June 20, 2017
Will Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven bring Gui Minhai home?
by Ian Dreiblatt
For nearly two years now, we’ve been following the case of Gui Minhai, a Swedish publisher and bookseller who disappeared in Thailand in October 2015, only to resurface in state custody in the People’s Republic of China several months later. Gui was one of five booksellers associated with Causeway Bay Books to go missing that year and later reappear in PRC custody. The bookstore, located in Hong Kong, specializes in works of political gossip that are legal in Hong Kong but not the mainland. Of the five arrested booksellers, only Gui remains in detention. Last month, we spoke with his daughter, Angela Gui, who’s heading up international efforts to secure his release.
One of the challenges those efforts face is that few governments want to pick a fight with China, which is the world’s second-largest economy by GDP, and a frequent referent of the words “economic powerhouse.” More recently, this economic power has accompanied a major increase in repression under Presisdent Xi Jinping, who assumed office in 2012. In a conversation with Graeme Wood of British Columbia’s Richmond News, another of the Causeway Bay booksellers, Lam Wing-kee, last month urged that concern over the PRC’s human rights record “can go hand in hand” with continued economic interaction, but heads of state have nonetheless been reluctant to raise Gui’s case with the Chinese government in discussions that tend to center on business. (As for Lam, he has refused to remain silent since his release, and recently announced plans to lend the Causeway Bay imprimatur to a new store being opened in Taipei, Taiwan, where, he told Jennifer Lo of the Nikkei Asian Review, “protection for the fourth estate is just incomparable” with that in Hong Kong.)
But pressure on the governments of North America and Europe to work for Gui’s release seems to be building. In a recent report filed with Canada’s government about the prospect of a free trade agreement with China, Human Rights Watch mentioned Gui by name, and counseled “the incorporation of human rights protections into the agreement itself.” (True to Lam’s suggestion, the report emphasizes that fundamental human rights “underpin successful bilateral trade relationships.”) Sophie Richardson, HRW’s China director, wrote an editorial in USA Today last April, urging that “Presidents Xi and Trump should talk human rights at Mar-a-lago,” in addition to trade. (They didn’t.)
Another recent case in point is Norway. That country’s interactions with China came under scrutiny last year, when Prime Minister Erna Solberg normalized Sino-Norwegian relations, which had curdled after imprisoned Chinese dissident blogger Liu Xiaobo won 2010’s Nobel Peace Prize. (The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded by the Norwegian Nobel Committee, which is appointed by Norway’s legislature.) The move, which followed Solberg’s 2014 refusal to meet with Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso (recipient of the 1989 Peace Prize for his opposition to the PRC’s occupation of Tibet), proved highly controversial among Norwegians. Its primary motivation? You guessed it: the resumption of a suspended trade deal.
And now eyes are beginning to turn to Sweden, the only nation of which Gui Minhai is a citizen, and where he was recently awarded the Anna Politkovskaya Memorial Prize by Publicistklubben, a Stockholm-based free speech advocacy organization. More recently still, Sweden’s prime minister, a Social Democrat and former welder named Stefan Löfven, has announced that he’ll be traveling to China at the end the month to talk to Premier Li Keqiang, address the World Economic Forum, and meet with “Chinese business representatives and civil society actors.” This is to say that Löfven will be speaking with the officials of a government that is illegally detaining one of his nation’s citizens, as well as the elites to whose needs that government’s policies are molded. The Swedish embassy’s statement stresses that Löfven will be traveling with “several ministers and a business delegation with a focus on green innovation and sustainability,” language in which the promise of trade seems to loom ominously. “Green innovation” is a game in which Sweden holds a lot of cards, and Gui, meanwhile, appears to remain much in the minds of many of his compatriots. If Stockholm is ever going to push for the release of its citizen, this looks to be the time.
The Swedish government promises more information on the trip as it draws nearer. In the meantime, there is no direct evidence to suggest that Stefan Löfven would not enjoy hearing from you.
Ian Dreiblatt is the former Director of Digital Media at Melville House.