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Michael Kovrig

Senior Adviser, North East Asia

China, free Michael Kovrig

Chinese security officers detained Michael Kovrig, our North East Asia Advisor, on 10 December in Beijing. The arrest is unjust, and as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said, it is arbitrary and unacceptable. International Crisis Group calls on China to free Michael immediately.

A former Canadian diplomat who works full-time for us, Michael has not been allowed to see a lawyer or anyone in his family. He only has periodic consular visits. We are deeply concerned for his health and well-being in detention.

Michael has not been charged with any offense. We do not understand the unspecified allegations that he has “endangered Chinese security”.  Michael’s work has included meeting several dozen times over the past two years with Chinese officials, academics and analysts from multiple Chinese state institutions. He has attended numerous conferences at the invitation of Chinese organisations. He frequently appears on Chinese television and in other media to comment on regional issues.

Nothing Michael does has harmed China. On the contrary, Crisis Group’s work aims to defuse any tensions between China and nearby states, and to give a fresh, independent appraisal of China’s growing role in the world. Michael’s arrest is all the more perplexing to Crisis Group since it comes after a decade of good and productive engagement with the Chinese authorities.



Many governments voice concern

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the detention “arbitrary and not acceptable, while Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said her country is “deeply concerned”. The U.S. State Department called for Michael’s “immediate release”, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said “the unlawful detention … is unacceptable”.

Germany’s Federal Foreign Office spokesperson said Berlin is “very concerned that the [detention] may be politically motivated”, as did British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who added a call for Michael “to be treated in a fair, unbiased and transparent manner”. Netherlands said it was “concerned about the declared motive for the arrest”. In Brussels, the European Union spokesperson said “the arrest … raises concerns about legitimate research and business practices in China”. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania all expressed support for the EU position.

Marise Payne, the Foreign Minister of Australia, said she was “concerned about the recent detention” by China and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of France said “nous sommes préoccupés”.

Michael’s role at Crisis Group

Michael Kovrig joined Crisis Group in February 2017. As Senior Adviser for North East Asia he conducts research and provides analysis on foreign affairs and global security issues in North East Asia, particularly on China, Japan and the Korean peninsula.

Our focus is on Chinese foreign policy and understanding its regional and global role. All of our research is publicly available on our website.

Lately, Michael has contributed to our research on conflict prevention on the Korean peninsula, with a focus on Chinese ideas for de-escalating tensions between Washington and Pyongyang. He also contributed to our analysis of the conflict in South Sudan and the role played by China in mediation there.

Michael is a lead contributor to much of the work related to China that is available at our China website page.

Michael’s professional background

Michael Kovrig previously worked for more than a decade as a Canadian diplomat in Beijing, Hong Kong and at the UN in New York. Altogether he has worked in twenty countries, including for four years with the UN Development Program in New York and in Kabul, Afghanistan. He also served as a China analyst at Rhodium Group.

A Mandarin Chinese speaker, Michael has a master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University.

A chilling message to China researchers

Michael is widely known to the China expert community. As Ken Roth, President of Human Rights Watch, points out: “Michael Kovrig … is a respected @CrisisGroup analyst. An open letter by 59 Australian scholars and analysts asked “the Australian Government without further delay to support Canada’s call for the immediate release of these two detainees [another Canadian, Michael Spavor, is also being held] … in view of the risks this raises to Australian research and business activities”.

The directors of six Berlin-based policy institutions said in a joint statement that “developments such as these increase uncertainty and distrust among foreign scholars who regularly conduct research within China, as they fear for their safety. This will clearly undermine efforts to better understand developments in China and to further constructive relations between China and other countries”.

Editorials and opinion pieces about Michael’s arrest

The Chinese government needs friends – people who are a lot like the Canadians it has detained”, The Globe and Mail, op-ed by Frank Giustra

China’s Canadian Hostages”, The New York Times, Editorial

China is holding two Canadians as hostages. It’s not even denying it”, Washington Post, Editorial

The Guardian view on China and the US: unlucky Canada is taking the hit”, The Guardian, Editorial

China Doesn’t Have to Keep Playing the Victim”, Foreign Policy

China should worry less about old enemies, more about ex-friends”, The Economist

Think-tank employee detention unnerves foreign NGOs in China”, Reuters

‘No coincidence’: China’s detention of Canadian seen as retaliation for Huawei arrest”, The Wall Street Journal

Areas of Expertise

  • China
  • South China Sea
  • North East Asia Security
  • United Nations
  • Global Governance
  • Multilateral Diplomacy


  • English
  • French
  • Mandarin Chinese

In The News

23 Oct 2018
U.S.-China relations have deteriorated to their worst point since the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests in Beijing. Miami Herald

Michael Kovrig

Senior Adviser, North East Asia
2 Jul 2018
[Pyongyang is] trying to encourage China to lobby for the sanctions to be lifted and to provide financial help, trade and investment. China’s long-standing policy has been to encourage engagement and try to change North Korean behaviour through trade and development. So as long as North Korea refrains from provocations, we can expect this dialogue to continue. South China Morning Post

Michael Kovrig

Senior Adviser, North East Asia
13 Jun 2018
I think Kim wanted to win the hearts [of people] and draw some sympathy for himself and his regime, as part of an effort to weaken resolve to maintain sanctions and pressure. South China Morning Post

Michael Kovrig

Senior Adviser, North East Asia
25 May 2018
Kim is already trying to move closer to China, and further uncertainty about the U.S. will likely make him more willing to offer concessions to Beijing. If Kim refrains from further testing and demonstrates good behaviour, while blaming the U.S. for being unreasonable, he could encourage China, South Korea and Russia to lobby for loosening of sanctions, either formally, or through less rigorous implementation and enforcement. South China Morning Post

Michael Kovrig

Senior Adviser, North East Asia
26 Feb 2018
[China's leader Xi Jinping could build on a centralised party-state system]. Whether that is good for the world depends on whether [he] makes the right decisions. South China Morning Post

Michael Kovrig

Senior Adviser, North East Asia
23 Jan 2018
A deal whereby Pyongyang freezes its most sensitive tests and Washington freezes some military exercises could help de-escalate the crisis and buy time for diplomacy. South China Morning Post

Michael Kovrig

Senior Adviser, North East Asia

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