November 22, 2019

China and Sweden continue to spar over missing bookseller


China and Sweden have renewed a war of words over the abduction and detention of Gui Minhai, a dissident

Gui Minhai // Photo: Screenshot/CCTV.

bookseller and publisher. The latest rankle occurred last week when Swedish PEN awarded Gui the 2019 Tucholsky Prize despite threats from the Chinese Embassy. The Tucholsky Prize is named after German author Kurt Tucholsky, who fled Nazi Germany to Sweden, and is awarded annually to a writer threatened, persecuted, or in exile.

Ignoring threats to ban her from China if she attended the ceremony, minister of culture Amanda Lind presented the award to Gui in absentia with an empty chair representing his presence. Sophia Yan reports in the Telegraph that in response, the Chinese embassy doubled down on their threats, releasing a statement calling the decision an “outright political farce” and declaring that “wrong deeds will be only be met with bad consequences.” The Swedish prime minister fired back stressing that Sweden wouldn’t capitulate to this type of intimidation and interference in free speech.

A Chinese-born Swedish citizen, Gui was one of five Hong Kong booksellers to disappear in late 2015 and the only one still detained. Through the publishing house Mighty Current, the booksellers published books critical of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) elite popular with mainland tourists. Gui was taken from Thailand in 2015 and resurfaced several months later in China in a televised coerced confession regarding his involvement in a drunk-driving accident. He was released in October 2017, but quickly rearrested and now is being detained in an unknown location in China. The Chinese government insists Gui is a criminal, “a lie-fabricator and rumour-spreader,” and his detention is not a political matter. Naturally, this has been a damper on diplomatic relations between Beijing and Stockholm for years.

China has a long history of abducting dissidents and coercing confessions, a practice at the heart of objections to the now-pulled extradition treaty that sparked the protest movement in Hong Kong this summer. China’s increasing boldness in censoring criticism from those beyond their border has loomed large over individual activists and publishers critical of the CCP. And now it seems the Chinese government is openly attempting to intimidate foreign governments and advocacy organizations into silence.

PEN America unequivocally supports the decision of Swedish PEN. James Tager, deputy director of Free Expression Research and Policy, said “Such efforts at intimidation are shameless and abhorrent. If China truly doesn’t want to be criticized over its appalling treatment of Gui Minhai, here’s a solution: release him.”



Alyea Canada is an editor at Melville House.