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BEIJING — Two Canadian men detained in China since December have been formally arrested on espionage charges, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Thursday, in a move likely to ratchet up tensions between China and Canada that broke out with the arrest of a Chinese executive in Vancouver.
Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat who was detained while visiting Beijing, was charged with “gathering state secrets and intelligence for abroad,” while Michael Spavor, a business consultant who was detained in northeast China, was accused of “stealing and providing state secrets for abroad,” Lu Kang, a spokesman for the foreign ministry, said at a regularly scheduled news briefing.
The vague reference to unspecified overseas entities left open the question of whether the men were suspected of working for a government or for some other organization.
The charges are likely to anger the government of Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, who condemned the initial detentions of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor as “arbitrary” and politically motivated. Supporters of the two men and foreign legal experts have said that their detentions appeared to be retaliation for the arrest in Canada of Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Huawei, China’s biggest telecommunications company, at the behest of the United States.
The United States has pressured allies not to use Huawei’s technology, arguing that China could use it to spy on other countries. Those efforts intensified on Wednesday, when President Trump moved to ban American telecommunications firms from installing foreign-made equipment that could pose risks to national security. The measure seemed aimed at blocking sales by Huawei, though it did not explicitly single out any nation or company.
Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor were seized by the police in December, days after Ms. Meng was arrested while changing planes in Vancouver. The Chinese government was incensed by Ms. Meng’s arrest, and the charging of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor makes it more likely that they will face trial and conviction, deepening the standoff with Mr. Trudeau’s administration.
Mr. Lu did not provide further details and said only that the arrests were made recently.
“Everything in China is done in accordance with law,” Mr. Lu said. Responding to a reporter’s question about Canadian officials’ criticism of how China handled the cases, he said: “We hope Canada will not interfere with or comment casually on China’s legal system and lawful practices.”
Before the latest announcement, Chinese officials had already signaled that Mr. Kovrig and Spavor could be charged with espionage offenses.
Mr. Kovrig worked for the United Nations and the Canadian foreign service before 2017, when he joined the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit organization that tries to defuse conflicts between states. He focused on Chinese foreign policy, Asian regional politics and North Korea, and he was often quoted in foreign news outlets and invited to meetings in China.
Mr. Spavor followed a less conventional path, using his knowledge of the Korean language to establish himself as a consultant for companies and people interested in North Korea, including Dennis Rodman, the former basketball star who has befriended the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un. Mr. Spavor was detained in Dandong, the Chinese city on the North Korean border where he was based.
In early March, a legal affairs committee within China’s ruling Communist Party said investigators believed that Mr. Kovrig had been “stealing and spying to obtain state secrets and intelligence,” and that Mr. Spavor had supplied him with information.
But China’s definition of state secrets can be sweeping and opaque, and the International Crisis Group has said Mr. Kovrig’s work for it was in no way nefarious.
Since they were detained, Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor have been held in secretive detention sites, without visits from lawyers and family members. Canadian diplomats have been allowed to visit them about once a month. Mr. Lu, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, did not respond to questions Thursday about where the two men were being held.
Human rights advocates on Thursday denounced the arrests of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor.
“Their cases show again how the Chinese criminal system violates the human rights of detainees,” said Patrick Poon, a researcher for Amnesty International in Hong Kong. He called on Chinese officials to release the men, absent “credible and concrete evidence” of crimes.
Meanwhile, Ms. Meng has been granted bail as she fights potential extradition to the United States to face criminal charges. Her lawyers have said that they would sue Canadian border services, the police and the federal government for violating her constitutional rights when she was detained for three hours in December before being arrested.
In January, American prosecutors released an indictment of Ms. Meng and Huawei, laying out what they said were efforts by the company to steal commercial secrets, obstruct a criminal inquiry and engage in bank fraud while trying to evade American sanctions on Iran. Huawei has denied that it broke the law, and the Chinese government has repeatedly said that the charges were politically driven.
The Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, said at a news conference in early March that the case against Huawei and Ms. Meng was “by no means a purely judicial case, but rather a deliberate political case” intended to bring down Huawei.
Mr. Trudeau and Canadian and United States officials have said that the case against Ms. Meng is a legal matter, not a political one. But President Trump veered from that position in December, when he suggested that he could intervene in the case if that helped to seal a trade agreement with China.