Democracy Dies in Darkness

Asia & Pacific

Swedish ambassador to China recalled after bizarre meeting over detained bookseller

February 14, 2019 at 3:07 PM

In this 2013 photo, Anna Lindstedt, Sweden's ambassador to China, gives a press conference in Stockholm. (Leif R Jansson/AP)

BEIJING — Sweden’s ambassador to China has been recalled to Stockholm and is under investigation for her alleged role in an unusual meeting between two businessmen and the daughter of a Swedish bookseller detained by Chinese state security.

Ambassador Anna Lindstedt left her post in Beijing on Wednesday, the embassy’s acting chief of mission, Karl-Olof Andersson, confirmed to The Washington Post on Thursday without providing further details. 

The Swedish Foreign Ministry confirmed that it launched an internal investigation “due to information concerning incorrect action in connection with events at the end of January,” and that a new head of mission has been appointed until the investigation is completed.

This is the result of a meeting that Lindstedt apparently arranged with Angela Gui, the daughter of the imprisoned publisher Gui Minhai, without the Foreign Ministry’s knowledge.

Lindstedt’s recall is the second high-profile incident to hit the diplomatic community in Beijing this year. In January, Canadian Ambassador John McCallum was forced out following comments in apparent support of a Chinese technology executive detained in Canada.

Just before Lindstedt’s removal, Angela Gui posted an explosive account on Medium alleging that the businessmen, aided by the ambassador, promised her jobs and other aid — and a relatively short prison term for her father — if she agreed to stop speaking out publicly about his case.

For three years, Angela Gui has publicly campaigned for the release of her father, a Swedish citizen and a Hong Kong-based bookseller who sold politically sensitive books about top Communist Party leaders.

Gui Minhai was widely believed to have been abducted by Chinese agents from his home in Thailand in October 2015, before surfacing in Chinese custody. He was partially freed two years later, only to be kidnapped again while being escorted by Swedish diplomats on a train from Shanghai to Beijing.

He has been in Chinese detention ever since, and Sweden has been notably quiet in public about his case. That has puzzled many Western diplomats in Beijing, who privately wonder why Stockholm has not protested more forcefully about the brazen abduction of Gui and his ensuing detention.

The case appeared to be in a lull until Wednesday, when Angela Gui posted her account of a “very strange experience” she said she had late last month. 

She wrote that Lindstedt contacted her in mid-January to say there was “a new approach” to her father’s case and requested that she come to Stockholm to meet two businessmen who could help.

Related: [Who will remember my father, Gui Minhai? ]

Angela Gui, who grew up in Sweden, lives in Britain, where she is studying for a PhD in history at Cambridge University. The men would cover all her costs in getting to Stockholm, she said the ambassador told her.

Over two days in a members-only lounge in a Stockholm hotel — accessible by key card only, meaning she was even accompanied to the restroom downstairs — Angela Gui said the men asked her lengthy questions about her studies and personal life, without explaining how they could help her father or why they needed to be there.

“There was a lot of wine, a lot of people, and a lot of increasingly strange questions,” she wrote. “But because Ambassador Lindstedt was present and seemingly supportive of whatever it was that was going on, I kept assuming that this had been initiated by the Swedish Foreign Ministry.”

Then one of the men, who said he had “connections within the Chinese Communist Party,” told her she should go work with them in China and that they could arrange a visa for her. He showed her a picture of them with the Chinese ambassador to Sweden, Gui Congyou. She “politely declined,” she wrote.

The following day, one of the men said he had gone to the Chinese Embassy to “negotiate” her father’s case on Sweden’s behalf. The Chinese ambassador was “on the phone to Beijing” and it was possible her father might be released, she recalled.

But she was told her father might have to go on trial and spend a few more years in jail, and she would have to stop all media engagement and be quiet.

Lindstedt was supportive of the plan and said China was adopting a new diplomatic line, which meant that if activism and media coverage were to continue, China might “punish Sweden,” Angela Gui wrote.

“The ambassador also told me she believed this — commissioning two businessmen to negotiate on a sensitive case — was the best course of action, as the negotiations handled by the Foreign Ministry ‘didn’t seem to make much progress,’ ” she added. “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” she quoted Lindstedt as telling her.

Related: [China’s row with Sweden over a ‘racist’ TV skit has citizens urging boycotts of Ikea and H & M ]

Angela Gui said she made her excuses and left, but she called the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs after she had returned to Britain. “They told me they hadn’t had the slightest idea this whole affair was taking place. They hadn’t even been informed the ambassador was in the country,” she wrote. 

She sent a message to one of the businessmen saying that she was not interested in their offer but that she needed to have her expenses reimbursed. He never responded. “Somehow my PhD student budget has ended up subsidizing a government official’s rogue operation,” she wrote.

After Angela Gui posted about the incident, Lindstedt was immediately called back to Stockholm.

“We take these reports and other information about contexts where freedom of expression is not fully respected very seriously,” said Rasmus Eljanskog, a Foreign Ministry spokesman. “The Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs always — and in all contexts — stands up for the fundamental right to freely express oneself, without the threats or reprisals,” he said in an email.

Lindstedt had been due to leave Beijing in March to take on another high-profile position in the Swedish government.

Appearing on Swedish television, Jonas Sjostedt, leader of the Left Party, said Lindstedt had acted as “a running dog for a dictatorship” by trying to silence the daughter of a kidnapped Swedish citizen. He said this was Sweden’s biggest foreign policy scandal “in decades.”

Read more:

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Anna Fifield is The Washington Post’s bureau chief in Beijing, covering greater China. She was the Post's bureau chief in Tokyo between 2014 and 2018, writing about Japan and the two Koreas. Her book, "The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un," will be published in June 2019.

Gerry Shih has been the Washington Post China correspondent since 2018. Before joining The Post, he was a correspondent for The Associated Press in Beijing.

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