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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 Adviser, on 10 December 2018 in Beijing. The arrest and his continued detention are unjust, and as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said, arbitrary and unacceptable. The International Crisis Group calls on China to free Michael immediately.

A former Canadian diplomat who has worked full-time for us since early 2017, Michael has been denied almost all contact with the outside world since his arrest. We are deeply concerned for his health and well-being in detention.

Michael was held without formal charges for roughly eighteen months and continues to be incarcerated without a conviction. We do not understand repeated allegations that he has “endangered Chinese security”.  Michael’s work included meeting several dozen times with Chinese officials, academics and analysts from multiple Chinese state institutions. He had attended numerous conferences at the invitation of Chinese organisations. He frequently appeared on Chinese television and in other media to comment on regional issues.

Nothing Michael did 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 detention is all the more perplexing to Crisis Group since it came after a decade of good and productive engagement with the Chinese authorities.




Many governments voice concern

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the detentionarbitrary” and “not acceptable”. Trudeau later called Michael’s charges a “political decision”. The U.S. State Department called for Michael’s “immediate release”, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the charges “politically motivated and completely groundless”. Both houses of the U.S. Congress have passed resolutions calling for Michael’s release.

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”. The Netherlands said it was “concerned about the declared motive for the arrest”. In Brussels, the European Union (EU) spokesperson said “the arrest … raises concerns about legitimate research and business practices in China”. The EU raised Michael’s case during its 37th Human Rights Dialogue with China, while the EU Parliament called for his immediate release. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Denmark all expressed support for the EU position. Spain said it supports the Canadian government’s efforts to ensure Michael will receive fair and impartial treatment. European Council President Charles Michel has similarly called Michael’s detention “arbitrary”.

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”.

Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), called on Beijing to address Canada’s concerns. He said “NATO is founded on some core values - democracy, individual liberty and rule of law. And that is also why we follow this case with such great concern.” Stoltenberg added “NATO expects that its citizens are treated fairly and with respect for due process.”

Michael’s role at Crisis Group

Michael Kovrig joined Crisis Group in February 2017. As Senior Adviser for North East Asia, he conducted research and provided 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.

Prior to his detention, Michael 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 was 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 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.

More than 220 statesmen, politicians, ex-diplomats, academics and directors of research centres from nineteen countries published a call in Canada’s Globe & Mail for China’s President Xi to free Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, a Canadian also detained in early December. The letter is open for signature in English and Chinese here, and says in part:

“Many of us know Michael Kovrig through his work as a diplomat in Beijing and as the senior expert for Northeast Asia at the International Crisis Group, an organization whose mission is to “build a more peaceful world.” In both roles, Mr. Kovrig regularly and openly met with Chinese officials, researchers and scholars to better understand China’s positions on a range of important international issues...

“These meetings and exchanges are the foundation of serious research and diplomacy around the world, including for Chinese scholars and diplomats. However, Mr. Kovrig’s and Mr. Spavor’s detentions send a message that this kind of constructive work is unwelcome and even risky in China. We who share Mr. Kovrig’s and Mr. Spavor’s enthusiasm for building genuine, productive and lasting relationships must now be more cautious about travelling and working in China and engaging our Chinese counterparts. That will lead to less dialogue and greater distrust, and undermine efforts to manage disagreements and identify common ground. Both China and the rest of the world will be worse off as a result.”

Fifteen leaders of U.S. foreign policy think-tanks, independent advocacy organisations and academic research institutions have issued a joint statement on 10 March calling for Kovrig's immediate release. “We are particularly concerned by the detention of one of our colleagues … Michael's arrest has a chilling effect on all those who are committed to advance constructive U.S.-China relations”, said the signatories of the statement.

Crisis Group’s President and CEO, Robert Malley, added: “We are extremely grateful and heartened by the support shown by the prominent signatories from the research community and by the fact that they have come together as one on this issue. Many members of that community wish to constructively engage with China. Michael's arbitrary detention can only scare them away".

Another open letter by 60 Australian scholars and analysts asked “the Australian Government without further delay to support Canada’s call for the immediate release of these two detainees… 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

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

Dispute with China tests Canada’s ties with U.S.”,  The Washington Post

US ups backing for Ottawa against China over detentions”, Financial Times

China’s offensive on Canada, in plain sight”, Maclean's, op-ed by Terry Glavin

U.S. senator says Canadians Kovrig, Spavor face 'harsh' treatment in China”, CTV News

Editorial: It’s Canada that needs to act on China”, The London Free Press, Editorial

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

China believes Canada's Huawei case is political. Trump does nothing but confirm it”, Washington Post, Editorial

Don’t Let China Take the World Hostage”, By Hal Brands, Bloomberg Opinion

China’s tit-for-tat detention of two Canadians is a test. The world will judge Beijing on its treatment of the men seized after Huawei CFO arrest”, The Financial Times, op-ed by Mark Malloch-Brown

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

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

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

China-based diplomats warn case of detained Canadians Kovrig and Spavor is ‘Sword of Damocles’ hanging over their heads”, South China Morning Post

U.S. think tank leaders urge China to release Canadian researcher, citing threat to ties”, The Washington Post

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

Trudeau, Freeland held 19 high-level international talks with allies on China dispute”, CBC News

Huawei CFO house arrest contrasts with Canadians detained in China”, Reuters

Let's get Canada fired up about the two Michaels”, The Province (Vancouver, Canada)

China wants Canada to shut up. That’s exactly why we shouldn’t”, The Globe and Mail

U.S. Congress motion calls on China to release two detained Canadians”, National Post (Canada)

Canada needs to do more to stand up to China”, The London Free Press

Canadians detained in China an 'absolute priority,' says new foreign minister”, CBC News

Australia must recognise unfortunate reality in China and issue travel warnings”, The Sydney Morning Herald

The end of the Trudeau government’s China delusion”, The Globe and Mail, Editorial

Crisis Group on Michael’s Jailing

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

Latest Updates

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What Will China Do if the U.S. Attacks North Korea?

During a speech at the United Nations General Assembly on 19 September 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump warned that if North Korea threatened the United States or its allies, he would “totally destroy” the nation. As tensions continue to rise between Washington and Pyongyang, is Beijing growing more or less likely to intervene in a conflict between the United States and North Korea? Senior Adviser for North East Asia Michael Kovrig shares his view with ChinaFile.

Originally published in ChinaFile