A British businessman who disappeared from public view in China in 2018 has been sentenced to five years in prison in 2022, China’s Foreign Ministry said on Friday, in its first public acknowledgment of the case.
The businessman, Ian J. Stones, had lived in China since the 1970s, working for companies such as General Motors and Pfizer. For years after his disappearance, there was no public information about his whereabouts, although some members of the business community privately discussed his secret detention.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. saying that Mr. Stones had been convicted in 2022 of “illegally purchasing and providing intelligence for an organization or individual outside of China.” Stones’ appeal of the verdict was rejected in September 2023, spokesman Wang Wenbin said.
Mr. Wang was taking questions from reporters at a regularly scheduled news conference, after The Wall Street Journal reported Mr. Stones’ case on Thursday.
“Chinese courts heard the trial strictly in accordance with the law,” Wang said, adding that China “protects the legitimate rights of Chinese and foreign parties.”
It is unclear when Mr. Stones will be released and whether he will be given credit for time served prior to his sentencing.
Laura Stones, Mr. Stones’ daughter, did not respond to a request for comment. But she told the Wall Street Journal that Chinese authorities had not given her or British embassy staff access to legal documents in the case, nor allowed them to attend the trial.
The revelation is likely to deepen 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 sweeping counterespionage law last year to broaden the definition of espionage and has repeatedly warned in recent months about the dangers of interactions with foreigners. Last year, authorities also raided the offices of several American companies and detained some Chinese employees.
Foreign governments have sometimes accused China of arresting foreigners as political pawns, as in the case of two Canadians arrested in 2018 after Canada detained a prominent Chinese technology executive. An Australian businessman and writer, Yang Hengjun, remains detained in China, and an Australian journalist, Cheng Lei, was released in October. Both had been charged with unrelated national security crimes and have denied wrongdoing.
There is no official figure for the number of foreigners detained in China. Information about the charges against them is usually very limited. While governments or relatives of detained foreigners sometimes speak out about their cases, some remain silent, possibly hoping to negotiate behind the scenes with Beijing.
Stones, who is in his 70s, had worked as a senior manager for General Motors Asia, helping it expand in China in the 1990s, and as a China manager for Pfizer Pharmaceuticals. At the time of her arrest, she had been working for more than a decade as a consultant advising investors on deals, regulations and disputes in China, according to her LinkedIn page, which is no longer available online.
With 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, Stones said that Navisino Partners, a consulting firm in which he was a partner, specialized in “finding solutions to difficult challenges, structuring deals, solutions and changes.”
He also had relationships with Chinese government agencies; had submitted to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, according to an annual report report in 2007 by The Conference Board, a New York-based business research group to which he was a senior advisor.
The circumstances surrounding Mr Stones’ arrest remain opaque and it is unknown what communications have taken place between the British and Chinese governments. Britain’s Foreign Office declined to comment.
Stones’ detention coincides with a period in which the British government has taken a harder line towards China, often siding with critical US positions. In 2020, he banned Huawei, the Chinese telecoms equipment company, from participating in Britain’s new high-speed wireless network, a decision Beijing condemned.
London’s ties with Beijing have also deteriorated due to China’s continued suppression of civil rights in Hong Kong, a former British colony. Britain has also criticized China for its repression of Muslims in the Xinjiang region, its military pressure on Taiwan and its continued partnership with Russia despite the war in Ukraine.