US assails Beijing over sentencing of Hong Kong bookseller Gui Minhai

Owen Churchill

The United States on Thursday condemned China’s sentencing of Gui Minhai, the Hong Kong bookseller and publisher accused by Chinese authorities of providing intelligence to foreign entities.

Gui, a 55-year-old a Swedish national, was one of a number of Hong Kong-based booksellers who disappeared in 2015, only to appear on Chinese state television to say while in custody that he had “turned himself in” in relation to a traffic accident in Ningbo years earlier.

On Monday, a Chinese court sentenced him to 10 years in prison and deprivation of political rights for five years for “illegally providing intelligence to overseas entities”.

Criticising the punishment in a statement on Thursday, the US State Department called on China “to release him immediately and unconditionally”.

The statement, issued by department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus, made specific mention of Gui as a “Swedish citizen”, an apparent swipe at the claim from Chinese authorities earlier this week that he had voluntarily applied for Chinese citizenship in 2018, while in detention.

Since China does not permit citizens to hold two nationalities, such an application would have effectively revoked Gui’s Swedish citizenship, potentially restricting the ability of Swedish officials to provide consular support.

Stockholm said earlier this week that Gui remained a Swedish citizen and demanded his immediate release.

A European Union spokeswoman said there were “serious questions to be answered about this case” and vowed that the EU would continue to raise Gui’s case with Beijing.

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Joining the international community’s growing chorus of condemnation after Gui’s sentencing, Ortagus said on Thursday that Washington and its allies were “bound by shared principles of rule of law, liberty, equality and human dignity”.

“We will continue to stand with our partners and allies to promote greater respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in China,” she continued.

The statement came amid growing pressure from US lawmakers and advocacy organisations for the Trump administration to place concerns over Beijing’s human rights record at the heart of bilateral relations, which have been dominated by trade negotiations for much of the past two years.

Since Gui’s disappearance in 2015, the case has received sustained scrutiny from governments and human rights groups around the world, and has been held up as an example of the lengths to which Chinese authorities will go to bring Beijing’s critics – even those who are not PRC citizens and do not live within its jurisdiction – into line.

Gui’s Causeway Bay Books was known, like many of Hong Kong’s independent bookshops, for its inventory of nonfiction works that delved into the shrouded lives of Chinese Communist Party officials.

Before his disappearance while on holiday in Thailand in 2015, he was reportedly preparing to publish a title about Chinese President Xi Jinping’s love life.

After surfacing on the Chinese mainland and serving jail terms for the traffic accident dating back to 2003, Gui was released but remained under close surveillance by authorities. He was later arrested on a Beijing-bound train in 2018 while in the company of Swedish diplomats.

The court statement announcing the sentence did not cite his bookselling business. A foreign ministry spokesman dodged questions on Tuesday about what specific intelligence Gui was purported to have shared with foreign entities.

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