STOCKHOLM (AP) — Sweden on Friday rejected criticism by the Chinese ambassador of the Swedish culture minister’s participation in the awarding of a press freedom prize to a naturalized Swede detained in China.

The Swedish news agency TT quoted Culture Minister Amanda Lind as saying Friday that “a foreign state telling another country how the government should act is very serious.”

She spoke hours before the Swedish chapter of PEN, a press freedom group, was to award its annual Tucholsky prize to Gui Minhai, the co-owner of a Hong Kong store which sold gossipy books about Chinese leaders.

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said the country “would never cave in to this kind of threat. Never. We have freedom of speech in Sweden and that is the point, period.”

Chinese Ambassador Gui Conyou had urged PEN Sweden to cancel the award for the naturalized Swede and for Lind not to participate, threatening to ban her from entering China, according the Swedish news agency TT.

He said the award would “bring serious negative impacts” on bilateral cooperation, and “we will surely take countermeasures.” He didn’t say what they might be.

“Let’s see what possible consequences this may have,” Lofven told Swedish broadcaster SVT. “But we stand up for freedom of expression in Sweden. That's how Sweden is built and that's how we should have it.”

“We were a little bit surprised ... but we didn’t expect this strong reaction,” Jesper Bengtsson, the Swedish PEN chairman, told The Associated Press. "The Chinese ambassador here has been very proactive in trying to silence people, so this is probably the result of the same strategy.”

China is conducting a "large-scale public diplomacy campaign in Sweden which is unique (within) the European Union,” said Bjorn Jerden, head of the Asian Program at the Swedish institute of international affairs. It is “the first time they directly threatened the Swedish government.”

The spat comes at a time of tense relations between Stockholm and Beijing.

China is holding Gui on suspicion of leaking state secrets and has rebuked Sweden for demanding his release. He was taken off a train by police in eastern China in 2018 while in the company of two Swedish diplomats with whom he was traveling to Beijing.

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Associated Press writer Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, contributed to this report.

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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