Imagine having spoken out against, or even just commented on, China – in your home country – and then, whilst on holiday in Thailand, Malaysia or another sunny beach location somewhere, being kidnapped and brought back to China.

A bad start for sure, especially as you will in all likelihood not be allowed access to a lawyer, and neither loved ones nor your government will know where you are – as you are kept at a secret location.

Gui Minhai
Gui Minhai. Photo: CCTV screenshot.

With the most recent actions against Gui Minhai, the Chinese Communist Party has now made such a nightmare scenario even worse – because they now claim that people held, incommunicado, can just renounce their citizenship, and apply for Chinese citizenship instead, and all of a sudden your government can’t even provide consular visits, appear at your trial, or have any communication with you at all.

The secret trial of Gui Minhai, of which his government, Sweden, was not informed, nor, of course, allowed to attend, led to Gui being sentenced to ten years of imprisonment. His crime? He knows how he was kidnapped in Thailand, and because of that, as his colleague Lam Wing-kee said, they can never let him go. Gui’s ‘crime’ is simply that he knows about the crime of the Chinese State.

Both Jerome Cohen and Donald Clarke, amongst the most well respected legal scholars on China, reacted with apparent shock, realising that what has happened could easily become a habit, for China to kidnap ethnic Chinese critics abroad, bring them back and forcibly restore their Chinese nationality against their will.

In fact, it also means they could employ the same method against a non-ethnic Chinese critic if they so please. China is after all intentionally and systematically breaking glass ceilings, one by one, while measuring what effects it has (rarely any). Using this method on an ethnic non-Chinese is the next logical step.

China has found a magic bullet against both the Vienna treaty on consular relations – a pillar of how nations interact with each other, and a bullet that also shreds any bilateral consular agreement. What point is there for the US, Canada, and others to maintain such bilateral treaties if China can, without consequence, simply ignore them?

missing booksellers
“Banned” books for sale in Hong Kong. File photo: HKFP.

China says Gui has renounced his Swedish citizenship. However, no request has been received by the relevant organ in Sweden – the migration board – and even if one had, it would have to approve it before his citizenship is removed. At the same time, Gui is, while held incommunicado and at a secret location, supposed to have used article 13 of China’s nationalities law, to ‘restore’ his former citizenship.

However, Gui is not a minor, and article 14 demands that such an application be made by the person himself, with the public security organ. Any such restoration would then have to be approved by the Ministry of Public Security, and should according to usual practice include background checks as well as an interview. Gui himself, on the application form, would have to provide information about his criminal record.

According to China, Gui was convicted of a crime many years ago, and then fled, and became a fugitive. Since then, the Chinese government has claimed, repeatedly, that Gui has committed multiple crimes in Sweden. He was then captured, and somehow, while supposedly serving his prison time and later living under house arrest, managed to commit one of the most severe crimes in China, supplying state secrets to foreign intelligence. He would, at the time of applying, be under investigation for a crime against national security.

It is in this situation that Gui has somehow applied for citizenship – and been granted it. A person who, on paper and in the words of the Chinese government, is both a career criminal and a threat to national security. With all this in mind, the Ministry of Public Security has decided that this person would, as article 7 requires, respect and adhere to the constitution and that he is of “good character” and of “sound mind”.

chinese court
A Chinese court room. File photo: GovCN.

On top of that, any application, including for restoration, must include copies of his foreign passport and residency/ID cards. Since all those were left in his holiday home when he was kidnapped in Thailand, how exactly has he managed to do this? It’s safe to say neither the Swedish government nor his family is likely to have provided such copies. So how did he even manage to complete the application, let alone file it, and go through the required interview?

Related to this, China has for many years refused to directly acknowledge that Gui is not a Chinese citizen. Gui, who renounced his citizenship many years ago, would still be a Chinese citizen unless the Ministry of Public Security approved his renouncement, something it has likely never done. If so, how can Gui regain something that China previously claims he never lost?

None of these things matter, of course, because China is not governed by the rule of law, not even by rule by law – the law is simply a tool for the State to employ against its citizens when it so pleases.

It is safe to say that the timing was intentional, to both bury the news, and to make sure it didn’t lead to any consequences. Since being issued, however, European governments have slowly started taking firm positions against this action, and what happens the rest of this week and next will be key to see if this will lead to anything beyond a brief scolding. There seems to be a growing awareness in European capitals that this attack is not an attack on Gui only, but on a pillar of how nations interact with China, and which will, without doubt, affect their citizens too, whether sooner or later.

Will this be the step that forces western nations to realise that ‘business as usual’ is not working with a ‘partner’ who seemingly ignores any treaty or promise made whenever it suits them, and that the only way to deal with China is with real pressure, real force, and with less gullibility? Belgium just ratified a new extradition treaty with China – perhaps it’s time for the rest of Europe to take a break on making new agreements with China, and focus instead on holding China accountable for those already in effect.

Peter Dahlin was co-founder of now-defunct Chinese NGO 'China Action' (2009-2016) and is the director of Safeguard Defenders, which assist lawyers, independent media, and civil society groups across east- and southeast Asia in protecting human rights and promoting the rule of law.