Dozens of EU politicians have written to the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, demanding the immediate and unconditional release of Swedish bookseller Gui Minhai. A Communist party newspaper, meanwhile, has slammed international media scrutiny of the scandal as the work of arrogant rumour-mongers.
Gui was seized from a Beijing-bound bullet train last month. It was the latest twist in an increasingly knotty two-year mystery surrounding the Hong Kong-based publisher who dealt in raunchy, thinly sourced tomes on China’s political elite.
On Thursday the Guardian revealed how Gui had been travelling with Sweden’s consul general in Shanghai, Lisette Lindahl, when he was taken by plainclothes agents on 20 January. Later that day Sweden’s ambassador to China, Anna Lindstedt, received a call from a Chinese interlocutor who announced the China-born bookseller, a Swedish citizen since 1992, was suspected of leaking state secrets.
“It’s a very scary movie,” one long-standing friend, Magnus Fiskesjö, said of Gui’s detention. “I find myself speculating quite wildly as to why they would do this.”
The saga of Gui – who initially vanished from his Thai holiday home in 2015 only to resurface in Chinese custody – has alarmed European governments which fear China’s suspected abduction of an EU citizen sets a dangerous precedent that needs challenging.
“It can happen to other people, from other countries – and it shouldn’t. We should all have a problem with this,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London.
On Thursday a group of MEPs including the Labour party’s David Martin and Julie Ward, the Scottish National party’s Alyn Smith and the Green party’s Molly Scott Cato wrote to China’s leader to voice “strong condemnation” over Gui’s plight and demand “he is protected from torture and other ill-treatment”.
The total of 36 MEPs, who also include politicians from Germany, Hungary, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Sweden, said their determination to free Gui had intensified after he was marched before the cameras on 9 February for a “highly coercive” confession.
“Gui is not the first European citizen to be wrongfully detained in China, but we aspire to make him the last one,” the letter said, pointing to the cases of Swedish activist Peter Dahlin and British investigator Peter Humphrey.
Such cases were “part of a disturbing pattern of repression” highlighting China’s growing inclination to ignore both domestic and international laws, the MEPs added.
Sophie Richardson, Human Right Watch’s China director, said the scale of MEP support for the petition underlined growing trepidation over China’s treatment of EU citizens. “It’s a really remarkable list of signatories.”
Beijing has shown no sign of backing down over Gui, whatever the damage to its international reputation. On Wednesday the Global Times, a party-run tabloid that sometimes reflects official views, issued a rebuke to international coverage of the case. “Gui’s detention has been intensively hyped by the west recently,” it claimed, rejecting the Guardian’s account of his capture as an attack on China’s judicial system and a fabrication. “Some western media portray China as losing order. These people are rumour-mongering.”