It was a cold winter's day 17 years ago when nine-year-old Belle Selene Xia stepped off a plane and first set eyes on the Finnish capital, Helsinki. Three days later, the little girl from Chongqing, saw snow for the first time.
She did not know this Nordic country would become her home and she certainly couldn't have imagined that she would marry a Finn, receive a PhD from a Finnish university and give birth in Finland (her second child is on the way). She also had no inkling that she, an immigrant herself, would one day join the country's leading anti-immigration party - and then be hounded out for being "too intolerant".
"IN EUROPE, PEOPLE HAVE been brainwashed that democracy is always good, that freedom of speech is always good and that human rights are always good," says Xia, 26, in an interview from Helsinki, speaking English with a thick Finnish accent. "People think that dictatorship in Finland or Europe is negative. But I think that if you have a good leader, an honest and moral leader, a dictator in power, then that person would have much more freedom and power to do good for the people than other political systems would allow."
Statements such as that would cut short a political career in many places across Europe but, even though Xia was warned her criticism of democracy could harm hers, it wasn't those views that landed her in trouble with the Finns Party (previously called the True Finns), of which she was a member, and made her a target for anti-Chinese and anti-immigrant abuse.
Around the turn of the year, Xia, then a deputy Helsinki city councillor, went head-to-head with a local human rights organisation that had organised a seminar on the spiritual movement Falun Gong. The Chinese authorities systematically harvest the organs of living practitioners of the movement, the group claims.
In an e-mail exchange with the group, Xia hit out at the Falun Gong, which is banned in the mainland. As the dialogue became heated, Xia is reported to have written, "A person whose goal is to destroy China and bring down the Chinese government is a traitor and deserves to die!"
Not long after that outburst, Xia was expelled from the True Finns' council group.
According to the group chairman, Harri Lindell, "The most significant reason for her expulsion were these Falun Gong statements, in which she said, among other things, that people of a different opinion deserve to die." He also accused her, in an interview with state broadcaster YLE, of other breaches of party rules, including criticism of fellow party members.
But Xia strongly denies having said that anyone deserves to die for his or her political opinions. She claims the party has lied about her comments and that she has taken the case to the police. The true motives behind her expulsion, she says, are racist.
"Members of the True Finns party have publicly and repeatedly taken a racist stance against foreigners," she says, pointing out that no white party member has ever been censured for such comments.
"The Helsinki caucus has expelled me by breaking the party's official rules and policies [because] of my foreign background … and as a result of one personal statement that I have made in which I have defended China," Xia says. "This does not prevent me from continuing in the True Finns party and in the city council as a politician in Finland. However, I have decided to resign from Finnish politics solely due to the repeated dishonesty and racism expressed by the True Finns party."
She also claims to be the victim of a witch-hunt by the Falun Gong, and has compiled a list of alleged lies told about her by the movement, one of which is that she is on the payroll of the Chinese Communist Party.
"The Falun Gong people, I'm really scared of them, because I see how much harm they are doing," she says, without elaborating on what that harm might be.
Reactions on social media in Finland have been mixed, with some criticising her and others criticising her party.
"Xia committed political suicide. Sometimes it pays to think twice before you speak. In this case it's for the best … the true worldview of the politician became clear to the voters," said web poster Olli Kankaanpaa. Another commentator said, "A person who is so emotionally engaged with the politics of another nation isn't capable of representing Finland on any political level."
Other comments were racist.
FINLAND, LIKE A LOT of other European countries, is experiencing an increase in anti-immigration sentiment. In a 2012 TNS Gallup study, two-thirds of Finns polled claimed that racism was a problem in Finland.
"People try to say that there is no racism in Finland, but it does exist," says Unto Jaapuro, deputy chairman of the Finnish Roma Association, in an interview with the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper. "Racism is an everyday occurrence."
In the survey, which involved respondents from all eight main political parties in the country, supporters of the Finns Party were shown to have the most negative attitudes towards foreigners, with more than half agreeing with the notion that "people belonging to certain races simply are not suited to live in a modern society".
Unlike most anti-immigration parties in Europe, the Finns Party is not ideologically wedded to the far right. It embodies an unusual combination of left-wing economic policies and conservative social values, with a twist of socio-cultural authoritarianism and ethnic nationalism thrown in, according to political analysts. It is also fiercely sceptical of the European Union and, during the 2011 parliamentary elections, it unexpectedly became the country's third largest party, with 19 per cent of the votes.
British broadcaster the BBC has claimed that the success of the Finns Party is due to the "brain, wit and charisma" of its leader, Timo Soini, and his ability to make complicated ideas look easy.
Although anti-immigration parties are gaining support, the Finns' attitude towards some minority groups - especially the Chinese - is fairly positive, according a study by the University of Helsinki.
"It is true that Finnish people are sceptical towards foreigners, especially towards those who come from Muslim countries. Many people think they just take advantage of social security," says Veli Rosenberg, head of the Finland-China Society. "But people with Chinese origins are known to work very hard, so they are welcome to Finland."
The Finland-China Society was established in 1951 by left-wing cultural intellectuals. During the early 1970s it was hijacked by a group of local Maoists but soon after became "politically balanced" and today mainly promotes economical and cultural relations between the two countries. It claims to be the oldest China-friendship organisation in the Western world.
There are somewhere between 6,000 and 8,000 Chinese people living in Finland, according to Rosenberg. There is no Chinatown, however, and Finland's Chinese are spread across the country, with some working in the hospitality industry and many others in information and technology firms.
Wu Jian came to Finland from Hubei province 10 years ago. He lives in Espoo, the country's second-largest town, and works as a programmer for a software company.
"I plan to stay in Finland," he says. "It's a nice country. The nature is very beautiful and I like the culture."
Although he doesn't speak Finnish and doesn't consider himself to be integrated, "it's easy to get to know the Finns. They are kind, friendly and very good. If you have a problem, they are always happy to help," he says.
"Finnish people like the Chinese because we are both nice people and we work hard. Finnish people even work hard on their holidays. They are always building something in their cottages or making renovation in their houses," says Wu, laughing.
Wu is a board member for the Chinese Alliance in Finland. While the members of the Finland-China Society are almost all white, those of the Chinese Alliance in Finland are predominantly Chinese.
The organisation was set up in 2005 as a response to the mistreatment of Chinese people in Finland. Twelve Chinese stonemasons had been "brutally exploited" at the stone material supplier where they worked, the organisation's website explains. A support group was formed within the Chinese community and played a key role in the workers' subsequent lawsuit.
Today, the organisation works closely with the authorities to help Chinese immigrants with issues ranging from legal aid and advice on entrepreneurship to courses in Finnish, the "second most difficult language in the world to learn". It's also a social hub, arranging outings such as fishing trips in Arctic waters for its members.
The country is a popular destination for Chinese students, too. Finnish universities fare well in international rankings and higher education in Finland is free, regardless of the nationality of the student.
On the face of it, it would seem that life in Finland is pretty good for Chinese settlers, so why did Xia, a well-educated young woman, join the Finns Party? Is she against immigration?
No, she says, quite the opposite. But she wants to see a change in policy.
"In my view, irrespective of your background, everybody wants to work, study and be independent. Today our labour market is not flexible, which partly explains the high unemployment rate among foreigners," she says. "If a person is a refugee, native or immigrant it shouldn't matter. What we need is a structure in society that encourages people to work and start a business.
"I went into Finnish politics as a Finnish citizen to do good for Finnish society and the Finnish people," she says, adding that she carefully evaluated all the parties before choosing one.
"I joined the True Finns party because of [its] values, such as honesty, justice, equality, respect for work and entrepreneurship." She also says that the Finns Party isn't officially anti-immigration, "but the top of the party leadership are anti-immigrant".
"In the 2012 municipal election I received 538 votes from Helsinki residents and was elected to the Helsinki Council," she says. Her other political positions included deputy of the Helsinki Zoo Board, Helsinki representative at the Sports Board and vice-president of the Finnish Adult Education Board, all of which she has now relinquished.
She now works full time for business intelligence firm Florilla Consulting, as she did when she joined the party, fitting her political activities into her free time.
Before moving to Finland, Xia's family lived in Switzerland for three years, where her father worked as a visiting professor of physics. When he got a position at the Aalto University School of Science, in Helsinki, they moved north. Her parents still live in Finland.
Xia's husband works in the research and develop-ment department of an international business-intelli-gence company..
Although fully integrated into Finnish society, Xia feels more multinational than purely Finnish or Chinese.
"I seldom visit China, and I have received all of my education in a European country. I don't feel strongly about China, but values such as honesty and justice are the values I abide by," she says, explaining why she felt she had to challenge the human-rights group over the Falun Gong.
She is also an outspoken believer in the death penalty, something that goes against the grain in Finland. Capital punishment was officially abolished in 1972 but the last execution in peacetime took place in 1825.
She believes "dishonesty, hypocrisy and immorality are used as means in democracy to achieve political success and gain votes".
"Many people use the democratic system for immoral behaviour," she says, adding that "people don't vote in a logical manner, but are manipulated by propaganda".
A political system is just a tool and each one should be judged by its own qualities. Just like technology, she says, a political system should just work, whether it's a democracy, single-party rule or a dictatorship. Unfortunately, though, dictatorships are often characterised by corruption and dishonesty, too.
"That's why it's so difficult finding a good dictator," she says.
She acknowledges that the Chinese system is far from perfect but, Xia says, she considers it rational and thinks the Chinese people are good at defending their rights. And she admires the way Beijing has managed to keep the country together despite its size, population, diverse culture and many minority groups.
When asked if China is ready for democracy, she says, surprisingly, that it already is a democracy, pointing to the eight minor parties - including the Association for Promoting Democracy and the Revolutionary Committee of the Kuomintang - that are registered under Communist Party direction.
"In Finland, you have over eight parties, in China it's similar," she says. "So China is just like a democracy, just a different type of democracy.
"What is democracy anyway?"