Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf has pulled out of a trip to mainland China and Hong Kong this month, at a time when the Nordic country has been pressing Beijing to release its citizen, Causeway Bay bookseller Gui Minhai, who went missing in 2015 and later appeared in custody.
The king’s last-minute cancellation raised speculation that he was trying to exert pressure on the Chinese government over the release of the detained publisher.
But the Swedish Royal Court said the king needed to stay at home because the country was in the process of forming a new government.
Swedish broadcaster SVT quoted unnamed sources as saying on Saturday that the king had cancelled the trip due to “complicated ongoing negotiations” over Gui that had entered a “critical” moment.
The sources said Carl Gustaf, who had been due to join the Royal Technology Mission, would consider visiting China in the future if Gui were freed or if negotiations for his release had shown progress.
However, Johan Tegel, press secretary at the Royal Court, told the Post: “Sweden is at the moment undergoing a process of forming a new government. His Majesty, who regularly meets with the [parliament’s] Speaker during this process, is at the moment not able to travel for longer periods of time until the formation process has been concluded and a new government takes office.”
The mission is a trip for Swedish industry, university and government leaders to “make new contacts that can lead to a greater exchange of ideas and business”, Tegel said.
The delegation arrived in Hong Kong on Sunday and would be in the neighbouring mainland city of Shenzhen from Thursday until Saturday.
Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, had to cancel a lunch at Government House which the king and delegation were supposed to attend on Wednesday, a source told the Post.
As the king had dropped out of the trip, EU affairs and trade minister Ann Linde would represent the country instead, said Joakim Ladeborn, Sweden’s deputy consul-general to Hong Kong.
Under its itinerary, the delegation would still meet Lam on Wednesday before heading to Shenzhen the next day for a possible meeting with Pony Ma Huateng, the chairman of social and gaming giant Tencent.
Observers said the king’s possible involvement in the case of Gui, a naturalised Swedish citizen, would renew pressure on the Chinese side to release him, though it remained to be seen if it would be sufficient.
“Sweden’s demands still stand. Gui Minhai must be set free and must be able to reunite with his family,” the country’s foreign ministry said in a reply to the Post on Monday.
Chinese-born Gui, 54, had been at the centre of the missing Hong Kong booksellers controversy of 2015. From October 2015, five associates of the Mighty Current publishing house and its Causeway Bay Books started to go missing, one after another.
Their disappearance sparked fears that they were kidnapped by Chinese agents because their companies specialised in gossip about China’s leadership. They all later surfaced on the mainland, saying they had returned there out of their own free will.
In February, the Chinese Ministry of Public Security said the authorities had imposed criminal coercive measures – a euphemism for detention – on Gui on suspicion that he leaked state secrets abroad.
“I believe that Sweden will not stop fighting for Gui’s release until it really happens,” said Bei Ling, a long-time friend of the publisher.
He urged Stockholm to rally the support of other countries to secure Gui’s release, saying that the Nordic country alone was small in the face of China, the world’s second largest economy.
Doriane Lau, China researcher at Amnesty International, said she could not say if the king’s move would pressure Beijing enough for Gui’s release.
“We do think the international community should join Sweden to call for the release of Gui to show that the world has not forgotten him, and that no one, including foreign nationals, should be detained without due process in China.”
In January, reports emerged of Gui’s dramatic arrest by 10 plain-clothes policemen on a train from Shanghai to Beijing, accompanied by two Swedish diplomats.
The Swedish government said it was providing consular help to Gui as he needed medical help, and denounced his detention as a “brutal” act.
China’s public security officials later said Gui was carrying documents containing state secrets and was detained on suspicion that he had leaked secrets abroad. But critics said it was impossible for Gui to be able to obtain state secrets on the mainland because he was in custody.