Sweden investigates its ambassador to China after report of secret talks to free publisher

Paramilitary police officers patrol outside the Swedish embassy in Beijing on Feb 14, 2019. Swedish ambassador, Anna Lindstedt, is accused of arranging unauthorised, secret talks. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (NYTIMES) - Sweden said it was investigating its ambassador to China after she was accused of arranging unauthorised, secret talks between the daughter of a Swedish bookseller detained in China and two Chinese men who had offered to help free him, but instead pressured her to keep silent.

The backroom talks over the bookseller, Gui Minhai, were held in late January at a hotel in Stockholm, his daughter, Angela Gui, said Wednesday. She said she grew suspicious of the two businessmen as they asked bizarre questions and offered vague assurances, while wine flowed freely.

Angela Gui accused the ambassador, Anna Lindstedt, of arranging the talks without authorisation from the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs.

The ministry said Wednesday that it had opened an internal investigation into Lindstedt, and that an interim replacement for her had been installed pending the outcome.

"I placed my faith in a senior official and was rewarded with abuse, threats and an offer of assistance from two men who were clearly unqualified to help and appeared to have other agendas," Angela Gui said in an emailed comment about the meeting. "I would like the ministry to explain how this byzantine situation arose."

Buster Emitslof, a spokesman for the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, said the ministry did not know about the meeting until after it had taken place. He said Lindstedt had been replaced, pending the outcome of an inquiry.

"The Swedish government's engagement on behalf of Gui Minhai is widely known, driven with force and aims for a solution that will give Gui Minhai his freedom and reunite him with his family," Emitslof said.

An email to Lindstedt asking for comment received the reply, "I have finished my mission in Beijing to move back to Sweden," along with contact information for other embassy officials.

The meeting was the latest extraordinary twist in a case with an abundance of bizarre episodes.

Gui Minhai, 54, was born in eastern China. He travelled to Sweden to study in 1988 and became a citizen of that country in 1992.

In recent years, he had worked in Hong Kong, the semi-autonomous Chinese city, where he was a co-owner of Mighty Current Media, a small publishing house that produced salacious and often poorly sourced books about Chinese Communist Party leaders.

In 2015, he was spirited to China from his holiday home in Thailand as part of what appeared to be a secretive Chinese campaign against Hong Kong publishers of books deemed offensive to the Communist Party.

In all, five Hong Kong booksellers disappeared, and they became symbols of the Chinese government's tightening grip on publishing, news and culture in the city.

Gui appeared on Chinese state television in early 2016, when he gave what seemed to be a heavily rehearsed confession to a drunken-driving death in China more than a decade earlier. He was formally freed from detention in October 2017, but he remained in eastern China, under heavy watch, according to Angela Gui.

A year ago, two Swedish diplomats tried to accompany Gui Minhai to Beijing on a train, but Chinese security officers boarded the train and snatched him away. The Swedish foreign minister called it a "brutal intervention" that violated international rules.

Soon afterward, Gui appeared on Chinese television, saying in an interview organised by police that he needed no help from Sweden.

The case has remained a source of tension between the governments in Stockholm and Beijing, and Angela Gui has campaigned for her father's release. She went to Stockholm to meet the two businessmen after Lindstedt, the ambassador, vouched for them, she said.

But, according to a long account that Angela Gui published on Medium, the meeting was far from a typical diplomatic negotiation.

"Nobody would tell me what was going on, or why it was that I had to be there," said Gui, a graduate student at Cambridge University in the UK. "The businessmen spoke to me with a mix of flattery and reassurances that they were going to 'help me,' without explaining how this help was going to be delivered."

Over two days, Gui said, she was mostly confined to a hotel lounge where the men cajoled and pressured her to stop making public comments about her father.

"There was a lot of wine, a lot of people, and a lot of increasingly strange questions," she said. "I was told I needed to be quiet. I wasn't to tell anyone about this, or say anything publicly about the case."

Gui said that even as she grew increasingly suspicious of the men, Lindstedt tried to persuade her to work with them and explained "that was the best course of action, as the negotiations handled by the Foreign Ministry 'didn't seem to make much progress,'" Gui said.

Kurdo Baksi, a Swedish journalist who has worked with Gui to try to free her father, also went to the hotel, joining other Swedish and Chinese guests invited to hang around there by the businessmen.

He said one of the businessmen had claimed to be from China, and the other from Sri Lanka.

Baksi said he did not take part in the negotiations, but said the odd setting for talks worried him. "After a while I felt that everything became very uncomfortable," he said. "I'm afraid this could complicate things for Gui Minhai."

Lindstedt, 58, became the ambassador to Beijing in September 2016. She began her diplomatic career in 1990, when she became second secretary at the Swedish Embassy in Indonesia. She went on to positions in Pakistan, then became ambassador to Vietnam, then Mexico.

She was appointed climate ambassador in 2011, and was Sweden's chief negotiator at the climate summit in Paris in 2015. It is unclear how Lindstedt became involved with the two men who met with Angela Gui.

Last week, the Chinese Embassy in Stockholm responded to an earlier, less detailed account of the meeting, published by a Swedish newspaper, by denying that it had any role in the talks. "The Chinese side has never authorised and will not authorise anyone to engage with Gui Minhai's daughter," the embassy said in an online statement.

A spokeswoman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hua Chunying, said Thursday that she had no information about the matter.

Lindstedt is not the only ambassador in Beijing who has become entangled in controversy over China's detention of foreigners.

The Canadian ambassador was dismissed by his government last month after making contentious comments about Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of the Chinese telecom giant Huawei, who was arrested in Vancouver in December at the request of the United States.

The Canadian envoy, John McCallum, surprised his government by saying that Meng had a good chance of avoiding extradition to the United States, a comment that critics said threatened to politicise the case.

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