What Chinese tourist row in Sweden says about the future of Europe-China relations

Björn Jerdén and Viking Bohman say the Chinese embassy’s forceful response to its citizens being evicted from a Swedish hotel by police indicates that more friction may be in the offing between the new global power and Europe

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 September, 2018, 12:02pm
UPDATED : Friday, 21 September, 2018, 7:28pm

A seemingly harmless incident between Chinese tourists and local police in Stockholm has escalated into an unfolding diplomatic crisis. The Chinese embassy says that the police “brutally abused” and “severely endangered the life” of the visiting family and wants an apology. Swedish judicial authorities have dropped the case and, so far, no apologies have been offered.

China’s forceful reaction is surprising but not an isolated event. It follows on from an unprecedented propaganda offensive, which has developed since the new Chinese ambassador to Sweden, Gui Congyou, took up his post last year.

Gui, an experienced Russia hand, appears to have taken as his mission to improve, or “correct”, the debate about China in Sweden. Since spring, statements have piled up on the embassy’s website condemning Swedish opinions as “biased”, “groundless” and “totally unacceptable”.

Swedish commentaries on everything from the Belt and Road Initiative to the treatment of Tibetans to the imprisonment of the Swedish citizen Gui Minhai have been portrayed as the product of a misunderstanding of facts or “hidden agenda”.

Watch: Chinese tourists claim mistreatment by Swedish police

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As the first non-Communist country in Europe to establish relations with China in 1950, Sweden has traditionally enjoyed stable relations with Beijing. As a result, views on China have also been quite favourable among Swedes, even if the country’s undemocratic political system was never held in high regard.

Unsurprisingly, the idea that the Communist Party is the sole purveyor of truth about China has proven to be a hard sell in Sweden

But things might be changing. Despite the Chinese embassy’s persistent efforts, Swedish criticism has continued and even intensified as a result of attempts to coerce and shape public opinion. The embassy’s unusual arguments with threatening undertones have surely struck Swedish media consumers as slightly bizarre.

The embassy has emphasised the need for an “objective” view of China, free from bias and the “media tyranny” being practised by some Swedish actors. Unsurprisingly, the idea that the Communist Party is the sole purveyor of truth about China has proven to be a hard sell in Sweden.

In recent decades, Sweden has been quite active in promoting human rights and the rule of law in China through non-contentious channels. Like most European countries, however, it has also sought to avoid speaking out on issues which could spark angry reactions in Beijing. The current prime minister’s refusal to portray China as a “dictatorship” reflects the will to keep a low profile.

While the government’s overall policy direction will probably remain unchanged, it is looking increasingly doubtful that Sweden will be able to maintain a soft approach as Chinese activity in Sweden continues to spur counter-reactions and domestic calls for the release of Gui Minhai grow.

Not all Chinese attempts to influence events are clear-cut and readily comprehensible. A couple of weeks before the late-night hostel brawl had turned into a political matter, the Chinese embassy issued a statement saying that some Swedish actors had made “unwarranted claims that ‘China may have interfered in the Swedish election’”. The election was held on September 9 and the new parliamentary set-up makes it uncertain when a new government will be able to come into office.

The puzzling part: there is no trace of a discussion in Sweden about the possibility of Chinese interference in the election – not in the media, not among politicians, not even in national security circles. The embassy’s unprovoked denial has left observers confused.

Watch: Chinese diplomat tries in vain to halt dissident’s UN speech

The fate of Gui Minhai continues to be the main point of disagreement between the two countries. Gui was associated with a bookstore in Hong Kong that published titles on China’s top leaders.

In 2015, he mysteriously disappeared from his holiday home in Thailand, only to reappear on Chinese state television in what appears to be a forced confession.

Gui was later released, only to be detained again in February this year. This time, he was snatched from a Beijing-bound train right in front of the Swedish diplomats accompanying him. China continues to condemn Sweden’s public calls for the release of Gui as interference in its legal processes.

This case is set to be highlighted by the media later this month at Sweden’s biggest book fair, to which Gui has been invited.

It has been speculated that China might have exploited the tourist incident in Stockholm to shift attention away from its own human rights record. The embassy has boldly accused Sweden of violating the “basic human rights” of the Chinese citizens.

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A textbook lesson in diplomacy

This is far from the first time China has tried to get its way with a small European country. As early as 1989 – and in spite of Western sanctions following the Tiananmen Square massacre – Beijing lashed out at Norway when the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded its Peace Prize to the Dalai Lama. Examples abound since then.

What has changed in recent years is that the economic and political costs for crossing China are higher. Normally, this should make European countries more reluctant to criticise China.

But as it happens, China’s growing influence coincides with a China-critical turn in European perceptions and policies.

Combined, these two trends speak in favour of some turbulence. Friction is imminent when a more proactive and authoritarian China confronts exasperated European countries. China’s handling of its “Sweden problem” might tell us a great deal about what is to come in the Europe-China relations.

Björn Jerdén is head of the Asia Programme at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, where Viking Bohman is an analyst