Sweden's foreign ministry has recalled its ambassador to China after she was accused of holding a meeting with the daughter of detained Hong Kong bookseller Gui Minhai without official authorization.
Ambassador Anna Lindstedt returned to Sweden to face an investigation after Angela Gui published an account of the meeting on the blogging platform Medium.com.
An interim envoy has been sent to Beijing in her stead, the ministry said in a statement.
In her article, Gui recounted "a very strange experience in Stockholm" after she was contacted by Lindstedt, who set up a meeting with two unnamed businessmen to discuss her father's case.
"What I thought was going to be a meeting about the Swedish government’s latest efforts to win my father’s release turned out to something quite different," she wrote, detailing a meeting in which her movements were restricted to a hotel VIP lounge.
During the meeting she was also quizzed about her personal life, and then asked not to speak out about her father's case if she wanted it to be resolved at an unspecified point in the future.
More than three years after he was taken to mainland China from his holiday home in Thailand under murky circumstances, Gui Minhai—a Hong Kong-based publisher with Swedish nationality—is believed to be detained in the eastern port city of Ningbo on suspicion of "leaking state secrets overseas."
Sweden's foreign ministry said on Thursday that the meeting was unofficial, and that it knew nothing about it.
"The foreign ministry in Stockholm did not know about these events until the end of January, after the meeting had taken place," a spokeswoman told Reuters. "We have started an internal investigation."
Gui wrote of the meeting: "Nobody would tell me what was going on, or why it was [that] I had to be there," adding that she was offered only vague promises of help in return for her silence, and was escorted at all times during her stay of several hours, during which she was was repeatedly asked not to leave.
Despite a "growing feeling of unease," Gui played along until the businessmen made their plan clearer: for her to travel with them to China. They also told her they had "connections within the Chinese Communist Party."
"I was told I needed to be quiet," Gui wrote. "I wasn’t to tell anyone about this, or say anything publicly about the case. I was also to stop all media engagement with it ... Ambassador Lindstedt, who was sat next to me, agreed to the plan."
When challenged by Gui about his credentials, one businessman then raised his voice at her, before threatening: "you have to trust me, or you will never see your father again," she wrote, adding that Lindstedt said China was getting ready to "punish Sweden" if Gui carried on with her advocacy for her father.
"I’m not going to be quiet in exchange for a visa and an arbitrary promise that my father ‘might’ be released. Threats, verbal abuse, bribes, or flattery won’t change that," Gui said.
A spokeswoman for China's foreign ministry declined to comment, saying she "knew nothing" of the situation. China's embassy in Stockholm has previously denied authorizing anyone to meet with Angela Gui.
A weak attitude
U.S.-based legal scholar Teng Biao said Gui's account suggested that some foreign diplomats have been overly keen to please Beijing.
"It shows a weak and overly accommodating attitude to China among some Western officials," Teng said.
"A lot of countries are considering their economic interests and other political factors, so they daren't criticize China, to the extent that they totally capitulate to all kinds of unreasonable demands of the Chinese government."
"If this incident is allowed to pass by without the concern of the international community, this will set a very bad precedent, and many more countries will adopt appeasement policies towards China," Teng said.
Bei Ling, a former chair of the writers' group Independent Chinese PEN, said Sweden's handling of Gui's case had lacked transparency from the start.
"I strongly condemn the private contact and off-the-record actions by the Swedish ambassador to China, as recounted by [Gui Minhai]'s daughter," Bei said.
"I also strongly condemn the Swedish foreign ministry's behind-closed-doors, secretive, and back-channel approach to [Gui Minhai]'s case over the past few years."
Gui Minhai was one of five Hong Kong-based booksellers detained by the Chinese authorities for selling "banned" political books to customers across the internal border in mainland China in 2015.
He disappeared under murky circumstances from his holiday home in Pattaya, Thailand, in October 2015, only to reappear in China "confessing" on video to a decade-old alleged drunk-driving offense.
Gui Minhai was "released" by the Chinese authorities in October 2017, but his daughter said he was still not free.
Instead, he was placed under various forms of control and surveillance in his birthplace, Ningbo, during which time he was reunited with his wife Jennifer, who is a German national.
Gui was suddenly redetained in February 2018 while en route by train to Beijing in the company of two Swedish diplomats. State security police said they suspected him of carrying “state secrets” to supply to overseas organizations, according to state media reports at the time.
Reported by Ng Yik-tung and Tam Siu-yin for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.