An apparent crack-down on Christian businesses and NGOs on the China-North Korean border has ensnared two Canadians and one American. China announced Tuesday that a Canadian couple, Kevin and Julia Dawn Garratt, had been placed under investigation. Reuters reported today that Peter Hahn, a Korean-American, has been under interrogation for the last three weeks.
According to the brief announcement in Xinhua, the Garratts are “under investigation for suspected theft of state secrets about China’s military and national defense research.” The couple owned a coffee shop in Dandong China, and Kevin Garratt was also involved with an aid organization active in North Korea, according to his son Peter. Hahn was also involved in aid projects with North Korea, leading some observers to draw a link between the two cases. Further complicating matters, both the Garratts and Hahn were Christians. Reuters, citing sources in the border region, said that their cases “appeared to be part of a wider sweep of Christian-run NGOs and businesses along the Chinese side of the border with North Korea.”
Some have also speculated that the detention of the Garratts is retaliation for Canadian accusations that China hacked into the National Research Council. However, the additional report from Reuters that an American living in the same region is also being detained shifted the focus from the Garratts’ nationality to their religion.
The Garratts’ son Peter told CBC in an interview that, while his parents were openly Christian, “they aren’t doing anything against the Chinese government or trying to proselytize or anything like that.” Another son, Simeon, told South China Morning Post that the couple had hosted regular religious gatherings at their coffee shop. As for Hahn, David Etter, who used to operate a restaurant in the city where Hahn worked, told Reuters that he was “very open about his faith.” Speaking about the investigation into Hahn, Etter said “I think it’s … related to this faith and the work he was doing.”
Some have pointed to the recent demolition of churches in Zhejiang province as a sign that China is cracking down on Christianity. South China Morning Post also reports that China’s government is seeking to tighten its control over the religion by constructing a “Chinese Christian theology” that “adapt[s] to China’s national condition.” Beijing frowns upon religious gatherings that take place outside of the state-sanctioned and controlled churches, such as those reportedly hosted by the Garratts. Meanwhile, North Korea also has a harsh policy against proselytizing — American Kenneth Bae, sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, may have been arrested in part due to his open Christian faith.
A statement from China’s embassy in Canada tried to quash the speculation, saying that “there is no need to over-interpret” the investigation into the Garratts. There has been no official acknowledgement, either from China or from the U.S., that Hahn is under investigation.