The tragic story of Swedish book publisher Gui Minhai is far more than just a sad commentary on the skewed state of China’s relations with the international community.
The saga of Gui Minhai is both a personal tragedy and a cautionary tale for foreign governments which think they can interact with China according to accepted rules of international diplomacy.
Gui, 53, is a Chinese born Swedish national who first made headlines in 2015 when he went missing from Thailand while holidaying there. He eventually resurfaced in China amid allegations that he had been abducted by Chinese agents seeking to punish him for his role in the publication of a number of salacious books about senior Chinese leaders, which first appeared in Hong Kong. Three months later he confessed to involvement in a fatal traffic accident in China in 2003 and was held in detention until October 2017.
Numerous inconsistencies in his confession buttressed a widespread belief that Gui was innocent of the crime attributed to him. So too, did the fact that four other Hong Kong-based publishers resurfaced in China around the same time, under similarly suspect circumstances. Much like Gui, they had published or distributed material the Chinese authorities objected to.
On Jan. 20, Gui returned to the international limelight, this time when Chinese security officials forcibly removed him from a train traveling to Beijing from the eastern Chinese city of Ningbo. He was in the company of two Swedish diplomats and was en route to be examined by a Swedish specialist for symptoms consistent with ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease), a degenerative motor neurone condition. On Feb. 9, Chinese authorities released a video interview of Gui, in which he alleged that he had been duped by Sweden into participating in an illegal attempt to leave Chinese territory. The video has been widely panned as absurdist fiction.
Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom has condemned China’s (most recent) treatment of Gui, though in such anodyne language that she was widely pilloried in the Swedish press for supposedly kowtowing to Chinese power. Swedish journalists were quick to point out that Wallstrom’s response may have been shaped by her keen awareness of the wide-ranging export embargo China imposed on neighboring Norway to protest the awarding of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to the now deceased Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. The prize was awarded by the Norwegian Nobel Committee rather than the Norwegian government, but imbued by its “kill the chicken to frighten the monkey” mentality, the Chinese government appeared to be deliberately indifferent to the distinction.
The only way a relatively small European nation like Sweden can stand up to Chinese power is by acting within the framework of a larger bloc — in this case the European Union.
In criticizing Wallstrom’s alleged kowtowing, Dagens Nyheter, Sweden’s largest newspaper, editorialized that the only way a relatively small European nation like Sweden can stand up to Chinese power is by acting within the framework of a larger bloc — in this case the European Union. That sounds like extremely sound advice for countries around the world that are now becoming more and more concerned by China’s escalating attempts to impose its own authoritarian rules on the conduct of international relations.
Yet it remains to be seen whether it will ever be adopted. China’s economic clout is now so pervasive that many countries will be tempted to take the easy way out — compromising their principles to ensure they do not miss out on perceived economic opportunities.
Taiwan has a huge stake in what they eventually do. China has clearly shown that it cares little for international convention — not only in cases like that of Gui Minhai, but also in the projection of its power in the South China Sea and in the resolution of other pressing disputes with its neighbors. It is already testing the limits of the international pushback to its aggressive attitude to the Taiwanese government of President Tsai Ing-wen. Obviously, the less the pushback develops, the more Beijing will be emboldened to act. To many, Gui Minhai’s nightmare may seem like an isolated case, but looked at from a Taiwanese perspective, he is the canary in the coal mine, an early warning signal that could portend disaster.
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