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Gui Minhai - imprisoned, humiliated and discredited

The last picture of Gui Minhai in freedom. Foto: Surveillance camera/Thailand.
Just in time for the Gothenburg Book Fair, Jojje Olsson has published the book "Imprisoned, humiliated and discredited" about the events surrounding Swedish publisher Gui Minhai.

Just in time for the Gothenburg Book Fair, Jojje Olsson has published a book about the events surrounding Swedish publisher Gui Minhai, who has been imprisoned in China since 2015.

You can read the entire book here – but please make a donation to the efforts to free Gui Minhai

The book is being published through a cooperation between the International Publishers Association (IPA), Swedish Publishers’ Association, Norstedts and Expressen.

Detta är en kulturartikel, där skribenter kan uttrycka personliga åsikter och göra bedömningar av konstnärliga verk.

In January this year, just before my book "The Swedes who were Kidnapped by China" was published, something slightly unbelievable happened. The main character of the book, Gui Minhai, was abducted by Chinese state security agents for the second time. This time it happened while Gui was on a train with two Swedish diplomats, on their way to see a doctor in Beijing.

Gui has been in custody in China since October 2015, when he was kidnapped by Chinese security agents from his holiday home in Thailand. The kidnapping was a part of an ambitious campaign to stop the publication of dissident literature in Hong Kong. Literature that Chinese tourists would often take back to the mainland with them.

After a decade of hard work, both as an author and as a publisher, Gui had become the owner of the city’s largest publishing house and one of the most important bookstores for this type of literature. He was also a Swedish citizen who had been kidnapped in a third country. In other words, Gui was an ideal target. You could hardly have sent a clearer signal that anyone who writes critically about China's regime is no longer safe in the formerly very free metropolis that is Hong Kong. 

In October 2017, the Chinese authorities suddenly announced that Gui Minhai was a free man with complete freedom to travel as he wished. This was after he had served a two-year sentence for an alleged car accident in 2003. He was now said to have been released from jail and living in an apartment near his family, in his home town of Ningbo on China's east coast, just south of Shanghai.

Gui Minhai, a Swedish publisher, has been imprisoned in China since 2015. Foto: VINCENT YU / AP TT NYHETSBYRÅN

Severe health problems

While in custody, Gui had developed some severe health problems. After assurances from the Chinese, the Swedish embassy therefore organised a medical examination for him. But someone in the hazy Chinese chain of command managed to - quite literally - change their mind on route. When Gui was physically taken away, only an hour remained of the train ride to Beijing.

After a couple of weeks of complete and unpleasant silence, Gui Minhai surfaced again. This time in custody, with a policeman on either side, to deliver a forced televised confession in which he criticized the Swedish authorities. This was the third time Gui had been disgraced on Chinese television, which is a completely unique statistic, and not just for a foreign prisoner either. There are not even any Chinese activists who have been forced to “confess” their crimes on national television that many times.

Something that makes Sweden, in particular, unique in this context is that two of our citizens have been kidnapped and disgraced on Chinese television. "The Swedes who were Kidnapped by China” describes in more detail how not only Gui Minhai but also activist Peter Dahlin was abducted and met with the same fate. It may have taken the Swedish media and Swedish organisations a fair while to comprehend the gravity of the situation, but both cases had been attracting a lot of international attention from the very start.

Refused legal representation

And while Peter Dahlin was deported from China in January 2016 (after three weeks in an underground prison and a humiliating “confession” on television), at the time of writing Gui has been in prison for more than 1,000 days. During this time he has been refused legal representation, consular visits and medical examinations, despite a severely deteriorating health.

Never before has China treated a foreign political prisoner in this way. Which means that Gui Minhai's case marks uncharted territory, even for China. The regime is testing the waters: How far can it go in terms of harassment and violations of international law before Sweden and the rest of the world takes a real stand? How can you avoid criticism and direct the attention elsewhere?

Over the past year, China has switched strategy, from defending their own attacks to smearing Gui Minhai’s character. An intense smear campaign was launched by Gui Congyou, China’s new ambassador in Stockholm. Ever since he took office, the embassy has been contacting the Swedish media and sending staff out to various talks and events in the civil society in order to circulate the communist party's narrative about Gui Minhai the fraudster.

Swedish national Peter Dahlin was kidnapped by China and forced to make a humiliating “confession” on television. Foto: AP / AP CCTV VIA AP VIDEO

Via email, post and telephone, the Chinese embassy contacted Swedish newsrooms, journalists, academics, organisations and even political party leaders with the purpose of discrediting Gui. He is described as a financial fraudster whose illegal activities in Sweden resulted in the death of two people. After which he is alleged to have escaped justice by fleeing the country and continuing to live the life of a con artist in Hong Kong.

The purpose of this book is partly to follow up on developments in the Gui Minhai case since he was abducted from that train in January this year, and partly to address the Chinese smear campaign against him through, for example, interviews with people who worked alongside him in Sweden in the 1990s.

If the Chinese authorities get away with attacks and manipulating the truth, then there is a greater risk that not only will they continue, but that they will step up these activities. The more time that passes, the greater the risk that Gui Minhai will waste away behind bars too. A fate suffered by an alarming number of political prisoners in China in recent years.

Chinese ambassador Gui Congyou being interviewed by Expressen’s Arne Lapidus at the Chinese embassy in Stockholm. Foto: ERIK RÖNNQVIST

 

PART 1: ABDUCTED, HUMILIATED ON TV AND DISCREDITED 

China’s impressive network of high-speed trains is known as “the harmony express”. The irony of its name could hardly have been clearer when, on the afternoon of 20th January 2018, the G126 train rolled into Jinan, the capital of the Shandong province, home to around 100 million people. Aboard the train was Gui Minhai who, after slightly more than two years in captivity, had recently been diagnosed with motor neurone disease ALS by a neurologist in his home town of Ningbo. This neurological disorder gradually paralyses the patient as it spreads to the brain and spinal cord. On average, people with ALS have a life expectancy of two to four years.

Accompanied by consul general Lisette Lindahl and one of her colleagues, Gui was therefore on his way to Beijing to receive the best possible care. China’s ambassador in Stockholm had given the foreign ministry prior consent to take the publisher to the capital for a medical examination, which was later confirmed by the Washington Post and by Gui Minhai’s daughter, Angela Gui. However, this made absolutely no difference to the ten or so plain-clothed security agents who, in Jinan, stormed into one of the carriages and dragged Gui off, right in front of the Swedish diplomats.

Gui literally vanished without a trace after that. Until 9th February, when he showed up at a very last minute “press conference”, to which only a handful of carefully selected Chinese media representatives with close ties to the authorities were invited. “The Swedish authorities are to blame for my situation,” said Gui, flanked by two policemen. He was suggesting that Swedish diplomats had convinced him to try and escape to the embassy in Beijing, to subsequently flee the country.

Angela Gui, Gui Minhai’s daughter. Foto: PRIVATE.

The Prix Voltaire

Gui then went on to complain about having been used “like a chess piece” by Swedish politicians who were out to score cheap points in the lead up to the forthcoming general election. He was now asking the Swedish authorities to leave him alone, and for Sweden to stop “hyping up” his case. He also maintained that he had not developed ALS, despite his daughter Angela having confirmed on several occasions that her father had told her about the diagnosis. He also used the opportunity to turn down the Prix Voltaire he had just been awarded by the International Publishers Association for his courage in continuing with publishing despite the major risks involved.

During the appearance Gui was missing a tooth and, according to Angela, Gui looked “swollen”. Had Gui been tortured? The Scripted and Staged report that was released by rights activist group Safeguard Defenders in April this year reviewed 45 cases of the forced public confessions that, in so many ways, are reminiscent of Cultural Revolution China and which made a comeback under President Xi Jinping. Interviews with the victims confirm that all of them were subjected to abuse, stress positions, isolation, humiliation, threats to relatives, sleep and food deprivation or other similar methods of physical and psychological torture.

The Chinese embassy criticised Expressen and Dagens Nyheter, among others. Foto: MICHAELA HASANOVIC

Warning for Angela Gui

Gui appeared on Chinese state television as early as January 2016, to explain that he had not been kidnapped at all, but that he had in fact voluntarily handed himself over to the police in a wave of remorse for a car accident back in 2003 that he suddenly now wanted to atone for. Just one month after the first “confession”, it was time once again. This time Gui and three of his colleagues denounced their former business operation as illegal, particularly as they had smuggled thousands of books across the border to customers on mainland China.

New for the third appearance was that Gui’s family was also being dragged into it. His sister, who lives in Ningbo, now dismissed her brother in front of the Chinese journalists as naive and deranged. She also criticised the Swedish embassy for having tricked him, and issued a warning for Angela that she not allow herself to be used in the same way.

All of Europe is behind Gui Minhai

A foreign citizen being disgraced on Chinese television is very unusual in itself. The fact that it has happened three times is unparalleled. Not just among foreigners, but among Chinese activists and dissidents too. And yet it took the Swedish authorities 829 days to openly criticise China for their treatment of Gui Minhai. And only then in the form of a brief statement from Margot Wallström via the government’s website, where she expressed her “expectation” that Gui would be released. Which only happened after he had been abducted from a high-speed train in the company of Sweden’s consul general and her colleague in January this year.

After Gui had been in custody for 842 days, Margot Wallström mentioned him, also for the first time, on her otherwise very active Twitter account with more than 100,000 followers. Sources I have spoken to in Beijing confirm that diplomats from other EU countries have long been trying to get Sweden to issue sharper public criticism of China. But the Swedish authorities have resisted. One not particularly wild guess is that the hesitation is a result of the ambitious measures the government has taken to increase the economic cooperation between the two countries.

A lot of people within the European Community see Gui Minhai not just as a Swedish case, but as a case for the entire European Union. If China can get away with kidnapping and locking up a Swedish political prisoner today, then perhaps the same might happen to a German or a French citizen tomorrow. At the same time, Sweden’s reluctance to openly confront China has made it difficult for other countries to make demands. The global support for Gui Minhai became, however, apparent after Margot Wallström’s first public statement at the end of January.

Margot Wallström, Swedish Social Democratic politician who has served as Minister for Foreign Affairs. Foto: HENRIK MONTGOMERY/TT / TT NYHETSBYRÅN

Growing criticism

Almost immediately, the EU ambassador in China, Hans Dietmar Schweisgut, repeated Wallström’s appeal for the release of Gui and stated that EU “fully supported” Sweden’s efforts to secure his release. Within a couple of days, the German embassy and the US Department of Foreign Affairs expressed their support for his complete release and for him to be permitted to leave China.

At the beginning of February, Germany's Chinese ambassador Michael Clauss spoke up and made an even stronger personal statement when he said the following to the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper: “The fact that China’s authorities are treating an EU citizen in this way is unprecedented. There is widespread fear that these violations of international law, as well as the refusal to permit consular aid, could also affect other EU citizens in the future.” Clauss also emphasized the fact that all European countries with a presence in China are standing behind Sweden on this matter.

Despite growing criticism from several directions, Gui Minhai was not permitted to see doctors or diplomats after the train drama in January. This is not just a violation of international regulations, it also conflicts with the assurances China made. At the beginning of March, for example, a visiting Swedish doctor was refused permission to see Gui. Something which, in a press release, Wallström felt “violated prior assurances that our citizen would have the opportunity to see a Swedish doctor.”

Wallström’s relatively cautious statement sent China's foreign ministry reeling. During a press conference, it's spokesman Geng Shuang announced that the Swedish doctor arrived without an invitation, but that they had been kind enough to inform Gui Minhai about his arrival. Gui did not, however, wish to see the doctor. Geng went on to say that the medical examinations which had been carried out by the Chinese, by the way, showed that he was in fine physical and mental health. He called the criticism unfounded and unacceptable.

Operation Smear Campaign

It was clear that China was troubled by the growing criticism and attention towards Gui Minhai’s case. Which is why efforts to disseminate the communist party’s narrative were stepped up. In August 2017, the Chinese embassy in Stockholm’s Djurgården district welcomed a new ambassador by the name of Gui Congyou. The appointment seemed extraordinary in that Gui Congyou acknowledged in an interview with the Chinese media that, prior to this post, he had never set foot in Sweden, nor had he ever even made the acquaintance of a Swedish person.

Instead, Gui Congyou’s career has focused entirely on Eastern Europe and Central Asia - and propaganda. His resume includes a position at the Chinese embassy in Moscow, where he worked for more than a decade. He also rushed to Russia’s defence after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. “China is in principle opposed to referendums on independence,” Gui Congyou said after Russian tanks had thundered into Ukraine. “But that doesn’t apply to Crimea.”

Prior to that, his career in the communist party began in 1991 where he worked for an institution within the party’s central committee that shapes ideologies and political theories. We’re talking about two years after the Tiananmen Square massacre. At the time, it was crucial for the party’s survival to create the narrative that protesters killed by tanks and machine guns were in fact criminals who had been manipulated by foreign powers.

Antidemocratic old-school theorist

Simply put, Gui Congyou is some sort of antidemocratic old-school theorist who was now going to try and implement his tried and tested methods in Sweden. Rather than knowledge about or connections with Sweden, the evidence suggests that Gui Congyou was appointed with the goal of using various methods to change the overall perception of Gui Minhai’s case in our public debate.

In November, the embassy sent their political secretary and an interpreter to a panel debate at the ABF building in Stockholm. A debate which the ABF had arranged in cooperation with FokusKina (formerly the Swedish-Chinese Association). During a round of questions, the embassy secretary took the floor solely to deliver a protracted monologue about China’s “alternative view” of human rights and our ignorance about the Gui Minhai case. The speech has been described as “offensive” and “aggressive” by people who were there and who I contacted after the event. One member of the audience felt the monologue was “threatening” and compared the embassy’s attendance to a watchful eye.

But more importantly, Gui Congyou had begun contacting the Swedish media, in particular those reporting about China and Gui Minhai. This strategy became clear at the beginning of June, when a radio programme on Swedish public service radio station P1 aired a long interview with the ambassador. He had contacted the programme (Konflikt) about an earlier segment on China, which the embassy told them was unacceptable and riddled with factual errors. Purely out of “good will and kindness” they now wished to give an interview to put things right.

The Swedish public service radio. Foto: ALEX LJUNGDAHL

Ambassador hesitated

The most startling segments of the interview that the ambassador now bestowed upon P1 were, unsurprisingly, about Gui Minhai and Peter Dahlin. Any “Swedish friends” who wished to comment on the case, Gui Congyou suggested, should first get in touch with the Chinese embassy for the facts. When asked why Gui Minhai was currently in prison, after he had been declared free in October 2017, the ambassador hesitated and then referred to the forced confession, which also included the fact that Gui was about to reveal a number of undefined state secrets.

The ambassador then went on to suggest they had permitted Gui Minhai to hold this press conference - i.e. the forced confession - which he had requested, in order to protect his human rights. Gui Minhai has apparently done the right thing in contemplating his crimes, and the ambassador now urged the Swedish authorities to do the same.

The programme’s host Ivar Ekman then asked, somewhat rhetorically, why we should believe that Gui was speaking from his heart when, after his deportation from China, Peter Dahlin declared that his similar “confession” on Chinese television only happened after he was subjected to torture in the form of sleep deprivation and threats towards his girlfriend, who had also been arrested. And if that weren’t enough, Dahlin had also been given a script he was told to read from.

Gui Congyou replied that Dahlin was a dishonest person. “Why has Peter Dahlin said something that he didn’t want to or didn’t mean?” the ambassador asked, subsequently adding that he himself was an honest person who refuses to speak against his will or say anything he does not mean, regardless of the circumstances. A poorly disguised threat was also delivered to our government: Chinese authorities do not want Sweden to pressure China with their views on Gui Minhai. If the Swedish authorities persist in doing so, then according to Gui Congyou, it would “severely harm the bilateral relations.”

Attempts to discredit

During the segment, Ivar Ekman said that the ambassador also dedicated “a lot of time to trying to discredit” Gui Minhai, using anecdotes from China as well as his former life in Sweden. Konflikt chose not to air these parts of the interview, however, as they cannot be confirmed and Gui cannot speak for himself as he is locked up.

It soon became clear, however, what these attempts to discredit him were all about. At the beginning of June, two and a half years after Gui Minhai was first kidnapped, an appeal demanding that Gui be released was published in 37 Swedish newspapers. It was signed by 45 sinologists, academics, authors, cultural professionals and leaders in commerce, trade and industry, as well as the Left Party’s Jonas Sjöstedt. Of these, more than two thirds would be soon contacted via email, post, text message or telephone by the Chinese embassy. Even several journalists who had not signed the appeal received the same material.

This material claimed that, in 1995, Gui Minhai had registered a private company by the name of the Gothenburg International Institute (GII) with SEK 50,000 in capital. Gui was accused of, together with two Swedish professors and without the university’s authorisation, having lied that GII was part of the University of Gothenburg and lured more than a hundred Chinese students to Sweden with promises of a desirable degree and then cheated them out of their money.

According to the embassy, this in turn led to the Chinese students landing heavily in debt and being forced to resort to off the books work, theft and prostitution. Two of them committed suicide in their despair. When the scandal emerged, only SEK 28,000 could be repaid to each student, as Gui Minhai and his colleagues had embezzled the rest. After this, Gui could no longer remain in Sweden and fled to China to escape the long arm of the law.

Jonas Sjöstedt (Left Party) made a stand against the kidnapping of Gui Minhai. Foto: CLAUDIO BRESCIANI/TT / TT NYHETSBYRÅN

 

PART 2: LIES AND OPPRESSION

For the purpose of this book, several people who knew and worked with Gui Minhai during his time in Sweden have been interviewed. Among them are Claes-Göran Alvstam and Jens Allwood, two professors from the University of Gothenburg (GU) who founded the Gothenburg International Institute (GII). The third founder, Thommy Svensson, who later served as chairman for GII from a new post in Copenhagen, also acted as a mentor to Gui Minhai for a few years while he was working on his master's thesis and doctoral dissertation.

Gui came to Gothenburg for the first time in 1988, together with his wife, to study. The following year the Tiananmen Square Massacre happened, after which all Chinese intellectuals were put in immediate danger. Gui was therefore issued a residence permit and in 1992 he became a Swedish citizen. Opinions are divided about who had the idea or took the initiative for GII, which was founded in 1995. Even if Gui Minhai was the institute’s director for a while, it is clear that he - at the time a penniless post-graduate student - did not contribute any funds when it was being set up. It is also clear that Gui Minhai “was not involved in the responsibility for the education,” as one of the people I interviewed put it.

Asking questions

In addition, it was the three founders who were legally responsible for the project. Consequently, it was also these three academics who found themselves in the crossfire, in the media as well as the investigations, when people began asking questions. In the University of Gothenburg's internal audit report about GII from 1999, Gui Minhai’s name is not mentioned anywhere. Nor is he named in any of the many articles published by the Göteborgs-Posten newspaper on the subject.

One of the founders explains how Gui Minhai was recruited by GII to be their CEO with the task of acting as a link to China. His responsibilities included selecting Chinese students as well as practicalities like board and lodging during their studies in Sweden. Gui, therefore, had nothing to do with whether or not the course GII was offering was legitimate.

When GII was founded, it was not permitted for Swedish universities to charge foreign students for tuition. This procedure was not introduced on a national scale until autumn 2011. But by the mid 1990s, the ruling conservative government at the time had already given the impression that it was something that should be tested, recalls one of the professors. It was also something being encouraged by the university’s principal Jan Ling, whereupon GII was established as a kind of pilot project.

Problematic recruitment

The institute would handle the recruitment of Chinese students and charge them tuition fees. The money would then be transferred to the University of Gothenburg which, according to the university’s own internal audit, also happened. Contrary to the Chinese embassy’s claims, the university was well aware of the project and supported it. Lectures and graduation ceremonies alike were held on university property. On one occasion, principal Jan Ling even welcomed GII’s students during an assembly in the university’s auditorium.

Everyone involved, however, recalls that the recruitment from China which Gui was in charge of turned out to be problematic. But that was for completely different reasons than financial ones. A lot of the students who came to GII, it turned out, could not understand, speak or read English. Those involved described it as a “shock” when the first of the two year groups arrived.

During the recruitment process they were supposed to have passed an international test for English skills, such as IELTS and TOEFL, which had been held in China. The accepted students had good test results, which made at least one of the interviewed founders later consider the possibility of falsified results or bribes, which was rife in the Chinese educational system at the time.

The University of Gothenburg. Foto: PER WISSING / GT/EXPRESSEN

Not suicide

Regardless, only half of the exactly 60 students in total - i.e. not “over a hundred” as the embassy claims - from the two year groups who studied at the University of Gothenburg passed. The circumstances according to the Chinese embassy, therefore, are supposed to have led to two of the students taking their own lives. The two deaths did indeed occur, but only one of them was suicide. And even then, it was not related to their educational situation. The resulting police investigation directed absolutely no accusations towards GII who, in addition, were in contact with the relatives in China with no animosity whatsoever.

The case was primarily, as one of the founders said, “a tragic situation” that in all likelihood was down to personal reasons. And the other case was not suicide, it was an accident. At the time of the accident, the student was no longer a member of the group, but had in fact already left the programme. The Chinese embassy has quite simply, for the purpose of their own propaganda, named and exploited two people who under unfortunate circumstances died in Sweden.

In 1998, Sweden changed governments and the Social Democrats took to power. In addition, just before this event, the University of Gothenburg had also appointed a new principal, Bo Samuelsson. One of GII’s founders recalls how the authorities as well as the university’s new administration were no longer as sympathetic to charging foreign students for tuition. Principal Samuelsson turned to the Ministry of Education and Research and, in 1999, the National Agency for Higher Education ruled that it was wrong to make the Chinese students pay for their education.

Independent investigation

Following this, GII was not only forced to shut down, but they were also forced to reimburse the students. This happened immediately, but by the University of Gothenburg, who had already received the money from GII. Even students who had completed their education and already graduated demanded and received reimbursement. The amount of SEK 28,000 referred to by the Chinese embassy is correct, it was the actual tuition fee after costs for board and hotel lodging had been deducted.

Regardless, Gui had already left GII and was out of the picture when the decision about reimbursement was made. After a divorce, Gui had returned to China in 1999 to work with the import and export of environmental technology, an area where opportunities were growing fast as China’s economy flourished. It was not until the mid-2000s that Gui Minhai began writing political literature, became a member of the Chinese arm of PEN International and become involved in freedom of speech issues.

In December 1999, law firm Lagerlöf & Leman presented their independent investigation of GII. It showed that none of the people involved or employed could be suspected of having committed any crime or even any misconduct. This is because the university’s administration at that time supported the project and approved its design and implementation. Furthermore, auditors Ernst & Young had the task of reviewing the finances prior to the reimbursements. Although they found obvious flaws in the accounting, they did not find any evidence of financial crimes.

An attempt to shif the focus

More importantly, everyone I speak to about GII emphasizes how odd it is that this is only being raised now. “The Chinese authorities have had 20 years, why are they playing this card now?” one of the people involved asks rhetorically. He was never accused of any irregularities relating to GII whatsoever after all of the above investigations were presented, despite his role as co-founder and board member. On the contrary, he had no difficulty on subsequent occasions maintaining professional academic contacts with China.

Furthermore, the smear campaign contains several contradictions. The most obvious being that when Gui Minhai was abducted from the high-speed train, he was accused of having tried to flee China with the help of the Swedish authorities. But in the new defamation campaign, they are also claiming that Gui Minhai permanently left Sweden to escape justice.

The narrative that the Chinese embassy is now attempting to create is a text book example of an art form that the Chinese communist party have mastered to perfection: character assassination. They pick up a story that has a grain of truth. Then they twist it, inflate it, lie, add to it and repeat it until everyone else grows sick of it or is scared off.

Gui Minhais character

But ultimately the defamation of Gui Minhai constitutes an attempt to shift the focus away from China's own abuse, and instead get the discussion to revolve around Gui Minhai's character. Because regardless how much money Gui Minhai may have embezzled for himself in Sweden 20 years ago, it definitely does not justify the Chinese authorities’ current treatment of him. Even if those responsible for GII had actually been convicted by law firms or internal audits, that still would not have worked as an excuse for kidnapping Gui in Thailand, shutting down his bookshop in Hong Kong and keeping him locked up for more than 1,000 days without a trial.

Now it may well be unclear whether Gui Minhai was primarily driven by a desire to protect free speech. A lot of the literature he published in Hong Kong contains sordid stories about individual politicians or the power struggles in China’s murky political world. The defamatory literature was not always based on thorough research, but rather it represented exactly the type of story that an increasing number of tourists from mainland China wanted to read.

“His interest in business turned out to be stronger than his interest in academia,” noted someone I interviewed who was close to Gui during his time at the University of Gothenburg. The evidence suggests that the financial reward - and perhaps even the thrill of it - was just as much a driving force as the moral aspect behind the publishing business that Gui and his colleagues were running in Hong Kong. But that of course does not matter. You should not be imprisoned for publishing in Hong Kong, where the constitution still guarantees freedom of speech and the press, regardless. Particularly since Gui Minhai held only a Swedish citizenship and not a Chinese one, as China does not permit dual citizenship. His daughter Angela Gui has also said that he did not even have any local identification documentation in Hong Kong. 

Smear campaigns and misinformation

It is essential that we not be fooled by the Chinese authorities, who have a wealth of experience in smear campaigns and misinformation. If we allow the debate to shift focus towards Gui’s background, then the Chinese ambassador has already won - even if he is proved wrong.

The smear campaign however was not terribly effective. Among the recipients of the misinformation about Gui Minhai who I have spoken with, irritation and surprise are two of the most common reactions. If at first you don't succeed... Instead, the the Chinese embassy then doubled down by attacking and discrediting the media and journalists who have been drawing attention to Gui's fate or China's general lack of freedom of press.

At the beginning of July, news coverage from Expressen, Dagens Nyheter and news agency TT among others, was criticised in several separate press releases on the embassy’s website. Their reports about the above topics were said to be “unacceptable” and proof of Swedish “media tyranny”. The embassy also sent protest letters to each of the editorial offices.

Unprecedented attack

I soon became one of the targets in the campaign myself, which is perfectly natural considering the book and many articles I have written on the subject. In one of the press releases I was mentioned by name and referred to as “misleading” and “shameless”. The embassy suggested that anyone with the “slightest sense and ability to make their own assessment” could easily see how my false articles merely intend to discredit China, a country which I furthermore did not understand.

According to the Association of Taiwan Journalists - I have been living in Taiwan since I was denied a Chinese visa in 2016 due to my work - this attack was unprecedented. Taiwan may well be the one country in this world that is most affected by China. Nevertheless, Ian Chen who is chairman of Taiwan's Journalists’ Association had never heard of an individual journalist being discredited on an embassy website like that before. The attack was also criticised by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and Reporters Without Borders. Even the Swedish foreign ministry said that they had been in contact with the Chinese embassy about the attacks.

Jojje Olsson is a journalist and author, based in Taiwan. He regularly writes about China for Expressen. Foto: MELA PAN / HISTORISKA MEDIA

"Have you ever been to China?"

How the Chinese embassy’s mentality nevertheless remained unchanged was clearly evident in an interview with Expressen that was published at the end of July. After having been invited, the newspaper sent reporter Arne Lapidus to the embassy, where they proceeded to introduce him to a number of classic tricks straight out of the manual for the Communist Party’s dissemination of propaganda.

“The majority of journalists have a very friendly attitude towards China, they try to promote friendship and cooperation between our countries. Only a very few have some criticisms,” said Gui Congyou after Lapidus was greeted, seated in a comfortable armchair and served a cup of Chinese tea. He complained again that the embassy’s “reminders” that this type of criticism was wrong if one wished to preserve the cooperation and bilateral friendship, had not had the effect that the embassy had hoped for.

“Which is why,” said Gui Congyou, “these kinds of journalists’ hostilities towards China must be pointed out.” Because the hostilities could “harm the friendship between our people and countries.” In other words, they were trying to portray the journalists who were drawing attention to Gui Minhai or China’s non-existent freedom of press as some kind of rowdy minority. 

When Lapidus then quoted reports from organisations like IFJ or Reporters Without Borders - who ranked China 176th of 180 countries when it comes to freedom of press - the ambassador said he was not familiar with these: “I have never heard anyone say that the media climate in China is getting worse every year.” Instead he tried, once again, to push the narrative about the rowdy minority: “A few Swedish and foreign journalists claim that China's media climate is getting worse. They should have a think about how they themselves act first.”

Gui Minhai. Foto: PRIVATE

The pattern

The ambassador completely disregarded the above-mentioned reports, which are based on interviews with hundreds of foreign reporters in China, and instead said to Lapidus: “I hope you are going to visit China and ask these journalists what they think, and whether their opinion is consistent with that of these so-called organisations.”

If you are familiar with Chinese propaganda you will clearly recognise the pattern. Anyone with opinions about the Communist Party's inability to comply with China’s constitution - which guarantees, for example, freedom of press and freedom of speech - belongs to a minority which, if permitted to continue, could potentially jeopardize any economic cooperation agreements that small nations have with China. In addition, they are either “ignorant” or “have prejudices” towards China.

“Have you ever been to China?” hissed foreign minister Wang Yi during a press conference in Canada in the summer of 2016, when a Canadian reporter asked her own foreign minister about the state of human rights in China. After the Canadian foreign minister had replied evasively, Wang Yi spoke up, visibly upset by the journalist’s question.

He scolded the reporter and implied her question was full of arrogance and prejudices against China. Did she not know that protection and promotion of human rights is guaranteed in China's constitution? “Only Chinese people should comment on the human rights situation in China,” emphasized Wang. Meanwhile, hundreds of human rights lawyers and activists had been abducted and imprisoned the previous summer in the so-called “709 crackdown”, which was one of the biggest attacks on China's civilians in modern history.

President Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders attend the closing meeting of the first session of the 13th National People's Congress. Foto: JU PENG / XINHUA/AVALON.RED B950

Outright lying

When Gui Minhai was mentioned during Arne Lapidus’ interview in the armchairs at the Chinese embassy, the ambassador replied that he meets up with his Swedish colleagues at the Swedish foreign ministry every week to discuss the matter. He even said that the case could contribute positively to the bilateral relations, provided it is handled in accordance with the law and with mutual respect (!).

Then the outright lying began: “We have always had a positive approach towards Sweden's request to send Swedish doctors and diplomats to him.” This claim came six months after Gui Minhai was kidnapped in the company of two Swedish diplomats, and four months after the doctor sent to China by the Swedish foreign ministry was turned away at the door. During the Almedalen week-long political event in July, Wallström continued that they had “really expressed again and again and again” their desire to send diplomatic staff and doctors to visit Gui.”

During the Arne Lapidus interview, Gui Congyou also went on to discredit me and blatantly lie about the fact that the embassy had allegedly warned me about my visa situation before I was suddenly banned from entering China in 2016. The interview was then posted on the Chinese embassy’s website in both English and Chinese. In the Chinese version, however, funnily enough everything about Gui Minhai had been omitted.

Much about China's actions suggests an unshakable reluctance to release Gui Minhai, despite his four colleagues already having been released. In recent times, very few people - native activists included - have been imprisoned without trial for as long as Gui has. It is difficult to know exactly why it has happened to him specifically. Perhaps the reason is personal. There are rumours that Gui’s publishers was getting ready to publish a book that contained details about President Xi Jinping’s private life and love life just before Gui was kidnapped in Thailand in October 2015.

Photographs of the bookstore shareholders Gui Minhai, (L), and Lee Bo, are taped to barriers outside the China Liaison Office during a protest in Hong Kong in 2016. Foto: JEROME FAVRE / EPA

China prefers quiet diplomacy

If Gui Minhai was released now he would be able to talk about his ordeals, such as torture and threats prior to his forced televised confessions. The longer Gui remains imprisoned the less likely he is to get out alive. Unfortunately this wording is not as exaggerated as it might seem. Ever since Xi Jinping became President, several activists and dissidents have died in prison, either suddenly or of illnesses that developed behind bars.

The most notable example of this is Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, who died of cancer last summer. He had been in prison since 2009, but it was not until a couple of weeks before Liu's death that it was suddenly announced he was suffering from such advanced stage liver cancer that he had been moved from the prison to a hospital. Liu, however, was refused the best possible care for his cancer abroad, or even in Beijing. Instead the Nobel Peace Prize recipient died in a hospital in northeast China's rust belt that had been cordoned off by the police.

Liu's suffering became known outside China, thanks to his celebrity status. It is, however, important to remember that he is just one of several political prisoners who have met with the same fate in China over the past five years. But despite the darkness, there is hope. Without ever having been suspected of a crime, Liu’s widow Liu Xia had been imprisoned in the harshest of house arrests since her husband was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. But in July this year, Liu Xia was finally permitted to leave China and move to Germany.

China’s President Xi Jinping. Foto: SERGEI CHIRIKOV / AP TT NYHETSBYRÅN

Concrete actions

Katrin Kinzelbach, vice chairman of the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, said after the release to the South China Morning Post that China always insists on these problems being resolved through quiet diplomacy. As long as the other side remains quiet in public, the Chinese side promises to be cooperative. But Kinzelbach emphasized that in order for quiet diplomacy to work, it also has to involve concrete actions.

German diplomats persistently visited Liu Xia’s home on several occasions, in often futile attempts to meet her or deliver books. The case was discussed behind closed doors, while people like ambassador Michael Class did not hesitate to raise the subject in public. They even got the White House and the US embassy to cooperate with Germany. “You really do have to demonstrate that you are willing and able to step things up,” stated Kinzelbach, adding that without pressure there are no incentives for the Chinese authorities to take action.

Because we all know that China is extremely sensitive to international critique. Otherwise they would not have put so much time and energy into preventing this, or have civil servants like Gui Congyou to constantly circulate the party’s narrative. China’s regime is trying to make the country out to be a responsible superpower using various methods to spread culture and “soft power”. Constantly being scrutinized for regular attacks against the most fundamental of human rights is therefore highly inconvenient.

Political prisoner

The Swedish authorities have, to a large degree, heeded Beijing’s requests to remain silent. Margot Wallström did not even mention Gui Minhai when, on 14 February, she presented the government's foreign policy statement. When she was asked about this in an interview on Swedish public service radio station P1 later that day, the foreign minister replied that Sweden was working with “a lot of consular cases” and wondered why therefore only one or two of these would be highlighted.

Despite the fact that it relates to a political prisoner who was kidnapped in a third country, the foreign ministry still refers to Gui Minhai as a consular case rather than a political one. Even worse than that, during the same radio interview Wallström said that it would be “the wrong approach” to put pressure on China over Gui Minhai, as Sweden is a “minor player” whose actions would not have much of an impact on China.

Her words were in fact almost an exact replica of how the situation was described in the Chinese state media that same week. They also came just over a week after Geng Shuang, spokesman for the foreign ministry, described in a statement Wallström’s demand for release as “irresponsible” and encouraged Sweden to “recognise the gravity” of the situation.

Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson

As I explain in more detail in "The Swedes who were Kidnapped by China” the way this case is being handled differs considerably to, for example, the case in which journalists Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson were kidnapped and imprisoned in Ethiopia in 2011. That case escalated from a consular matter to a major political issue within just a few months and the 2012 foreign policy statement demanded that they both be released. After which, it was revealed that Sweden’s having sought support from the EU and the US, who regularly pressured Ethiopia about the two Swedes, had been crucial for the outcome. The statements from ambassadors Hans Dietmar Schweisgut and Michael Clauss clearly demonstrate that the same support is available when it comes to Gui Minhai.

But then there is the matter of economics. Last year, exports to China were up by 27 percent and the government has a clear-cut strategy to attract Chinese investors to Sweden. Export statistics and direct investments are both expected to set new records this year. Considering the direct threats that people like Gui Congyou have made about how Gui Minhai could have an impact on bilateral relations, it is perhaps understandable that the government is not making a lot of noise.

Journalists Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson were released after 438 days in an Ethiopian prison. Foto: SAMUEL UNÉUS

Inconvenience

Angela has spoken about her father at places like the American Congress, British Parliament and the UN Human Rights Council. No invitation, however, has been forthcoming from the Swedish Parliament or any other Swedish authority. The media and the rest of society also took their time. “The Gothenburg Book Fair feels like an insult to my father,” wrote Angela in Expressen when the agenda for the 2017 event only contained one item relating to her father despite him actually having lived in Gothenburg!

In stark contrast to the Schibbye and Persson case, the Swedish foreign ministry has kept Angela at arm’s length. She was told very early on not to contact the embassy in Beijing and, despite several enquiries, Margot Wallström has not even wanted to talk to Angela on the phone. It was not until after the train incident in January this year that Wallström reluctantly gave her a call.

“I hope that the Swedish and other authorities will make as much noise as possible,” said Angela after her father was abducted from the train, and called for concrete actions rather than constantly repeating the comment about how “unacceptable” the treatment of her father is. This attitude is probably making her a bit of an inconvenience for the Swedish foreign ministry. Earlier this year, Swedish authorities had no problem deporting a Russian diplomat after the attempted murder of double agent Sergej Skripal in the UK, but refuse to act in a similar manner as China puts the life of one of our citizens at risk.

Gui Minhai forced to make a humiliating “confession” on television.

Medical examination

In mid-August, when the final sentences of this book were being written, the Swedish foreign ministry were able to announce that a Swedish doctor had been permitted to visit Gui Minhai. Margot Wallström gave no specific details, as “ongoing discussions are subject to confidentiality.” The extent of the medical examination is also unclear, even less so how Gui is actually feeling.

It is also unclear what prompted them to allow the visit at all. Should it require 1,000 days of quiet diplomacy for a doctor to finally be allowed to visit a political prisoner? Or was it more to do with the increase in media attention and public interest that the case has been generating throughout 2018? We can only speculate. At the time of the doctor’s visit, Margot Wallström nevertheless repeated for the first time since March the demand that Gui Minhai must be released and reunited with his family.

A lot about the Gui Minhai case is uncharted territory even for China. Never before has a foreign political prisoner been treated in this way. When you do not know what you can get away with, you push bit by bit. Cédric Alviani, director of Reporters Without Borders’ Asia division said over the summer that Gui Minhai represents “a test” on China’s part to determine whether Europe is willing to speak up.

Was it the Swedish authorities’ relative silence and inaction about Gui Minhai that gave the Chinese embassy the courage to conduct a smear campaign against the Swedish media? Whatever the reason, it is important to make a stand in good time. Otherwise this kind of activity will not only continue, it will escalate.

Similarly, it is important to make sure the Chinese authorities understand that we will neither accept nor believe the narrative they are currently trying to circulate about Gui Minhai and his character. Otherwise there will be less chance of him ever being released and a greater chance of this kind of thing happening to more foreign citizens in future.

 

Jojje Olsson

Jojje Olsson is a journalist and author, based in Taiwan. He regularly writes about China for Expressen.

Translation Laura Crane-Åkerblom

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