The case of Gui Minhai shows very clearly the limits of quiet diplomacy with China. Despite this, a statement and an interview today hint that the Swedish Foreign Minister intends to continue with the same approach. This is also a clear contrast with how Sweden has handled similar cases in the past.
Michael Clauss, the German ambassador to China, last week made a brave and unusual statement. The first European ambassador to speak on the record regarding detained publisher Gui Minhai, Clauss told German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung that all of Europe supports Sweden in taking a harder line against China to secure Gui’s release.
Germany, and many other European countries, see Gui not just as a Swedish case but as a case for the entire EU. Hence, Clauss also underscored a “widespread worry” within the union that citizens from other member countries could also be subject to the same treatment as Gui because of the quiet diplomacy with which Sweden’s government has handled the issue.
In fact, it was only until late January this year that Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström made her first official statement calling for Gui’s release since he was kidnapped by Chinese security agents in Thailand in October 2015. And this short statement was only issued after 10 Chinese plainclothes police rushed into a train and snatched Gui in front of two Swedish diplomats while on his way from eastern China to Beijing for medical treatment for a life-threatening neurological disease he is believed to have developed while behind bars.
After this dramatic re-detention, Gui’s daughter, Angela Gui, was also finally allowed to speak to Wallström on the phone — the first time since her father disappeared, despite several requests in the past 850 days to do so. Early in this nightmare, Angela had already been specifically told by Sweden’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to not contact the Swedish embassy in Beijing. And during an interview, she told me that Lars Fredén, the Swedish ambassador to China from 2010 until 2016, avoided her outright when they ended up at the same social event in Stockholm.
Different people, different treatment
The contrast with Sweden’s handling of a recent similar case is striking. When two Swedish journalists, Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson, ended up in Ethiopian prison in 2011, both the Swedish prime minister and foreign minister quickly became personally involved in the case. Both attended a conference in London specifically to meet with the Ethiopian prime minister. Then, foreign minister Carl Bildt travelled to Ethiopia twice to secure the release of the two Swedes, while prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt branded Ethiopia a “dictatorship” during a parliamentary session.
In Addis Ababa, Swedish ambassador Jens Odlander and his first secretary Fredrik Spik made frequent visits to the prison were the two journalists were held, carrying personal messages between them and their families.
When the two Swedes were released after 438 days — after a “confession” not unlike the ones Gui Minhai has been forced to do back in China — Schibbye extended his “enormous gratitude” to the two diplomats for working “around the clock” to get Schibbye and his colleague out of prison. In an interview, Spik said he had been working together with the ambassador “basically day and night for a whole year” on the case.
Later, when launching his book Quiet Diplomacy (2014), ambassador Odlander said that when Schibbye and Persson were first kidnapped, the case was handled as a consular matter. But after several months, when quiet diplomacy did not have the desired effect, it was made into a political matter. He also emphasized that cooperation with the U.S. and the European Union to put pressure on Ethiopia had been a decisive factor in resolving the case.
Odlander revealed how then-British prime minister David Cameron had written directly to the Ethiopian prime minister to call for the release of the two Swedes. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the UN at the time, as well as then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and several members of U.S. Congress, raised the issue in meetings with representatives from the Ethiopian government.
Quiet diplomacy to continue
Nevertheless, after 850 days and counting, “quiet diplomacy” still dominates Sweden’s handling of the Gui Minhai’s case, which is still regarded as a consular rather than political matter. This all became embarrassingly clear today (Feb. 14), when Margot Wallström presented the annual Statement of Government Policy in the Parliamentary Debate on Foreign Affairs.
Gui did not receive a single mention in this statement, in sharp contrast with her predecessor, Bildt, who in the same statement back in 2012 demanded the release of the two Swedish journalists. When asked by Swedish public radio why Gui was left out of the statement, Wallström bluntly replied: “We are working with many consular matters … why should we mention only one or two names?”
“We are working with many consular matters … why should we mention only one or two names?”
She then proceeded to say that attempting to put any kind of pressure on China, including on the economy or trade, was “the wrong way to go” as Sweden is a small country whose actions would not make a big difference to China anyway. Hence, the Swedish foreign minister was actually repeating Chinese propaganda in CCP mouthpiece the Global Times, which at the weekend issued veiled threats to the “small country” of Sweden in a much observed op-ed.
To the suggestion of putting pressure on China, Wallström even said that “this is not how consular work should be carried out.” This made plainly clear that a Swedish citizen kidnapped by the Chinese regime in a third country is still, after 850 days, viewed as a consular affair by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Perhaps Wallström got her fingers burnt last week after issuing a second statement similar to the first one in late January, which called for Gui’s release.
In the second statement, issued on Feb. 5, Wallström also questioned the application of rule of law in China, “including the prohibition of arbitrary deprivation of liberty.” She also posted a link to the statement on her very active Twitter account, which was her first tweet ever about Gui.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry immediately issued an angry response to this second statement. Its spokesman, Geng Shuang, said that “irresponsible” comments like this were “unacceptable,” and that Sweden must understand the serious nature of the case as well as the “disgraceful” role played by several Swedish people.
Economy and trade
After this, the Swedish authorities said nothing. Today’s Statement of Government Policy in the Parliamentary Debate on Foreign Affairs, and the interview with Wallström on Swedish public radio, raise serious questions as to whether Sweden is willing to accept help from the European Union to put pressure on China, as the German ambassador was essentially offering last week.
Without doubt, such help is available. Voices from diplomatic sources in Beijing have been telling me of longstanding frustration with Sweden’s unwillingness to issue any public criticism of China related to the Gui Minhai case. And after Wallström’s first call for his release in late January, the EU ambassador, as well as the German embassy and the U.S. state department, soon echoed her demands.
Today on Swedish radio, Wallström instead opined that “quiet diplomacy” does not necessarily equal “passive diplomacy.” But as Peter Dahlin, a Swedish activist who himself was kidnapped by Chinese security agents in 2016, rightfully pointed out when I interviewed him earlier, quiet diplomacy can only be effective when it is backed up by something substantial. However, during the time Gui was locked up, Sweden was performing the exact opposite by doing everything it could to strengthen its economic ties with China.
The joint embargo on weapon sales after the Tiananmen Square massacre is the only example were European leaders succeeded in changing the behavior of Chinese authorities.
In June 2017, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven travelled to China with the largest Swedish trade delegation in decades, accompanied by several ministers and representatives from more than 60 Swedish companies. During this visit, Gui was not mentioned in public at all. Neither was he mentioned in the official communiqué issued afterwards, which was instead filled with new agreements concerning trade and economic cooperation. And just recently, Sweden issued an official policy to attract more investment from China.
Little wonder, then, that the quiet diplomacy hasn’t had any good results for Gui. There is also research pointing in the direction. In her book The EU’s Human Rights Dialogue with China: Quiet Diplomacy and its Limits (2014), the German scholar Katrin Kinzelbach looks at dialogue and exchanges regarding human rights between the EU and China since 1995. She found that the joint embargo on weapon sales after the Tiananmen Square massacre is the only example were European leaders succeeded in changing the behavior of Chinese authorities.
Quiet diplomacy, Kinzelbach notes, has done little to positively influence the human rights environment in China. Rather, this approach has had the opposite effect, as Chinese authorities tend to see a muted policy response as a sign of weakness, further encouraging the regime to continue — or even increase — the repression.
For the hapless Gui, this is something that the German government seems to understand, while Sweden holds on to a policy that can only result in failure.
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