Kovrig Spavor
© Facebook
Accusations come just two days after Canada decided to proceed with an extradition hearing for Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou -
Canadians Michael Spavor (left) and Michael Kovrig have been accused by China of spying.
China has upped the ante over its detention of two Canadians, accusing the pair of acting together to steal state secrets just days after Ottawa decided to proceed with an extradition hearing for a Chinese tech giant executive.

Former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig is accused of "severely violating" Chinese law by acting as a spy and stealing Chinese state secrets and intelligence since 2017, state news agency Xinhua reported on Monday, citing unnamed Chinese authorities.

The report said he entered China using an ordinary passport and business visas, and obtained intelligence from Michael Spavor, another Canadian also held in China.

The pair were taken into Chinese custody in December, soon after Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Chinese telecom firm Huawei, was arrested by Canadian authorities at the request of the US government.

Kovrig, who was working as a senior adviser for International Crisis Group, a non-governmental organisation, was detained by the Chinese authorities on December 10 for allegedly endangering China's national security.

Spavor, a businessman based in the city of Dandong in Liaoning province on the border with North Korea, was also held over similar allegations.

ICG spokesman Karim Lebhour said the group was aware of the allegations.

"We are aware of the Xinhua report of March 4 but have heard nothing official about any charges being laid against our colleague, Michael Kovrig," Lebhour said.

"Michael's work for Crisis Group has been entirely transparent and in the open as all who follow his work can attest. Vague and unsubstantiated accusations against him are unwarranted and unfair."

© AFP/CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy
Michael Kovrig is a former Canadian diplomat.
The Xinhua report stressed that Kovrig entered China using an ordinary passport and business visas - apparently to underscore China's position that the former diplomat was not entitled to consular protection.

It added that the investigations into Kovrig's alleged wrongdoings had "achieved significant progress" and there would be further judicial proceedings. But it stopped short of saying whether any charges had been laid.

The announcement came two days after Canada's Justice Department concluded that it would present Meng's case to a judge for extradition. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman earlier slammed the decision as "a serious political incident".

China's arrest of the two Canadians has ignited indignation in the international community. In addition to protests from other countries, more than 100 academics and former diplomats - many of them veteran China-watchers - called on Beijing to release the pair an open letter in January.

Kovrig has been denied access to a lawyer and kept in a cell with the lights on 24 hours a day, according to previous media reports. But Xinhua's report on Monday said the legitimate rights of both Kovrig and Spavor, including consular visits, would be protected.

The arrests of the two men coincided with the detention of Meng in December in Vancouver, and is widely seen as an act of retaliation by Beijing, despite repeated denials by Chinese officials.

Meng faces an extradition hearing on fraud charges - punishable under the criminal law of both Canada and the US - over alleged breaches of US sanctions against sales to Iran. Meanwhile, the US has also stepped up its pressure on Huawei by pressing ahead with criminal charges and urging its allies to boycott the company's products.