A LITTLE over two years have passed since five booksellers from Hong Kong vanished into Chinese custody, accused of selling works critical of Communist Party leaders to readers on the mainland. Though four of them—staff and shareholders of Mighty Current Media—have since been allowed to leave the mainland, the firm’s Swedish co-founder, Gui Minhai, remains barred from travelling. His difficulties recently appear to have grown, and with them new tensions in China’s relations with Sweden.

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On January 20th two Swedish diplomats accompanied him on a train from Shanghai to Beijing. His daughter, Angela Gui, told reporters that Mr Gui may be suffering from a neurological condition developed during his recent detention in China (Ms Gui and her father are pictured, in happier days). She says the Swedes had arranged for him to have a consultation with a medical specialist in the capital. Before they arrived in Beijing, plain-clothes policemen boarded the train and bundled Mr Gui away.

On February 9th Mr Gui resurfaced at a detention centre in the eastern city of Ningbo, where pliant journalists had been assembled to hear him give a statement and answer a few questions. He said that Swedish authorities had pestered him into making an attempt to leave the country, even though he was not allowed to do so because of an ongoing investigation into his “illegal” bookselling. Mr Gui said that he had been happy in China but that his “wonderful life” had been ruined by this misadventure. He asked Sweden to stop “sensationalising” his case and said that he would give up his Swedish citizenship if the embassy continued to “create troubles” for him. He ended by saying that he hoped his family would “live a good life” and that he would solve his own problems.

This spectacle, very probably scripted by Mr Gui’s jailers, was the latest twist in a dramatic tale involving him and his fellow booksellers. Born in China, Mr Gui became a Swedish citizen while studying in Europe in the early 1990s. The publishing house he ran in Hong Kong pumped out loosely sourced tales of sex and corruption among China’s political elite—legal in the former British colony, but infuriating to officials in Beijing. In October 2015 Mr Gui disappeared from a holiday home in Thailand; three months later he re-emerged in China, where officials said he was under arrest. Put in front of cameras, he said he had freely returned to China to answer charges relating to a fatal hit-and-run incident a decade previously. “Although I have Swedish citizenship, I truly feel I’m Chinese,” he said.

Sweden’s foreign minister said the decision to prevent Mr Gui reaching Beijing in January was a “brutal intervention” contravening “basic international rules on consular support”. She said that she had understood Mr Gui to be a free man (he was supposedly released from custody in October, having served out a jail sentence handed down in relation to the hit-and-run case). On February 10th a Swedish spokesperson said that Mr Gui’s most recent video “changes nothing” and that they continued to seek access to their citizen. But China appears to be escalating the charges against him. State media allege that Mr Gui is suspected of endangering national security and that he was in possession of state secrets when detained.

Mr Gui’s ongoing troubles—and the months-long detention of his four colleagues—has succeeded in making publishers like them in Hong Kong somewhat more cautious. But it has also been drawing attention to Mr Gui’s output. On February 1st the Swiss-based International Publishers Association gave him an award for taking risks to promote free speech. The longer the party toys with Mr Gui, the more observers who once dismissed his books as just lurid tittle-tattle will start to wonder if he was preparing to publish information about the leadership that was in fact embarrassingly close to the truth. 

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