Chinese Media on Trilateral Espionage Tangle in Dandong

By | September 03, 2014 | No Comments

At the Dandong railroad station, gateway to North Korea | Image: Matthew Bates

At Dandong’s main railroad station, the gateway to North Korea. | Image: Matthew Bates

The recent arrest of two Canadians who owned a coffee shop in Dandong harbors some fairly obvious importance for anyone who follows the neighboring state of North Korea. But is North Korea what this case is really about, or is the country essentially a bystander and accessory to a much larger clash between China and Canada? As the case unfolds and more facts are exposed, a quick reading of Chinese media coverage of the case appears to lean toward the latter interpretation.

A fair amount of evidence has already been presented that the couple, Kevin Garratt and Julia Dawn Garratt, had interests in promoting Christianity and change in North Korea. It also seems self-evident that using a position in the border region to engage in “reaching North Korea with God, change, and practical assistance,” as the Garrett family pledged to do in November 2013, is not something the Chinese Communist Party would look kindly upon and which had the potential for stimulating some bilateral cross-border security cooperation.

As to the question of the North Korean angle on this story, it bears noting how it is being covered in China A Huanqiu Shibao story of 6 August included the following excerpt:

On August 5, an AFP report brought a new speculation, which was that Garrett had another identity — that of a Christian. The report indicated that last November, in a speech, Garrett had said “God said, ‘Go to North Korea, I can meet you there; go to open a coffee shop.’ We supplied the best coffee in the (Sino-Korean) border region, and we could also do other things. We have contact with North Korea as much as possible, and together with God, and together with Jesus, provide them with aid.” [主说,去朝鲜吧,我会在那里与你相见,去开一家咖啡馆。我们提供了(中朝)边界地区最好的咖啡,我们也做了其他一些事情。我们尽量接触朝鲜,与上帝一起,与耶稣一起,并为此提供援助.]

Comparing the English original of Garratt’s remarks, one finds that the PRC media took out the prayer meeting context of Garratt’s reception of the message from God, but the rest of it is a fairly accurate rendering of the original.

In conveying the contents of a Globe and Mail article, Huanqiu emphasizes Garratt’s welcoming of “many Western reporters who came to Dandong, who all went [to their coffee house] to hang out (坐坐).” There, they could look out of the window on the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge to see the situation, allowing for a more “subtle understanding of a very powerful and decisive aspect of the relations between China and North Korea” [对微妙的中朝关系有很强的判断力].

Rather than focusing on the DPRK angle, Chinese media coverage overwhelmingly favors an interpretation of the arrests as being about China’s broader conflicts with Canada. Charles Burton’s interpretation of events thus is persuasive; in the Toronto Globe and Mail Burton wrote, “The fact that the charges [of hacking PLA computers] are so blatantly false is part of the taunting message to our Prime Minister.”

And generally speaking, Huanqiu Shibao, the foreign affairs tabloid managed by the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, has put the Dandong espionage case directly into the framework of Sino-Canadian relations. Huanqiu’s main-page story on August 7 focused almost solely on how the case revealed disarray and impotence at the heart of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet.

However, the arrested couple’s missionary work with DPRK is not being ignored by Chinese media, which is particularly receptive right now to any message that reinforces the idea that any religious fundamentalism on the frontiers is to be watched, informed upon, and opposed. (See: Xinjiang.)

Another relatively extensive Huanqiu Shibao piece includes analysis from Wang Qiang, who states that foreign forces (including from Taiwan) have been able to move in under commercial fronts “due to economic growth happening too fast, with insufficient regulation,” and enjoins all Chinese people to be more vigilant of such enterprises.

The same article conveys an AFP analysis, but in characteristically Chinese way of talking about North Korea. The PRC’s decision to shut down the cafe was also possibly done “in order to remove trouble for a friendly neighbor” [为了帮好朋友除掉麻烦] (i.e., the DPRK) having problems with overzealous Christians.

There is some irony in the fact that after all the attention paid in China to the DPRK needing to improve its environment for foreign investment along the frontier, this arrest causes the Chinese side of the border turn to look less like an appropriate place in which certain foreigners should invest their monies and energies. In any event, this is one to keep your eyes on.

Sources: “Canadian ‘Husband and Wife Spy’ Case Elicits Foreign Media Speculation; Sino-Canadian Ties are Economically Hot and Politically Cold [加“夫妇间谍”引外媒猜测 中加关系经热政冷], Huanqiu Shibao, August 6, 2014. Translation by Adam Cathcart.

Li Xujiang, Liu Yang, and Guo Fang, “Canadian Spy Case Sounds an Alarm for China; Instances of Spy Activity Exceed 200” [加拿大间谍案为中国敲警钟 间谍行为超过200起], Huanqiu Shibao, August 7, 2014. Translation by Adam Cathcart.

Stephan Haggard,  “Detainees Continued: Canadians in Dandong,” Witness to Transformation (blog), August 6th, 2014