Hong Kong CNN  — 

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 China.

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.

Meng, daughter of the Chinese tech giant’s founder, is likely to face extradition to the United States over allegations she helped Huawei dodge US sanctions on Iran.

Beijing has fiercely objected to Meng’s capture and subsequent house arrest. Within weeks of her arrest, the two Canadians – former diplomat Kovrig and businessman Spavor – were detained on suspicion of “activities that endangered China’s national security.”

“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.

They add that the arrests mean those “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.”

“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.”

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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.

Diplomatic dispute

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 that 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 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 Ms. Meng.”

Reacting to the new travel guidance, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said last week it was unnecessary, adding Canadians were safe in China, “as long as they abide by Chinese laws.”

“I think Canada’s travel warning is like ‘thieves yelling out thieves’ because it is actually Canada, not China, that has arbitrarily detained a foreign citizen based on so-called legal reasons,” she said.

In response, China issued its own travel warning for Canada, citing the “arbitrary detention” of a Chinese citizen for a third country as a reason for the notice.

China’s ambassador to Canada, Lu Shaye, also accused his host government of “Western egotism and white supremacy” in an op-ed about the detentions of Meng, Spavor and Kovrig.

‘Exercise increased caution’

The arrest of Kovrig and Spavor, along with a number of other Canadians since released, has left many in the international community in China feeling nervous, and the sudden upgrading of Schellenberg’s sentence from prison to death has only made matters worse.

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 traveling 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.”