Sweden’s culture minister defied a Chinese threat on Friday to award a Swedish human rights prize to detained Chinese-Swedish book publisher Gui Minhai.
The Swedish section of the International organization PEN awarded its free speech Tucholsky Prize free speech prize to the 55-year-old Gui, a Chinese-born Swedish citizen now detained in China. The Tucholsky Prize was established in 1984 and is named after German writer Kurt Tucholsky, who sought asylum to Sweden fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930s. It has been previously awarded to writers such as Adam Zagajevski, Nuruddin Farah, Salman Rushdie, Taslima Nasrin and Svetlana Alexievich.
Gui Minhai published stories about Chinese political leaders out of a Hong Kong book shop. He disappeared while on holiday in Thailand in 2015. He then appeared on Chinese state television confessing to a fatal drink-driving accident from more than a decade earlier. He served two years in prison, was released in October 2017, and then arrested again while travelling on a train to Beijing with Swedish diplomats.
“Those in power should never take the liberty to attack free artistic expression or free speech,” Swedish Culture and Democracy Minister Amanda Lind said during the ceremony.
An empty chair symbolically represented the writer at the ceremony in Stockholm.
The Chinese Ambassador to Stockholm, Guy Congyou, opposed both the award and its presentation by a Swedish government official. Gui Congyou told Radio Sweden that there would be “serious consequences” and “countermeasures” against Sweden.
More specifically, Gui Congyyou told Swedish news agency TT that any government representative attending the ceremony would be unwelcome in China.
The Chinese Ambassador maintains that Gui Minhai is not a persecuted author but a criminal who has “committed serious offences in both China and Sweden.
The response came from the highest level, with Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven making clear that his government would not back down.
“We are not going to give in to this type of threat. Never. We have freedom of expression in Sweden and that’s how it is, period,” Lofven told Swedish Television.
“We have made it clear to China’s representatives that we stand by our position that Gui Minhai must be released and that we have freedom of expression in Sweden,” Lind told TT.
Sweden’s foreign ministry issued a statement on Friday calling on China to release Gui and made an official representation to Chinese authorities over the ambassador’s statements.