : the "provoking quarrel and stirring up trouble" crime. This crime is usually used on people who are defending their constitutional right against unjustified government intrusion. This time, the law being used is called "unlawfully supplying information to foreign nation" and "illegally providing state secret" The source is this government webpage http://ddzy.chinacourt.gov.cn/article/detail/2021/08/id/6200660.shtml

However, this time, the Chinese government used this practice as a way to secure a counter-hostage. Spavor and Kovrig is the counter-hostage to Meng Wanzhou. From China's presepective, Meng's case is just like how US deal against countries and companies that are trying to overtake them in the past--e.g. Japan (there are different schools of thought as to what caused the "Lost Decade" in Japan, but to the Chinese, it is all because America's afraid of the rise of Japan). So they consider Meng a hostage of US and, by-extension, Canada.

So if one day Canada just said "Oh, there is no reason to extradite Meng to America, and she is to be released.", Spavor and Kovrig's "crimes" are going to be erased and quietly sent aboard a plane bound for Vancouver. Or most likely their punishment is going to be changed from imprisonment to expel from China.

  • If you know exactly under what law the two were charged for, you shall state so. The rest of the answer is just speculation.
    – r13
    Aug 17, 2021 at 18:56
  • Oh, I agree with all you say, but none of this answers the question, which is asking which specific spying activity (not unrest and mischief) Spavor got charged with. What is the "pretext", if you wish. The real reason, everybody knows. Aug 17, 2021 at 19:03
  • 1
    I edited to included the name of the charge as said on the LiaoNing DanDong intermediate people's court. (I translated the name of the charges)
    – Faito Dayo
    Aug 17, 2021 at 19:07
  • Thanks for finding an actual Chinese source, upvoted. But the article basically says "Spavor's in trouble because spying is a very bad thing. Many nations feel that way. And closed courts are standard in state security cases". It does not detail what the spying charges were, leaving things as unclear as before. Aug 18, 2021 at 16:41
  • 4
    See? bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-58687071. They are hostages and just as I said, they are immediately released when Meng is allowed to go back to China
    – Faito Dayo
    Sep 25, 2021 at 2:05

Some details were mentioned in Chinese state media after he was flown to Canada:

Spavor was found to have taken photos and video of Chinese military equipment on multiple occasions and illegally provided some of those photos to people outside China, which have been identified as second-tier state secrets, a source close to the matter told the Global Times on September 1.

It's obviously still rather vague...

And it's actually not that much new that was said; it had been previously reported (on Aug 13) in the Washington Post that:

According to Ottawa’s ambassador to China, Mr. Spavor is accused of taking photos at airports that included military aircraft. Mr. Spavor is alleged to have been an intelligence contact of Mr. Kovrig, a Canadian diplomat on leave to do work for International Crisis Group, a respected research outfit. No evidence has been publicly presented against them; their trials were closed to diplomats and journalists.

Global Times actually ran a longer "exclusive" on Spavor on Sep 1. This also mentions that the cases of Kovrig and Spavor were linked, according to the Chinese, in the same sense as described above, but otherwise there isn't anything else new there.

Like other in other (former) communist countries, China apparently has extensive restrictions on what may [not] be photographed; there's a Wired story from 2016 on how they blur images of power stations etc. Interestingly, there's a travel guide to China that specifically mentions to avoid taking photos at airports.

In any case, as noted in an older article

In criminal cases, the court is bound by state secrets determinations done by the National Administration for the Protection of State Secrets (State Secrecy Bureau) or its local counterpart.

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