Sweden Rejects Chinese Criticism of Press Freedom Prize

November 18, 2019 Updated: November 18, 2019

STOCKHOLM—Sweden’s culture minister on Nov. 16 awarded the annual Tucholsky literary prize to a Chinese author despite a threat from the Chinese ambassador to ban her from entering the country.

Author Gui Minhai, a naturalized Swede and co-owner of a Hong Kong store that sold books critical of Chinese leaders, was detained by police in eastern China in 2018 while in the company of two Swedish diplomats with whom he was traveling to Beijing.

Standing next to Gui’s empty seat at a ceremony in Stockholm, Culture Minister Amanda Lind said it was “crucial for culture and democracy that artists and authors can work freely.”

Earlier Friday, Chinese Ambassador Gui Conyou urged PEN Sweden to refrain from recognizing the author and called on Lind not to participate in the awards ceremony, according to the Swedish news agency, TT.

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said the country “would never cave in to this kind of threat. Never. We have freedom of speech in Sweden and that is the point, period.”

“Let’s see what possible consequences this may have,” Lofven told Swedish broadcaster SVT. “But we stand up for freedom of expression in Sweden. That’s how Sweden is built and that’s how we should have it.”

“We were a little bit surprised … but we didn’t expect this strong reaction,” Jesper Bengtsson, the Swedish PEN chairman, told The Associated Press. “The Chinese ambassador here has been very proactive in trying to silence people, so this is probably the result of the same strategy.”

China is conducting a “large-scale public diplomacy campaign in Sweden which is unique (within) the European Union,” said Bjorn Jerden, head of the Asian Program at the Swedish institute of international affairs. It is “the first time they directly threatened the Swedish government.”

The spat comes at a time of tense relations between Stockholm and Beijing.

China is holding Gui on suspicion of leaking state secrets and has rebuked Sweden for demanding his release. He was taken off a train by police in eastern China in 2018 while in the company of two Swedish diplomats with whom he was traveling to Beijing.

Gui’s original abduction—along with four others in the Hong Kong book trade—fueled worries about interference from Beijing, despite guarantees of wide-ranging freedoms for the former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

The four others have since returned to Hong Kong. The United States and European Union have urged Gui’s release.

Reuters contributed to this report

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