Days after security agents detained a former Canadian diplomat who now works for International Crisis Group, China’s foreign ministry says ICG is not a registered organization in the country.

Michael Kovrig was seized in Beijing on Monday night, not long after China threatened “serious consequences” for Canada if Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of technology giant Huawei, was not released from Canadian custody.

Mr. Kovrig, who has worked for ICG as an analyst since early last year, was detained “by the Beijing Bureau of Chinese State Security,” the group said in a statement. It “has received no information about Michael since his detention and is concerned for his health and safety.”

On Wednesday, however, China cited its controversial foreign NGO law in answer to questions about his detention, spreading worry among foreign entities about new dangers in China, even as the use of state security personnel in taking away Mr. Kovrig suggested a darker outlook for him personally.

“If ICG sends its staff to do activities in China, this action itself … has violated the law. Because this organization is not registered in China,” foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said.

He declined to answer questions on whether charges have been brought against Mr. Kovrig or whether China has granted Canada consular access to him. But the reference to the foreign NGO law raised alarm.

“A detention like this will have a serious chilling effect on foreign NGOs, because it does send a message that China can use the apparent violation of that law to detain people, and that’s a pretty serious consequence,” said Joshua Rosenzweig, an expert on Chinese law who is East Asia research director with Amnesty International.

The seizure of Mr. Kovrig has, however, been widely seen as retribution for the arrest in Canada of Ms. Meng, the Huawei executive who is wanted in the U.S. on fraud charges related to violation of economic sanctions against Iran. No charges have been proved against Ms. Meng, who the U.S. wants extradited.

“We don’t have a good sense really of why this was done. But it does seem to be in retaliation,” said William Zarit, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China and a Beijing-based senior counselor with The Cohen Group, a strategic advisory firm.

Canadian authorities have said they are following legal procedures in Ms. Meng’s case. She was granted bail on Tuesday, but Mr. Lu renewed demands that she be set free.

He did not answer questions on whether China acted out of retaliation against Mr. Kovrig, who lived in Hong Kong. Chinese law does not require registration of overseas NGOs without offices in China, but insists that if they conduct temporary work in China, they “submit documents for the record to this effect in accordance with the law” and co-operate with local partners.

The law says violators who have committed no crime are subject to maximum detention of 15 days, a punishment akin to overstaying a visa.

However, it lists a number of activities that constitute crimes, including illegally obtaining state secrets and “engaging in other acts that endanger national security or harm national or public interests.” (The new law includes strict requirements for Chinese police oversight; by March 31 of this year, only 354 overseas NGOs had registered.)

But the use of state security to detain Mr. Kovrig is an indication of more serious measures being taken against him, said Mr. Rosenzweig.

“It would seem to me there would have to be a criminal investigation under way,” he said. And that “has a number of pretty alarming consequences.” If Chinese authorities say they suspect Mr. Kovrig of a state security offence, they can detain him without charges or access to a lawyer for up to six months.

“That Chinese authorities see fit to detain people incommunicado and then refuse to provide information is a terrifying reality, though one that’s sadly long-standing,” said Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch.

Such detention practices create “a perfect environment for certainly mental, if not physical, torture and other ill treatment designed to get people to confess things they may not actually have done,” Mr. Rosenzweig said.

“I’m more worried about this kind of scenario than I am simply of the alleged violation of the foreign NGO management law.”

ICG had no immediate response to the accusations by the Chinese foreign ministry.

Mr. Kovrig, a Mandarin speaker who first came to China as a diplomat in 2014, is a well-regarded observer and analyst of security issues in northeastern Asia, with a particular interest in North Korea and China, including China’s rising global influence.

In an earlier statement, ICG said “Michael has distinguished himself for his rigorous and impartial reporting, regularly interviewing Chinese officials to accurately reflect their views in our work.”

The Globe and Mail, December 12, 2018