Gui Minhai case a test of longstanding Sweden-China friendship

February 19, 2016 15:41
The Gui Minhai case might put Sweden’s human rights diplomacy to a rigorous test, given the high stakes involved. Photo: CCTV

The disappearance in Thailand last year of mainland China-born Gui Minhai, a naturalized Swedish citizen and co-owner of the publishing firm in Hong Kong run by Lee Bo, and his recent reappearance on Chinese national television saying he returned to the mainland voluntarily to turn himself in to police for a crime he committed a decade ago, has set off a diplomatic controversy between Sweden and China.

There has been widespread speculation in Hong Kong that Gui was abducted by Chinese security officials in Thailand and smuggled across the border into China, and that something similar happened to Lee, who vanished from Hong Kong in December.

Even though Gui was seen on TV saying he has roots in China and asking the Swedish authorities to respect his choice and let him resolve his problem on his own, he is after all a Swedish national, and under international diplomatic protocols there is no way Stockholm can look the other way.

In fact Swedish law enforcement authorities have dispatched a task force to Thailand to work with Thai police to find out how exactly Gui left Thailand without leaving behind any departure records.

In the meantime, the Swedish Foreign Ministry has expressed formal disapproval of the way Beijing handled Gui’s case.

The Swedish Embassy also expressed deep regret after its request for a meeting with Gui was rejected by Beijing, and demanded further explanation from the Chinese authorities.

Obviously Stockholm has been pretty upset by Beijing’s cold shoulder.

Ironically, Sweden has been Beijing’s “longstanding and steadfast friend” ever since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, especially during the height of the Cold War.

Throughout the 1950s and '60s, Sweden was among the very handful of western countries that dared to risk angering Washington and insisted on maintaining economic and diplomatic ties with Beijing.

Today Sweden remains China’s biggest trading partner in Scandinavia.

However, despite Stockholm’s close ties with Beijing, Sweden has never refrained from criticizing China’s human rights record.

The northern European country is well-known for its outspoken stance on human rights around the world, and “human rights diplomacy” has been the main theme dominating Stockholm’s diplomatic policy over the years.

While other major European powers, like Britain and Germany, are eager to downplay human rights issues in the face of enormous business opportunities, Sweden has always demonstrated its unshaken determination to uphold human rights worldwide, even at the expense of vast economic interest, and won the respect of human rights activists around the world.

The latest example was Stockholm’s decision last year to cancel a US$500 million arms export deal with Saudi Arabia in protest of Riyadh’s refusal to allow the Swedish foreign minister to speak on human rights issues at the League of Arab States summit.

In the foreign ministry in Stockholm, a human rights ambassador is appointed to monitor the human rights situation in countries with diplomatic ties with Sweden, including China.

However, the Gui case may put Sweden’s human rights diplomacy to another rigorous test, given the high stakes involved.

If Beijing is willing to soften its stance and give Stockholm some face, it is very likely that the matter will be resolved gently.

Yet if the Gui case eventually escalated into a diplomatic confrontation, it would certainly take its toll on the six-decade-old friendship between Beijing and Stockholm.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb. 18.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal