China Detains Canadian Coffee Shop Owners for 'Spying'

China is investigating a Canadian couple on suspicion of stealing state secrets, one week after Canada accused Beijing of cyber hacking.

The Xinhua news agency says Kevin and Julia Dawn Garratt are "under investigation for suspected theft of state secrets about China's military and national defense research."

A statement from China's Foreign Ministry said the couple were also suspected of "engaging in activities that endanger China's national security." Neither statement elaborated on the charges.

The Garratts operated a Western-style coffee shop in Dandong, a Chinese city that borders North Korea and that is believed to host a Chinese military base.

A boy looks up as he walks past the closed coffee shop owned by Canadian couple Kevin and Julia Dawn Garratt in Dandong, Liaoning province on Aug. 5, 2014. /AP A boy looks up as he walks past the closed coffee shop owned by Canadian couple Kevin and Julia Dawn Garratt in Dandong, Liaoning province on Aug. 5, 2014. /AP

The French news agency, AFP, reported the couple are Christian activists who told a Canadian church last year that they were "trying to reach North Korea with God, with Jesus and practical assistance."

Christian missionaries frequently use Dandong as a waypoint when secretly crossing the border into North Korea or helping North Koreans who sneak out of their country.

North Korea views missionaries as spies and frequently detains or deports them. It is unclear whether Beijing is also preparing to do the same. In China, stealing state secrets is punishable with the death penalty.

The Garratts' son, Simeon, who lives in Canada, told news outlets that he believes Chinese authorities have made up the charges, though he does not know why this would be the case.

The Canadian Embassy said it is aware of the reports, is looking into the matter, and stands ready to assist if possible.

The accusations come just a week after Canada said a "Chinese state-sponsored actor" hacked into the website of the National Research Council, the country's top research and development organization.

China's government angrily dismissed the charges as "groundless."

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters

VOA News / Aug. 06, 2014 08:09 KST