A former British journalist who spent two years as a “political hostage” in China has urged people to send Christmas cards to two Canadian men in Chinese detention to offer support and call for their release.
Michael Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat, and Michael Spavor, a businessman, were arrested exactly two years ago on Thursday in what is seen as a tit-for-tat move by Beijing after police in Canada detained a top executive from the Chinese firm Huawei on a US arrest warrant.
Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer and daughter of Huawei’s founder, is contesting an order to be extradited to the United States where she faces bank fraud charges.
Beijing has accused Washington of targeting her as part of a wider attempt to undermine the Chinese technology giant.
The case has triggered a three-way diplomatic standoff, with friends of the two Michaels saying the pair are caught in the middle as victims of “hostage diplomacy”.
China has charged the men with suspected espionage, charges they deny.
Anthony Grey, 82, who was a young Reuters correspondent in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution, says he understands what the two Canadians are going through.
He was placed under strict house arrest from 1967 to 1969 in an attempt by China to put pressure on the UK after a number of Chinese journalists were arrested by the authorities in then British-controlled Hong Kong.
Recalling the ordeal, Mr Grey described how a large number of Red Guards – the name given to gangs of Communist youth loyal to Chairman Mao Zedong – barged into his house at midnight, dragged him outside and forced him to bend over, while shouting “Hang Grey!”
“I was held, bent double, for a very long time. I can’t remember how long, but enough sweat dripped off my face onto the doorstep that I could see my own face in the pool of sweat,” he told Sky News in an interview.
At one point, the mob caught his cat, Ming Ming, and hung it from a balcony above his head.
“Then they sort of hit me in the stomach and indicated I should straighten up. I straightened up and the cat was dangling just before my face… I was stunned by that time. You know, I’d been under attack for quite some time by then and the hanging of the cat in my face was perhaps the worst moment of the invasion because I loved the cat.”
The guards also ransacked his house, plastering posters across the rooms and smearing blood from the cat on his pillow. He was forced to stay in his bedroom for the following three months and was confined to the house until his release more than two years later.
After he was let out, Mr Grey learned that thousands of people in the UK had sent Christmas cards addressed to him to the Chinese foreign ministry, wishing him well and saying that he should be freed.
He said news of this outpouring of support, even though he never received the cards, brought him huge comfort.
“I was very moved, you know, sometimes almost to tears,” Mr Grey said.
He also wondered whether the sheer volume of Yuletide cheer may have prompted the Chinese authorities to treat him more kindly over the holiday.
“They did give me some little concessions on Christmas Day,” Mr Grey said, speaking from his home in Norwich.
“Perhaps it was because of the Christmas cards, I don’t know, but obviously it did make them feel that there was an enormous amount of concern in Britain about me.”
The former journalist, who went on to become an author, called on people around the world to do a similar gesture for Mr Kovrig and Mr Spavor.
“I think as many people from as many countries should send cards… so that there would be a deluge of protest really,” Mr Grey said.
Charles Parton, a former British diplomat and a friend of Mr Kovrig’s, is behind the campaign to send Christmas cards to the two Michaels. He is being backed by Charles Burton, a former Canadian diplomat, who is friends with Mr Spavor.
“What we’d like to do is urge everybody who feels that this sort of behaviour, taking of hostages, is completely wrong, to write a Christmas card to either of the Michaels or both of them,” Mr Parton said.
He said he thought of the idea after hearing about the Christmas card initiative for Mr Grey. Mr Parton urged people to take a picture of their card and post it on social media with the hashtag #freeChinahostages.
“Having done that, post it to the Chinese ambassador in your country so that when the Chinese embassy opens all these cards, they begin to realise that their actions are unacceptable,” he said.
Reports emerged last week that officials in the US Justice Department were in talks with lawyers from Ms Meng over a possible deal to resolve the criminal charges against her and enable her to return to China.
A Justice Department spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.
The Canadian government said in a statement: “The government of Canada has always been very clear: Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor have been arbitrarily detained. These cases remain a top priority for the government and we will continue to call on China to immediately release both men.”