More than a hundred former diplomats, academics and activists have written an open letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping calling for the immediate release of two Canadians detained in Beijing, the media reported on Tuesday.
Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were arrested late last year, amid rising diplomatic tensions between Ottawa and Beijing following the detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver on December 1, CNN reported.
Meng is likely to face extradition to the US over allegations she helped Huawei dodge American sanctions on Iran.
“We, the undersigned scholars, former diplomats, and others with an interest in understanding China and building bridges, are deeply concerned about the recent detentions,” the signatories to the open letter said on Monday.
They added that the arrests meant those “who share Kovrig and Spavor’s enthusiasm for building genuine, productive, and lasting relationships must now be more cautious about travelling and working in China and engaging our Chinese counterparts”.
“That will lead to less dialogue and greater distrust, and undermine efforts to manage disagreements and identify common ground. Both China and the rest of the world will be worse off as a result.”
Signatories to the open letter include four former Canadian ambassadors to China, and two former US ambassadors — including Gary Locke, the first Chinese American to serve in that role — along with a host of other diplomats from North America and Europe.
The letter is the latest in a series of appeals made by Western academics and activists on behalf of the two Canadians, both of whom have a long history of working in China, particularly on diplomatic and international affairs.
An already tense situation between Canada and China escalated significantly last week, when a Chinese court sentenced Canadian Robert Lloyd Schellenberg to death on drug trafficking charges, after he was previously given a custodial sentence.
In the wake of the ruling, Ottawa issued new travel guidance for its citizens in China that warned of “the risk of arbitrary enforcement of local laws.”
Former Canadian ambassador to China, Guy Saint-Jacques — one of the signatories of the open letter — told CNN on Monday that he thought Beijing was making an example out of Schellenberg.
“We’re going through a crisis,” said Saint-Jacques, who was based in Beijing from 2012 to 2016.
“What is peculiar is the timing and this was done, I think, after the arrest of Meng.”
Like Canada, the US currently advises citizens to “exercise increased caution in China due to arbitrary enforcement of local laws as well as special restrictions on dual US-Chinese nationals”.
Earlier this month, the University of California warned students and staff travelling in China not to use WhatsApp or WeChat for fear their messages could be used by Chinese authorities “to levy charges or as an excuse to deny departure”.