China's President Xi Jinping reviews a military honor guard during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Dec.12, 2018.
Fred Dufour—AFP/Getty Images
January 22, 2019 1:36 AM EST

More than 100 China experts and former envoys to Beijing called on President Xi Jinping to release two Canadians who have been detained for six weeks, saying the cases undermine his efforts to build bridges to the rest of the world.

The group, including former U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke, ex-Hong Kong Governor Christopher Patten and five former Canadian ambassadors to China, released an open letter to the Chinese leader Tuesday urging the two men’s freedom. The letter said that Michael Kovrig, a Canadian diplomat on leave to work with the International Crisis Group in Hong Kong, and Michael Spavor, an entrepreneur who helped organize tourist trips to North Korea, had advocated exchanges that help build ties around the globe.

“We who share Kovrig and Spavor’s enthusiasm for building genuine, productive and lasting relationships 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.”

The letter represented the latest effort to increase international pressure over the detentions, which came days after Canada arrested Huawei Technologies Co. Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou as part of a U.S.-led extradition effort for alleged bank fraud related to violations of sanctions against Iran. She has denied wrongdoing.

Spy agency

China has deflected questions about whether the cases were launched in retaliation, saying only that the men are being held by the country’s spy agency on suspicion of activities endangering national security.

The incidents have fueled diplomatic tensions between Ottawa and Beijing, including dueling travel warnings about the risk of arbitrary law enforcement. Canada’s current ambassador to China, John McCallum, said last week that the feud was damaging Beijing’s reputation and risked undermining its interests among the global business community.

Before the letter’s release, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying dismissed Ottawa’s “empty show of strength” in trying to increase pressure on Beijing. “Canada should stop making irresponsible remarks,” Hua told a regular briefing Monday.

Kovrig met regularly and openly with Chinese officials, researchers and scholars as part of his work with Crisis Group, while Spavor spent time building relationships between North Korea and countries including China, Canada and the U.S., according to the letter.

“These meetings and exchanges are the foundation of serious research and diplomacy around the world, including for Chinese scholars and diplomats,” the letter said. “However, Kovrig and Spavor’s detentions send a message that this kind of constructive work is unwelcome and even risky in China.”

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