A British businessman who disappeared from public view in China in 2018 was 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 he vanished, there was no public information about his whereabouts, though some in the business community privately discussed his secret detention.
A spokesman for the foreign ministry said that Mr. Stones had been convicted in 2022 of “buying and unlawfully supplying intelligence for an organization or individual outside China.” Mr. Stones’s appeal of the verdict was rejected in September 2023, the spokesman, Wang Wenbin, said.
Mr. Wang was responding to reporters’ questions at a regularly scheduled news conference, after The Wall Street Journal reported Mr. Stones’s case on Thursday.
“The Chinese courts heard the trial strictly in accordance with the law,” Mr. Wang said, adding that China “protects the lawful 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 before his conviction.
Laura Stones, Mr. Stones’s daughter, did not respond to a request for comment. But she told The Wall Street Journal that the Chinese authorities had not given her or British Embassy staff access to the 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 expand the definition of spying and has warned repeatedly in recent months about the dangers of interactions with foreigners. Officials also raided last year the offices of several American companies and detained some Chinese employees.
Foreign governments have at times 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, is still in detention in China, and an Australian journalist, Cheng Lei, was released in October. Both had been accused of unrelated national security offenses and have denied wrongdoing.
There is no official tally of the number of foreigners detained in China. Information about the charges against them is usually highly limited. While detained foreigners’ governments or relatives sometimes speak up about their cases, some remain quiet, possibly in hopes of negotiating behind the scenes with Beijing.
Mr. Stones, who is around 70, had worked as a senior manager for General Motors Asia, helping it to expand in China in the 1990s, and as a manager in China for Pfizer Pharmaceuticals. At the time of his detention, he had been working for over a decade as a consultant advising investors on deals, regulations and disputes in China, according to his LinkedIn page, which is no longer available online.
With his decades of experience in the country and fluency in Chinese, he was well known among Western investors and executives in Beijing. On LinkedIn, Mr. Stones said that Navisino Partners, a consulting company where he was a partner, specialized in “finding solutions to difficult challenges, structuring deals, work-outs, turnarounds.”
He also had relationships with Chinese government agencies; he had presented to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, according to an annual report in 2007 by The Conference Board, a New York-based business research group where he was a senior adviser.
The length of Mr. Stones’s tenure in China made him among 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 detained for two years in China on charges of illegally obtaining information and deported after his release in 2015; he has said he believed his work in China was legal.
Some of the people Mr. Stones met during his early days in China went on to become high-level officials, Mr. Humphrey said, which made him an especially sought-after business figure.
But by 2015, Mr. Stones knew he was potentially at risk, Mr. Humphrey said. The two men met then in Britain, not long after Mr. Humphrey’s release, and Mr. Stones told him that he had been asked to speak with state security officials and was under surveillance.
“He seemed to think he could handle it,” Mr. Humphrey said. “Obviously he was wrong.”
The circumstances around Mr. Stones’s 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.
Mr. Stones’s detention coincides with a period in which the British government has taken a tougher line on China, often siding with the United States’ critical positions. In 2020, it banned Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications equipment company, from involvement in Britain’s new high-speed wireless network, a decision that Beijing condemned.
London’s ties with Beijing have also deteriorated over China’s continuing suppression 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.