Shortly before 6 p.m. on Monday, Kevin and Julia Garratt went out for dinner with friends. The Garratts live in Dandong, a Chinese city that peers out over North Korea, where they are the Canadian proprietors of a popular local coffee shop. Their friends wanted to ask about their home country, where their daughter is preparing to study.

The Garratts invited their son Peter to come, but he had other plans. So when they tucked in to the food, Kevin sent a teasing text.

“You should come. Amazing dinner,” he wrote.

“Take pictures for me. I can’t come becaus [sic] of guests,” Peter replied.

“Ya,” said Kevin, in a text sent at 6:18 p.m.

But the pictures never came.

Six hours later, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency sent out a short statement saying the couple are “under investigation for suspected theft of state secrets about China’s military and national defense research.”

Chinese authorities offered few details on what the couple stands accused of, but the seriousness of the allegations, which are rarely made against foreigners and can carry a penalty as serious as death, thrust a series of questions upon the couple. In addition to serving coffee, the pair’s children say they held church services in their home, frequently travelled to North Korea and made a hobby of photographing shipments of goods, some of them illicit, moving in to the Hermit Kingdom.

In a statement, the Canadian embassy in Beijing said it was “aware of reports that two Canadians have been detained in China,” but their whereabouts were unclear Tuesday, with neither answering repeated phone calls from their four children.

On Tuesday evening, Peter Garratt received a phone call asking him to come to the office of the State Security Bureau in Dandong for questioning. He was also asked to bring clothes and toiletries to his parents, suggesting they may be located there.

Like his siblings, Peter, 21, has had difficulty making sense of the accusations they face.

Shortly after hearing about the investigation, he met a friend for coffee. “We were laughing and just kind of like, ‘oh, we have to wait a couple of days until they get cleared,’” he said.

“Honestly, I have no clue where this came from, or why, or anything.”

Kevin, 54, is a Pentecostal pastor who grew up in Mississauga. Shortly after marrying Julia, now 53, the couple moved to China in 1984 to teach English. They lived in several southern cities – Hong Kong, Hainan, Beihai – and taught alongside a series of jobs, which included running a translation company, a kindergarten, and community centres. They came to Dandong in 2008, and opened Peter’s Coffee House, which they named after their son.

Its menu offered a taste of home, with coffee brewed from Brazilian beans, real A&W root beer, cheesecakes, spaghetti and quesadillas. Its location on the eastern shore of Yalu River offered a vantage point on North Korea, which is plainly visible from the front windows. The cafe is a short walk from the Friendship Bridge that serves as a key supply conduit to Pyongyang, as well as a thoroughfare for tourists crossing over on day trips.

The Garratts profited from the location, both because it brought in customers and because it allowed Kevin to indulge a curiosity with the sometimes-illicit flow of goods moving into North Korea. An avid photographer, he made a hobby of documenting some of it. “There’s all these restrictions on North Korea, but oftentimes you see a lot of restricted stuff going in, like luxury cars,” Peter said. Once, Kevin sent pictures of a U.S. rice delivery to a Yahoo news site.

“He just likes taking pictures, and sometimes it’s just funny – like, ‘oh this [item] is blocked, but China is giving it anyways,’ ” Peter said. “But it’s nothing to do with the military.”

The coffee shop also offered the Garratts a place to foster community, and enabled them to share their religious faith. “They are not spreading the gospel, but if people have questions, they are open to talk,” Peter said.

They held a weekly Sunday church service at their home, and kept a Bible on a rack of novels and other literature inside their coffee shop. Those books were missing on Tuesday, presumed confiscated by the authorities.

The couple came to Dandong out of a sense of Christian duty that extended beyond China. In a sermon delivered to a church in Surrey, B.C., in November, Kevin said he felt called by God to come to the Chinese border city. “We’re trying to reach North Korea with God, with Jesus, and practical assistance,” he told the Terra Nova church, according to an audio file heard by Agence France-Presse.

The couple worked with churches, many of them in Canada, to raise money to send supplies in to North Korea, including rice, corn and a machine that makes soy milk from soya beans. That machine was delivered to an orphanage, and in April the couple spent a week travelling around North Korea to ensure donated items had not been pilfered by government officials.

“If you go in there, it’s really a different world than here,” Peter said. “The living conditions and the kids and stuff – anybody who sees it will feel a pang for them.” Though Kevin spoke of a “training house” for North Koreans who could then return to their country “preach the gospel,” Peter said the couple did not directly spread Bibles or evangelize.

“They’re very careful,” he said. “They know the restrictions and they want to keep it very clear that they’re just trying to do humanitarian work.”

Frequent travellers through Dandong described the couple as missionaries, a title Peter said they would themselves hesitate to use.

“I would say they’re trying to help people.”

Christian missionaries face legal difficulties in China, which places heavy restrictions on evangelism. A Chinese “regulation on foreigner’s religious activity management” is prefaced with the statement: “foreigners are not allowed to do missionary work inside China.” The rule specifies a number of banned activities, including “to develop religious followers among Chinese citizens.”

China has applied new pressure to religious groups in recent months, tearing down some churches, removing crosses from other church buildings and restricting the ability of publishers to print Christian books. That crackdown has also reached Dandong, where at least one Korean church has been recently ordered to submit the names and passport numbers of members. Chinese spouses of Korean nationals have been barred from attending, Peter said.

Still, the Garratt children were left wondering whether their parents’ beliefs could be at the root of their current troubles. The couple have never before been detained said Simeon Garratt, 27, who lives in Vancouver, though they’ve “been pretty open” about their Christianity through some three decades in the country.

“It doesn’t make sense that would be a reason for us to targeted, because it’s not something new.”

The Chinese allegations also make no reference to religion. On Tuesday, the country’s foreign ministry said the couple “are suspected of collecting and stealing intelligence materials related to Chinese military targets and important Chinese national defence scientific research programs, and engaging in activities that endanger China’s national security.”

What constitutes a “state secret” is extremely nebulous in China, legally defined only as “matters that are classified as state secrets by the national State Secrets Bureau” – effectively leaving interpretation up to the authorities.

In Canada, observers expressed shock over the Chinese investigation of the couple.

“It’s completely unprecedented. We haven’t had this sort of thing,” said Charles Burton, a Brock University professor who served as a diplomat at Canada’s embassy in Beijing in the early 2000s.

He pointed out that the arrests occurred less than a week after Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his top officials – for the first time – publicly implicated China in alleged acts of cyber-espionage.

But even after the U.S. made much more serious spying allegations, going so far as to indict officers of the People’s Liberation Army, “China has not responded with arrests,” said Adam Segal, director of the program on digital and cyberspace policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was skeptical that the investigation into the Garratts could be retaliation against the Canadian allegations.

“Targeting two coffee shop owners would seem to be disproportionate. I wonder if it’s not just coincidence.”

James Lewis, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, offered a wholly different take: “It’s retaliation,” he said. The Chinese government “can be like the Mafia, in that it will try to coerce and intimidate.” He suggested Canada respond by threatening to “publish a list of [Communist] Party members who won property in Vancouver” if the Garratts are not released.

The uncertainty on what the couple stands accused of added to the worry for their children.

“The scary part is the Chinese government pretty much has the ability to make up and say whatever they want,” said Simeon Garratt.

DANDONG, CHINA — The Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, Aug. 05 2014, 7:54 AM EDT
Last updated Tuesday, Aug. 05 2014, 8:15 AM EDT