January 21, 2019 4:23 pm
Updated: January 21, 2019 9:21 pm

Former Canadian, allied envoys to China call on Xi Jinping to release detained Canadians in new letter

WATCH: An open letter signed by scholars and former diplomats calls on the Chinese government to release detained Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig. Mike Le Couteur reports.

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Five former Canadian ambassadors to China are among the more than 140 former diplomats and leading China experts who have signed an open letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping asking him to immediately release two detained Canadians.

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According to the letter, a copy of which was shared with Global News, the signatories ask Xi to release Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who were detained last month on widely questioned accusations of “endangering national security” following the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in Canada.

READ MORE: Despite Chinese threats, Canada will continue building ‘coalition’ with allies

Kovrig is a former diplomat with Global Affairs Canada who is on leave to do NGO work with the International Crisis Group, and Spavor runs a cultural exchange tour company out of China that brings people on visits to North Korea. Their detentions cast a chill on future similar efforts, the former diplomats and experts state.

“Kovrig and Spavor’s detentions send a message that this kind of constructive work is unwelcome and even risky in China,” the signatories state.

“We 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. ”

WATCH BELOW: China issues new warning if Canada bans Huawei

The letter, which was first reported on by the U.K.’s The Guardian newspaper, is signed by former Canadian ambassadors to China Fred Bilne, Joseph Caron, David Mulroney, Guy Saint-Jacques and Robert Wright.

Multiple former ambassadors from the United States, United Kingdom, Mexico, Sweden, Australia and Germany also signed the letter, as did a former foreign secretary for the U.K. and former directors and members of the U.S. National Security Council.

Christopher Patten, chancellor for the University of Oxford, also signed on.

READ MORE: U.S. facing deadline to seek extradition of Huawei executive from Canada

His signature comes after Oxford announced late last week that it would no longer accept research grants and funding donations from Huawei, citing security concerns about its technology.

The dispute over Huawei comes as the Canadian government faces escalating pressure to join its allies in banning the Chinese telecom giant’s products from being used to build the next generation of 5G infrastructure.

READ MORE: Canada vows to stand its ground as China threatens ‘repercussions’ over Huawei restrictions

The detentions of Kovrig and Spavor are widely viewed as retaliation by the Chinese government for the Dec. 1, 2018, arrest of Meng by Canadian authorities in Vancouver at the behest of the United States.

American authorities allege that her company has been using a subsidiary to skirt U.S. sanctions on doing business with Iran.

Meng denies the allegations, but the case has brought together thorny issues of international business, national security and politics into a tempestuous mix.

WATCH BELOW: China threatens ‘repercussions’ on Canada if Huawei 5G banned

Last week, China’s ambassador to Canada, Lu Shaye, warned in an interview with reporters that banning Huawei would result in “repercussion”.”

He also urged the government not to continue its recent work gathering statements from allies supporting Canada’s position that the detentions are “arbitrary” and that Meng’s has not been.

Infrastructure Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne told Global News last week that work is not going to stop.

“We’re going to continue our advocacy, we’re going to continue building the coalition to make sure that the voice of Canada is heard. There’s a number of discussions at high levels. We will always defend Canadians in situations like that,” he said.

“I don’t think threats are necessarily useful or helpful in any of these situations.”

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale weighed in on Monday during a Liberal caucus meeting in Ottawa.

He said the current approach is yielding “progress” because more countries and partners are coming forward.

“We are pursuing every diplomatic initiative. It’s a step by step process, we have made progress in that process,” he said.

“You see just in the last week or ten days, more and more countries coming forward to indicate they share Canada’s view.”

When asked whether such statements have an real impact on China, Goodale responded, “indeed it does.”

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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