For years, Gui Minhai was known for the politically gossipy tomes that he wrote and published in Hong Kong. But now the Swedish citizen has himself become the subject of an extraordinary saga, with far reaching political and diplomatic consequences, almost as outrageous as the books he once published.
Mr Gui first went missing on holiday in 2015, only to resurface in China the following year with a state media “confession” over a 12-year-old drink-driving charge.
In 2017, Chinese officials said Mr Gui had completed his sentence and was “free” but he was seized again by plainclothes Chinese police in January 2018 on a train to Beijing while accompanied by Swedish diplomats. He is currently being held in an unknown location on suspicion of “endangering state security”.
While Sweden’s leftwing government has tried to carry out negotiations discreetly, the recall of the Swedish ambassador to Beijing earlier this year and the prosecutors’ decision this week to charge her for “arbitrariness during negotiations with a foreign power” has underscored tensions between the two countries.
With relations already strained by an outspoken Chinese ambassador angry at Swedish PEN’s decision to award a human rights prize to Mr Gui, a trade meeting scheduled for this week was called off by China, officials in Stockholm said.
“I am worried that the tensions between Sweden and China could worsen, not least because of the upcoming trial of [recalled] ambassador Anna Lindstedt and potential revelations in conjunction with that,” said Kristina Sandklef, senior China adviser at consultancy Consilio International.
Experts such as Ms Sandklef think possible escalations could include a reduction in twin city agreements and official visits. There are also fears it could become harder for Swedish companies to set up in China.
This latest row began when Angela Gui, Mr Gui’s daughter, was invited to a meeting in a Stockholm hotel by Ms Lindstedt, with two businessmen. Ms Gui said the two hinted they could have her father released if she stopped talking publicly about the case.
Sweden’s foreign ministry said it had no prior knowledge of the meetings and recalled Ms Lindstedt from Beijing. She has now been charged with a crime that carries a sentence of up to two years in prison. Ms Lindstedt denies the charge.
Adding to the fractiousness of relations between the two countries, China’s ambassador to Stockholm, Gui Congyou, threatened Sweden with “bad consequences” when Mr Gui was awarded the Tucholsky prize for writers or publishers facing persecution.
“The reaction goes beyond anything I’ve encountered, and I’ve been working in human rights for 30 years,” said Elisabeth Lofgren, chair of the Writers in Prison committee of Swedish PEN, which awards the Tucholsky prize. “You don’t behave like that as a diplomat. But the problem is it’s China, and China does what it wants.”
Several Swedish politicians have called for ambassador Gui to be sent home. He has made dozens of outbursts against Swedish authorities and journalists over everything from how Swedish police had “brutally abused” tourists evicted from a Stockholm hostel to reporting on China’s detention camps in Xinjiang.
Government officials in Stockholm said they had had frank discussions with ambassador Gui but were not seeking to escalate the matter. The Chinese embassy in Stockholm did not respond to requests for comment.
Ms Sandklef said that the Swedish government had annoyed China by “sitting on very high moral horses”. “What I hear from my Chinese friends is that the Chinese have not been that impressed with Swedes for some time,” she added.
The row follows Beijing’s criticism of Denmark a decade ago after its prime minister met the Dalai Lama and also Norway for the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to dissident Liu Xiaobo.
“I think China is trying to use the Nordic countries as a testing ground,” said Jerker Hellstrom, head of the Asia and Middle East programme at the Swedish Defence Research Agency. “China is trying to see where the red lines are and what the right approach is, as well as send a signal to the rest of the world.” Sweden’s outspoken approach on human rights is one reason for China’s reaction, according to Mr Hellstrom.
In recent years, Beijing has made regular use of China’s economic heft in diplomatic spats, using market access and trade as leverage to press other nations into toeing the Communist party line.
Some South Korean conglomerates, most notably retailer Lotte, are still reeling from a Chinese backlash in 2017 over the deployment of the US anti-missile defence system Thaad in Seoul.
Sweden is the site of one of China’s biggest overseas acquisitions. In 2010, Zhejiang Geely bought Volvo Cars.
A senior Swedish executive warned that China was in danger of squandering the goodwill it had garnered by turning round Volvo. He pointed to industrial espionage and patent theft in western countries as well as “the lack of a level playing field — they can buy our companies but we can’t buy theirs”.
Ms Lofgren said the rising tensions over Mr Gui also served as a warning shot to other European countries. “Holding on to their principles is what I would like the government to do, even if it would be costly. This time it’s Sweden; next time it could be Germany, it could be France,” she added.
This article has been amended to reflect the fact that the Swedish ambassador to Beijing was recalled earlier this year.