BEIJING (AFP) - China on Tuesday (Jan 22) lashed out at a group of former diplomats and academics who signed an open letter to President Xi Jinping calling for the release of two Canadians detained on national security grounds.
Former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor were last month arrested in China for activities that "endanger China's security" - a phrase often used by Beijing when alleging espionage.
Their detentions are thought to be in retaliation for Canada's arrest on a US request of Huawei vice president Meng Wanzhou, who is accused of violating Iran sanctions.
The letter said both Kovrig and Spavor worked to improve understanding of China and to promote better relations with the world.
"Kovrig and Spavor's detentions send a message that this kind of constructive work is unwelcome and even risky in China," read the page-long letter, which had 143 signatories from 19 countries.
The list includes six former Canadian ambassadors to China: Fred Bild, Joseph Caron, Earl Drake, David Mulroney, Guy Saint-Jacques and Robert Wright as well as former US ambassadors Gary Locke and Winston Lord and Hong Kong's last British governor Chris Patten.
Many of the world's leading China academics also gave it their support.
"We who share Kovrig and Spavor's enthusiasm... must now be more cautious about traveling and working in China and engaging our Chinese counterparts," the letter said.
"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."
But China reacted angrily, with Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying calling it a “great disrespect” that also interferes with China’s sovereignty and judicial process.
“It is a call to exert pressure, to demand the Chinese side to release two Canadian citizens who have been investigated by the relevant departments according to the law,” Ms Hua told a regular press briefing.
“Do they want China’s 1.4 billion people to sign an open letter to the Canadian leader?”
The letter comes amid heightened diplomatic tensions between Ottawa and Beijing since Meng’s arrest.
A Chinese court last week sentenced a Canadian man to death for drug trafficking following a retrial, a drastic increase of his previous 15-year prison sentence.
Ottawa has warned its citizens about the risk of “arbitrary enforcement” of laws in China, which sparked off a tit-for-tat response in Beijing.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcomed the letter. “We would always encourage friends, allies to point out that Canada stands up for the rule of law and all countries should stand up for the rule of law,” Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa.
“It’s a very clear principle that has served us well over the past decades, that we have systems of justice that are independent from political interference and Canada will always defend that,” he said.
The missive was signed by six former Canadian ambassadors to China: Mr Fred Bild, Mr Joseph Caron, Mr Earl Drake, Mr David Mulroney, Mr Guy Saint-Jacques and Mr Robert Wright; former US ambassadors Gary Locke and Mr Winston Lord; and Hong Kong’s last British governor Chris Patten.
Former ambassadors to China from Germany, Mexico, Britain and Sweden also lent their names, along with many of the world’s leading China academics.
The letter is meant to send a message that China’s current action will alienate much of the world, said Mr Jan Weidenfeld, head of European affairs and business strategy at the Mercator Institute for China Studies, one of the letter’s signatories.
“It’s not clear whether China is playing by the rules at the end of the day... who’s to tell me that I, or a colleague, won’t be next?” he told AFP.
Based out of Hong Kong, Kovrig had taken leave from his diplomatic posting to work for the International Crisis Group think tank when he was arrested.
Spavor is based in north-east China and facilitates trips to North Korea, including past visits by former basketball star Dennis Rodman.