China Says It Has Imprisoned Ian Stones, a British Businessman, on Spy Charges

China Says It Has Imprisoned Ian Stones, a British Businessman, on Spy Charges

A British businessman who disappeared from public view in China in 2018 was sentenced to five years in prison in 2022, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Friday in its first public statement on the case.

Businessman Ian J. Stones had lived in China since the 1970s and worked for companies such as General Motors and Pfizer. For years after his disappearance, there was no public information about his whereabouts, although some in the business community privately discussed his secret detention.

A State Department spokesman said Mr. Stones was convicted in 2022 of “purchasing and unlawfully providing intelligence information to an organization or individual outside China.” Mr. Stones’ appeal against the verdict was rejected in September 2023, spokesman Wang Wenbin said.

Mr. Wang answered questions from reporters at a regularly scheduled news conference after The Wall Street Journal reported on Mr. Stones’ case on Thursday.

“The Chinese courts have tried the case strictly in accordance with the law,” Mr. Wang said, adding that China “protects the legal rights of Chinese and foreign parties.”

It is unclear when Mr. Stones will be released and whether he will receive credit for time served before his sentencing.

Laura Stones, Mr. Stones’ daughter, did not respond to a request for comment. However, she told the Journal that Chinese authorities did not give her or British embassy staff access to legal documents in the case or allow them to attend the hearing.

The revelation is likely to heighten concerns among foreign companies about the risks of operating in China in an increasingly insular political climate led by China’s leader Xi Jinping and the country’s powerful security agencies.

China revised its already broad counterintelligence law last year to expand the definition of espionage and has repeatedly warned in recent months about the dangers of interacting with foreigners. Officials also raided the offices of several American companies last year and arrested some Chinese employees.

Foreign governments have at times accused China of detaining foreigners as political pawns, as in the case of two Canadians who were arrested in 2018 after Canada detained a prominent Chinese technology executive. An Australian businessman and writer, Yang Hengjun, is still detained in China and an Australian journalist, Cheng Lei, was released in October. Both were accused of unrelated national security offenses and denied any wrongdoing.

There is no official number of foreigners detained in China. Information about the allegations against them is usually very limited. While governments or relatives of detained foreigners sometimes speak out on their cases, others remain silent, perhaps hoping to negotiate with Beijing behind the scenes.

Mr. Stones, who is about 70, worked as a senior manager for General Motors Asia, helping the company expand in China in the 1990s, and as a manager for Pfizer Pharmaceuticals in China. According to his LinkedIn page, which is no longer available online, at the time of his detention he had been working as a consultant for over a decade, advising investors on business, regulations and disputes in China.

Because of his decades of experience in the country and his fluency in Chinese, he was well-known among Western investors and executives in Beijing. On LinkedIn, Mr. Stones said that Navisino Partners, a consulting firm where he was a partner, specialized in “finding solutions to difficult challenges, structuring deals, executing work-outs and executing turnarounds.”

He also had relationships with Chinese government authorities; That’s according to a 2007 annual report from The Conference Board, a New York-based economic research group where he served as a senior adviser.

Mr. Stones’ long tenure in China made him one of the best-connected foreigners in Beijing, said Peter Humphrey, a British private investigator who met Mr. Stones in China in the late 1970s. Mr. Humphrey was imprisoned in China for two years for illegal information gathering and deported after his release in 2015; He said he believed his work in China was legal.

Some of the people Mr. Stones met in his early days in China went on to become high-ranking officials, Mr. Humphrey said, making him a particularly sought-after business figure.

But in 2015, Mr. Stones knew he was potentially at risk, Mr. Humphrey said. The two men then met in Britain, not long after Mr. Humphrey’s release, and Mr. Stones told him that he had been asked to speak to state security officials and that he was being monitored.

“He seemed to think he could handle it,” Mr. Humphrey said. “Obviously he was wrong.”

Mr Humphrey’s account could not be independently verified.

The circumstances of Mr Stones’ arrest remain unclear and it is not known what communication took place between the British and Chinese governments. The British Foreign Office declined to comment.

Mr. Stones’ detention coincides with a period when the British government is taking a tougher stance toward China, often siding with critical positions taken by the United States. In 2020, it banned Chinese telecoms equipment maker Huawei from participating in Britain’s new high-speed mobile network, a decision Beijing condemned.

London’s relations with Beijing have also deteriorated due to China’s ongoing repression of civil rights in Hong Kong, a former British colony. Britain has also criticized China over its repression of Muslims in the Xinjiang region, its military pressure on Taiwan and its continued partnership with Russia despite the war in Ukraine.

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2024-01-27 10:34:15