BEIJING (Reuters) - China denied discrimination lay behind its confinement of scores of Mexican nationals over fears of H1N1 flu, urging Mexico to respond calmly and cooperate in fighting the virus.
Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa accused China at the weekend of discriminating against his country's citizens after Beijing ordered dozens of them into isolation in hotels and other sites across the country, although only one, a man now in Hong Kong, has been found to have the H1N1 flu.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu rejected the criticism, saying the isolation was correct procedure, not bigotry.
"The measures concerned are not directed at Mexican citizens and there is no discrimination," Ma said in a statement issued on the ministry website (www.mfa.gov.cn).
"This was purely a medical quarantine issue," Ma said, adding that Mexico should "give full understanding to the measures adopted by China and handle this matter objectively and calmly."
A spokeswoman for the Mexican Embassy in Beijing said neither she nor the ambassador had any immediate comment on the Chinese statement. She said that as of Sunday about 70 Mexican nationals were held in confinement in China.
The row over confinement has strained what has been a warming relationship between the two countries, but with Beijing courting Latin America as a trade and diplomatic partner, the damage appears unlikely to last.
Mexico is China's second biggest trade partner in Latin America -- behind Brazil -- and its biggest export market there, according to Chinese statistics.
In 2008, their bilateral trade reached $17.6 billion in value, a rise of 17.3 percent on 2007, with China having a big surplus based on electronics, textiles and other consumer goods.
Mexico said on Sunday that its swine flu epidemic had passed the worst and experts said the virus might be no more severe than normal flu.
Mexican Ambassador Jorge Guajardo on Sunday visited a hotel in Beijing where more than 10 Mexicans have been held, but was not allowed to see them, an embassy official said that day.
Mexicans were being held in hotels and other sites across several parts of China, including Hong Kong, said the embassy official.
China's vast population and patchy medical infrastructure make it particularly vulnerable should the virus take hold.
The Mexican with the H1N1 virus arrived in Hong Kong from Mexico on Thursday following a stopover in Shanghai.
Many of the confined Mexicans were on that same flight to Shanghai, but others had reached China on flights from Los Angeles, Newark and Vancouver, said the embassy official.
(Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Nick Macfie)