When the restaurant elevator doors opened onto a crowd of people, many holding video cameras, Kevin and Julia Garratt thought they had stumbled into a wedding party.
However, this was no celebration. In a flash, the Garratts were snatched by men and shoved into separate cars. They would not see each other for more than two years.
On the night of Aug. 4, 2014, the Garratts — Canadian Christian aid workers who lived in the northeastern Chinese city of Dandong — did not know they were in the hands of China’s feared Ministry of State Security. The men drove Julia Garratt, 55, to an office building and demanded that she sign a document stating that she agreed to be investigated.
“Investigated for what?” she asked.
It was only after a translator said the words “suspect” and “spy” that she understood. In another room, her husband was hearing the same chilling accusations.
Scared and bewildered, the Garratts signed.
“I seriously thought they would realize they’d made a mistake, they’d say sorry and we’d go home,” she said.
The Garratts gave their account of their arrest and detention in an interview on Dec. 12, nearly three months after finally being reunited in Canada.
The Garratts suspect they were unwitting pawns in a gambit by the Chinese government to prevent Canada from extraditing a Chinese spy to the US. The detention of the couple transfixed Canada and proved deeply damaging to the nation’s relations with China.
The couple’s account provides a rare glimpse into the workings of China’s opaque state security system. Their interrogations may also reveal clues about the vast reach of China’s global espionage network and the lengths to which the Chinese government will go to protect it. During the couple’s months-long detention, for example, they said they were frequently threatened with execution or told they would be sent to a North Korean gulag.
At a time of Ottawa’s warming relations with Beijing, the Garratts’ experience highlights the risks Canada and other nations face in engaging with China. Though they are now back in Canada, the Garratts say they do not feel entirely safe, describing a series of unnerving incidents suggesting that the Chinese government may be trying to keep tabs on them and their relatives.
“Even now we live under a cloud,” said Kevin Garratt, 56.
Until their highly publicized detention, the Garratts’ only claim to fame was owning Dandong’s top-rated destination on TripAdvisor: Peter’s Coffee House. They lived in China on and off for 30 years, raising their four children there and moving the family from Vancouver to Dandong, a gritty city on the North Korean border in 2007. Kevin Garratt said he had wanted to address the suffering of those living across the border by providing aid to orphanages and a school for the disabled in North Korea.
Peter’s Coffee House, named for one of their sons, quickly became a hub for expatriates, local Chinese curious about the outside world — and state security agents suspicious of the Garratts and their customers, who included the occasional US and Canadian diplomat.
Julia Garratt taught international trade and management at a local university while her husband ran the cafe, organizing weekly “English Corner” language exchanges. In their spare time, the couple volunteered around Dandong, often taking Chinese orphans ice skating.