The 70-year-old consultant, identified as Ian J Stones, was found guilty of committing the “crime of illegally obtaining intelligence”, a spokesperson for the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs said on Friday.
Mr Stones, who has spent around four decades working in China with major US firms such as General Motors and Pfizer, disappeared from public view in 2018, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal. He had also established a Beijing-based investment management consulting firm 15 years ago, it said.
The reason for his disappearance was not known and the spying charges were officially confirmed for the first time by the Chinese government on Friday after a question was raised about the WSJ report in the briefing.
Mr Stones had reportedly appealed against the sentencing, but the ruling was upheld in September of the same year.
The secret detention and subsequent conviction will add to fears among foreign executives about visiting and residing in China.
Foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the court had “tried the case strictly in accordance with the law”, adding that Beijing had “fully guaranteed the various legitimate rights” and arranged for British officials to visit him and attend his trial.
Mr Stones’ daughter told the WSJ that the family has not been allowed to see legal documents related to his arrest. While one family member was permitted to witness some hearings, nobody was allowed in the actual trial.
The revelation comes as concerns grow over the arrests of foreign nationals in China over spying charges. Earlier this month, another British citizen was detained by Chinese authorities for allegedly spying for Britain’s foreign intelligence service, MI6.
Beijing has launched public campaigns to raise awareness of foreign spying and encourage citizens to report “suspicious activities”.
Recently, the authorities have raided the offices of three foreign companies, two consultancies and one due diligence firm, increasing concerns among businesses owned by foreign nationals.
Both the US and the UK have warned their citizens about the risk of arrests in China under its national security laws.
“You may be detained without having intended to break the law,” the UK says in its foreign travel advice for the country.
However, the UK has maintained its policy of neither confirming nor denying claims related to intelligence issues.