BEIJING - The son of a Canadian couple under investigation for alleged spying in China called on Wednesday for Ottawa to help prevent charges being laid against his parents.
Kevin Garratt and Julia Dawn Garratt "are suspected of gathering and stealing intelligence materials about, among other things, China's military objectives and important national defence research projects", China's foreign ministry said in a faxed statement on Wednesday. Such activities "harm China's security", it added.
The Christian couple run a coffee shop in the north-eastern Chinese city of Dandong, on the border with North Korea.
"I really hope the Canadian government puts some resources into it and really tries to resolve it quickly," their son Simeon Garratt told AFP by phone from Vancouver, where he lives. "Because I think the longer it goes on it's exponentially worse for my parents."
The cafe, Peter's Coffee House, overlooks the Yalu river and the Friendship Bridge linking China and North Korea, and the "T" in its name is in the shape of a crucifix, with a backdrop resembling a stained-glass window.
The couple have been active in helping send humanitarian aid to impoverished North Korea, their son said, describing them as "openly Christian".
In an audio file posted last year on the website of the Terra Nova church in Surrey, British Columbia, Kevin Garratt told the congregation that they have supported North Korean Christians who return to their country "to preach the gospel". The file was no longer available on Wednesday.
The Dandong region is a sensitive military area for China, and the border crossing is a key trade lifeline for nuclear-armed, diplomatically isolated North Korea.
China's definition of state secrets can be very broad and North Korea is deeply suspicious of Christian proselytising activities, punishing them harshly.
Garratt said that his brother Peter, who studies in China, was called in by authorities in Dandong and told his parents were being held at an undisclosed location.
The Canadian embassy in Beijing has said it is "monitoring developments closely".
The Garratts' case was front-page news on Wednesday in the Chinese-language edition of the Global Times tabloid, which has close ties to the ruling Communist Party. "Canadian 'husband-wife spies' cause speculation," read the headline, with a sub-heading reading that they had "frequent contact with Western reporters".
The paper's English-language edition said in an editorial that the probe may counter "an impression that China is a country engaging in rampant espionage activities compared to other countries".
"China has sufficient evidence to prove that foreign intelligence agencies engage in a large amount of espionage activities in China," it said.