LONDON — Beijing’s revelation that it sentenced an elderly and well-connected British businessman who has lived in China for decades to five years in prison for espionage will further discourage business and trade, say analysts and a friend of the man.
Last week, China’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that in August 2022 a Beijing court found Ian J. Stones, a 70-year-old consultant, guilty of “buying and unlawfully providing intelligence for an organization or individual outside China.”
Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin was responding to a question about Stones at a regular press briefing the day after The Wall Street Journal broke the story on his case, which had not previously been made public by the Chinese or British.
Wang said that Stone’s appeal of the verdict was rejected last September but did not provide any more details about the case. He did say the Chinese courts held the trial “strictly in accordance with the law, guaranteed Stones’ procedural rights, and allowed the UK [side] to visit him and sit in on the sentencing.”
Stones’ daughter, Laura Stones, told The Wall Street Journal the Chinese authorities refused them access to legal documents and did not allow them to attend the trial.
“There has been no confession to the alleged crime; however, my father has stoically accepted and respects that under Chinese law he must serve out the remainder of his sentence,” she told the Journal.
Stones has worked in China since the 1970s for prominent companies, including Pfizer and General Motors. He started his own consultancy, Navisino Partners, which he was working for when he disappeared from public view in 2018, the Journal reported Thursday. Stones also built close relations with Chinese government agencies and officials, including some with whom he studied who went on to achieve high ranks.
‘He thought he could manage’
Peter Humphrey, a former fraud investigator for Western firms in China, has known Stones for 45 years.
He told VOA, “Three years before he was taken, I saw him in London. He had realized that an agency was tracking him, and they even invited him for a tea chat. So he was worried, but he thought he could handle it. Then, when he was detained, he also thought he could manage. So, he did not speak out to the outside world.”
Governments and rights groups have accused China of arresting foreigners to use as bargaining chips. China in 2018 arrested two Canadians, a consultant and an analyst, on spying charges after Canadian authorities arrested Chinese technology company Huawei’s chief financial officer on a U.S. warrant for violating sanctions on Iran. Beijing released the Canadians in 2021 after a deal was made to release the Huawei officer.
Romanian university professor Marius Balo worked in China before being charged with contract fraud and sentenced to eight years in prison in 2014.
He told VOA, “In my own experience, these espionage cases are bogus. They use it as an excuse to capture people and then use them as bargaining chips. I’ve met several of these people, and it’s a common tactic for them.”
Another possible explanation
Humphrey says it’s also possible Stones was hired by a company linked to an intelligence agency.
“If you are a consultant, you want to see as much information as possible so that you can analyze and interpret it and write a report for your client about the condition of the Chinese economy and predictions for what will happen in the next few months, and so on. But the problem might be: Who is the client?” Humphrey said.
“Among his clients, are there any that the Chinese authorities do not want him to provide information to? Sometimes intelligence services try to use consultancies to gather information for them unwittingly,” he said. “I don’t know if Ian Stones fell afoul of this or not.”
VOA sent requests for comment via email to the Chinese Embassy in London and the British Foreign Office. No response has been received yet.
China last year expanded its counterespionage law to include more options for prosecuting alleged spying.
China’s Ministry of State Security earlier this month announced it arrested a man it identified as a third party national named “Huang” for spying for Britain’s MI6 foreign intelligence service. The arrest was seen by some analysts as retaliation for Britain’s arrest last year of a parliamentary researcher on suspicion of spying for China.
Benedict Rogers, chief executive of the Britain-based human rights organization Hong Kong Watch, said China’s espionage allegations not only worsen Sino-British relations but also significantly affect foreign nationals and businesses operating in China.
“Whether the Chinese allegations are true, or whether this is a tit-for-tat retaliation for allegations of Chinese espionage at Westminster, remains to be seen,” he said. “But either way, this incident will make it a much more dangerous environment for British citizens doing business in or traveling to China.”
China under President Xi Jinping has been tightening controls on information, raiding foreign companies and jailing journalists.
China jailed Humphrey himself in 2013, the year Xi first became president, for two years for his consultancy’s collecting and selling of private information, revoked his risk consultancy’s business license, and had him deported.
It’s not clear if the Chinese court will count any of Stones’ time served in detention toward his five-year sentence. If it does, he could be released as early as this year.
VOA’s Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.