BEIJING - China hit back at the US yesterday, saying its updated travel advisory did not stand up to scrutiny.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a regular news briefing in Beijing that the country always welcomes foreigners, including Americans, but expects them to respect and abide by Chinese laws.
On Thursday, the US State Department renewed its warning for US citizens travelling in China, urging Americans to exercise increased caution due to "arbitrary enforcement of local laws" amid heightened diplomatic tensions over the arrest in Canada of a Chinese technology company executive.
The updated travel advisory maintains the warning at "Level 2" but also warns about extra security checks and increased police presence in the Xinjiang Uighur and Tibet Autonomous Regions, Reuters reported.
The advisory follows the detentions by the Chinese authorities last month of Canadians Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat and an adviser with the International Crisis Group think-tank, and businessman Michael Spavor. China says both men were suspected of endangering state security.
Tensions with China increased after Canadian police arrested Huawei Technologies' chief financial officer, Ms Meng Wanzhou, on Dec 1 in Vancouver at the request of the United States.
Mr Lu said China will protect foreign citizens' "security and legitimate rights and interests in China, including freedom of entry and exit".
"Of course, we also hope that foreign citizens in China should respect China," he added.
He dismissed the latest US travel advisory, saying that the large number of American visitors to China last year alone was proof that China was a safe country.
"The travel advisory issued by the US, quite frankly, cannot stand up to scrutiny. From January to November 2018, the number of Americans that came to China reached 2.3 million," he said.
He also said that the US has in recent years "used various excuses and reasons to set up obstacles for Chinese citizens to enter the United States and conducted unprovoked inspections".
"This is a problem that the US should pay attention to and correct."
In its previous travel advisory for China issued on Jan 22 last year, the State Department urged Americans to "exercise increased caution" in the country because of "the arbitrary enforcement of local laws and special restrictions on dual US-Chinese nationals".
In comments to US talk show host Sean Hannity, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the US didn't change the level of the warning for China.
"We did change some of the language. We do our best here to constantly review things that might happen to Americans who are travelling abroad. We saw what happened with the American there in Russia.
"Our job is to always have Americans safe who are travelling, and we wanted to let them know that there have been more risks from what China has done in terms of folks travelling there and not being permitted to return. We just wanted to make them aware of that, and I am hopeful that we got the language just right so Americans will understand the risk but still travel there when it's appropriate."
Mr Pompeo was referring to former US marine Paul Whelan, who also holds a British passport, who was detained last week in Moscow on espionage charges. Mr Whelan was arrested by the FSB state security service last Friday. His family have said he is innocent and was in Moscow to attend a wedding.
Canada said on Thursday that 13 of its citizens have been detained in China since the arrest of Huawei's Ms Meng. "At least" eight of those 13 have since been released, the Canadian government said in a statement, without disclosing what charges if any had been laid, Reuters reported.
Prior to Thursday's statement, the detention of only three Canadian citizens had been publicly disclosed.
They are Mr Kovrig, Mr Spavor and Ms Sarah McIver, said a Canadian government official, who declined to be identified, on Thursday.
Ms McIver, a teacher, has since been released and has returned to Canada. Mr Kovrig and Mr Spavor remain in custody. Canadian consular officials saw them once each mid last month.
At a press conference yesterday, Chinese Vice-Minister of Justice Liu Zhenyu was asked about the 13 Canadian citizens.
He said China is a country ruled by law and will handle this problem in accordance with the law. It will also protect the legal rights of the parties in accordance with the law, he said.
-- Additional reporting by Tan Dawn Wei in Beijing and Nirmal Ghosh in Washington