Members from the pro-democracy Civic Party carry a portrait of Gui Minhai (L) and Lee Bo during a protest outside the Chinese Liaison Office in Hong Kong, China January 19, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters

A court in Ningbo, China has sentenced the Swedish publisher Gui Minhai to 10 years for allegedly “providing intelligence” to foreigners. This comes five years after Gui was forcibly disappeared in Thailand in October 2015, only to reappear the following year on Chinese state television “confessing” to a dubious drunk driving charge. He was then prohibited from leaving China in 2017, and in 2018 was forcibly snatched from the custody of Swedish diplomats by Chinese authorities. Adding insult to this most recent injury, Chinese authorities also stated that Gui chose to restore his Chinese citizenship while in state custody in 2018.

This latest twist to Gui’s case can only be read one way: that no matter how many times Sweden demands access to its own citizen, Beijing has laid claim to him. Stockholm’s response to Gui’s sentence – that Gui is a Swedish citizen who should be released – is exactly what it’s been saying since his initial disappearance in 2015.

This is disappointing, but consistent with Stockholm’s latest China strategy, which commits to “raise the issue of the serious human rights situation…in a clear and consistent manner,” to do so in “the relevant multilateral contexts,” and to support the toothless European Union-China human rights dialogue. That Stockholm has pursed these tactics all throughout Gui’s arbitrary detention in China shows just how little it has affected Beijing’s calculations. 

Sweden is hardly the only country lacking both a robust human rights strategy for China, or the courage to hold Beijing accountable for its abuses. But no one can credibly claim to not have the necessary tools to push back against Beijing, especially when their own citizens’ lives are at stake. Why not pursue sanctions against the officials responsible for holding Gui? For those complicit in surveilling people in Sweden, particularly those originally from China? And what about forming a task force with other governments whose citizens are arbitrarily detained in China?

Sweden should exert its leverage and show China that serious human violations have serious consequences. Without such pressure, nothing is likely to change – and Stockholm owes Gui Minhai better than that.