China says UK businessman imprisoned for ‘providing intelligence’ – Earn Charter

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Beijing has said that a British consultant who disappeared from public view five years ago was convicted in 2022 of “illegally providing intelligence” to overseas parties.

Asked about the case on Friday, the Chinese foreign ministry confirmed a Beijing court sentenced Ian Stones to a five-year prison term in August 2022. Stones lost an appeal in September last year.

“Chinese courts strictly adjudicate cases in accordance with the law, fully safeguarding Ian Stones’ litigation rights,” said the foreign ministry. Stones’s detention was first reported by the Wall Street Journal. 

The secret detention and conviction will add to fears among foreign executives about visiting and residing in China. The country’s powerful Ministry of State Security, known as the MSS, has been increasingly aggressive in pursuing cases against foreigners amid rising geopolitical tensions with the US and its allies. The ministry’s powers were expanded last year by a toughened espionage law. 

China’s security agents have recently turned their attention to consultancies, raiding US groups such as Bain & Company and Mintz last year, as well as expert network provider Capvision. This month the MSS accused Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6, of using a foreign consultant to spy on China. 

According to three people with direct knowledge of the case, Stones was picked up by state security agents in late 2018 in the Chinese capital, at roughly the same time that Beijing detained two Canadian nationals, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

Kovrig and Spavor were freed in 2021 after Canada released Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Chinese technology group Huawei, while Stones remained imprisoned. The UK’s foreign ministry declined to publicise his case at the time. 

Instead senior UK officials privately lobbied their Chinese counterparts on Stones’s behalf. This included efforts from David Quarrey, international affairs adviser to then prime minister Boris Johnson, the people said. The UK embassy has stayed in regular contact with Stones during his incarceration.

The UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office declined to comment on the case on Friday.

James Zimmerman, a Beijing-based lawyer at Perkins Coie, said the case was another example that “the administration of justice is an elusive, if not imaginary, exercise” in China. 

“Getting caught up in China’s criminal justice system is a dismal, tragic experience for anyone that has to go through it,” he said. 

One person who counted Stones as a friend said he was one of the first expatriates in Beijing after it opened up in the late 1970s. Then one day he disappeared. “He vanished. No email, no nothing. And the embassy couldn’t tell me anything,” he said.

At the time of his detention, Stones ran a consultancy, Navisino Partners, which advised clients on cross-border mergers and acquisitions and corporate restructurings. In his early seventies, he is a self-described “China veteran” with more than four decades’ experience living and working in the country, mostly in Beijing.

After studying at the University of Manchester and Ealing College of Higher Education in the early and mid-1970s, Stones continued his Chinese language studies at Beijing Language and Culture University. According to his LinkedIn page, he then spent two decades working for the China operations of major European and US multinational companies including BP, Pfizer Pharmaceuticals and General Motors.

It is not clear what triggered the charges against Stones, a fluent Mandarin speaker known in Beijing for his extensive connections with Chinese officials and executives at state-owned enterprises.

An online profile for The Conference Board think-tank, which retained Stones as a senior adviser, described him as being “instrumental in developing government and research partner relationships” with a number of Chinese ministries.

The number of foreign nationals currently in detention in China over alleged national security transgressions is unknown. Japan has said 17 of its citizens have been detained ​since China passed a counter-espionage law in 2014, of whom five remain in detention, including an executive of Astellas Pharma who was taken into custody in March last year. 

Additional reporting by Tom Mitchell in Singapore

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