Now, he has been sentenced for “illegally providing intelligence overseas,” a surreal charge that signifies a new level of Chinese brazenness.
I learned of this latest development the way everyone else did, through a news release on the Ningbo Intermediate People’s Court’s website. It was the day after my 26th birthday. I was about to go to sleep when I saw a text from someone saying they’d seen the news and were sorry.
Since his abduction in 2015, my father has been forced to confess to various crimes on Chinese television. He has also continuously been denied the consular support from Sweden to which he is entitled under the Vienna Convention. His sentence makes sense only as an intimidation tactic or possible retaliation against Sweden, which refused to give in after Chinese threats to deny visas to all Swedish government officials attending the ceremony where my father was awarded the PEN Tucholsky Prize.
It is unclear what the “intelligence” he is accused of providing to overseas actors is. As Donald C. Clarke has pointed out on the China Collection blog, ever since my father was forcibly brought to China, he hasn’t been in a position to access any intelligence. More likely, Chinese authorities are concerned that he might share information related to his abduction and time in Chinese police custody. If this is true, it means that being kidnapped and brought to China by Chinese government agents is in itself a crime — by the victim — and knowledge of one’s own kidnapping constitutes possession of state secrets. This is a paradox designed to silence people forever.
What has even more harrowing implications for the rest of us, though, is that China claims my father renounced his Swedish citizenship and applied to regain Chinese nationality in 2018. The Swedish Foreign Ministry has confirmed that it has received no communication requesting a renunciation. Since China is not allowing Swedish consular officials to visit him, they have no way of verifying that he really wishes to restore his Chinese citizenship.
The bizarre claim that my father is no longer a Swedish citizen because China unilaterally decided so suggests that we are all potentially one critical statement away from being forcibly brought to China and sentenced for crimes we didn’t commit. As Jerome Cohen argues in a recent blog post, it means that anyone, of any nationality, could travel to China, be detained and then be forced to renounce their citizenship and any rights protected by it. Or, as in my father’s case, one doesn’t even need to travel to China.
The Swedish government has said it does not accept China’s definition of my father’s citizenship. Yet I wonder what this statement with no implied consequences means in reality. The European Union recently issued a statement on my father’s prison sentence, saying there are “serious questions to be answered.” Indeed there are. The Chinese government needs to answer why Sweden hasn’t been officially notified — as is required under Chinese law — of legal proceedings since his kidnapping in 2015, what organs of Chinese law enforcement have been involved and why he spent more than four years in detention when Chinese law clearly states that a person may be detained for only a maximum of six months.
But why is the E.U. not asking these questions publicly? Why is it not calling for his immediate release and outlining consequences for a failure to do so?
Sadly, any discussion of consequences is missing both from the E.U.’s statement and in Sweden’s position. It should be impossible to continue normal diplomatic relations with a state that claims ownership of anyone, regardless of nationality. In fact, maintaining relations with a state such as this could hardly be understood as “normal” in the first place. Governments need to recognize that their relationship to China actively puts their citizens at risk of having all their rights and protections stripped at any moment. If this is not a risk they are prepared to take, what are they prepared to do about it? Until they offer an answer, we must keep asking what their words of condemnation really mean.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from what my father has been put through, let it be that holding China accountable for its crimes requires matching words with actions.
At the very least, governments should start by issuing travel advisories to let their citizens know they are not protected from arbitrary detention and imprisonment in China — so that we can do our best to protect ourselves in a world that is growing increasingly unsafe.