Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven presumably hopes to return from his trip this week to China with new deals on green innovation and sustainability, enhanced political relations, and a successful appearance at the World Economic Forum in Dalian.
But does he aspire to bring home Gui Minhai?
Gui, a Swedish citizen originally from China who co-owns the Hong Kong Mighty Current publishing house, which issues books about China’s political intrigues, went missing from Pattaya, Thailand, on October 17, 2015. In mid-January 2016, CCTV, China’s state television network, broadcast a “confession” by Gui in which he said he had returned voluntarily to the mainland to face charges related to a 2003 drunk-driving incident. Subsequent state media reports said Gui was being investigated for other unspecified “criminal activities,” and that others have been investigated in connection with him. Neither his family nor the Swedish government has been informed of any formal charges against him, nor the place of his detention, rendering him forcibly disappeared.
The Chinese government is notorious not only for committing serious human rights violations at home, but also for intimidating other rights-respecting governments and diplomats to not raise concerns, especially publicly. Sweden to its credit has ignored some of this bluster, joining 11 other countries in an unprecedented joint statement condemning China’s human rights abuses at the United Nations Human Rights Council in March 2016. In February 2017, it joined 10 countries in a letter to China’s Ministry of Public Security regarding that agency’s campaign of politicized detentions, prosecutions, and ill-treatment of mainland human rights lawyers. In April Sweden published its global human rights report that detailed abuses in China ranging from the lack of political rights to domestic violence. And last week Sweden and 26 other European Union member states supported an intervention on China as “country situation” of “concern” at the HRC just last week—until Greece broke ranks, undermining the necessary consensus for the EU to speak.
Despite this track record, the government’s stated commitment to human rights as a “central element of Swedish foreign policy” – including presumably the treatment of Swedes abroad – has been noticeably absent in Gui’s case.
In January 2016, the foreign ministry spokesperson said Gui’s case was being pursued with authorities in Beijing and Bangkok. In September, Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom responded to a television journalist that it was unacceptable Sweden had not been provided urgent access to Gui, but that the government was doing everything it could to secure his release.
It’s unclear whether Swedish officials have sought Gui’s release ahead of Prime Minister Lofven’s visit—a sometimes successful strategy before high-level visits of other countries. But if Lofven is serious about achieving his economic and environmental agenda items, obtaining the release of a single political prisoner won’t be enough.
Since coming to power in March 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping has repressed peaceful criticism and independent activism—including on environmental issues—with a ferocity not seen since the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. The crackdown is possible because of the Chinese Communist Party’s extraordinary chokehold on power, the deeply politicized legal system, and the lack of a free press. Changing these realities is not only crucial to prevent future Gui Minhais, but for Sweden to secure the desired economic and environmental objectives of its bilateral relationship.
Prime Minister Lofven should make Sweden’s priorities and the value it attaches to human rights clear to Chinese leaders, and to the public in both countries. That should include China’s resumption of legal reform, transparency and accountability around environmental matters, the ability of the domestic and international media to report freely on these issues—and the immediate and unconditional release of Gui Minhai.