FPI / May 4, 2020
Analysis by Paul Crespo
While communist China has long touted its alleged “peaceful rise” as a global power, its increasingly brutish and bullying behavior toward less powerful countries has shown a harsher reality. Sweden is just the most recent example. Fortunately, Sweden is pushing back.
As Axios reports, “a series of diplomatic incidents has undone decades of work building Sweden-China relations. Beijing’s bullying behavior is a test case in how China treats less powerful countries that refuse to submit to its demands.”
To Sweden’s credit, it has not cowed to China’s bullying and threats. Instead, China’s behavior has led Sweden to shut down cultural exchanges and other long-standing agreements.
As Axios describes:
• Gothenburg, the second-largest city in Sweden, has canceled its friendship city agreement with Shanghai, which was first signed 34 years ago. Several other cities, including Västerås, Luleå, and Linköping, have also ended their relationships with Chinese cities.
• Sweden closed all of its Confucius Institutes, a Chinese government-funded program that sets up Chinese language and culture centers in foreign universities but which has come under scrutiny for censoring discussion of topics that Beijing considers sensitive.
According to UK-based The Times, Sweden is believed to be the first European nation to close all of its Confucius Institutes and classrooms, which were sponsored by Beijing in an effort to promote the Chinese language and enhance cultural exchanges between the two countries. The report pointed out that the bilateral friendship between China and Sweden has “deteriorated into hostility and mutual suspicion” and that the Swedish government had expressed concerns over Beijing’s potential brainwashing attempts on local students.
U.S. officials have stated that the Confucius Institutes are a propaganda tool meant to enhance China’s “soft power.”
The current downturn in relations began in 2015 when Chinese authorities kidnapped Gui Minhai, a Swedish national who was a bookseller in Hong Kong. He disappeared in Thailand but reappeared months later in Chinese custody. Relations deteriorated even further in 2019.
According to The Economist, Gui’s crime seemed to have been selling disparaging books about President-for-Life Xi Jinping. Gui was released in 2017 but was grabbed again months later by undercover Chinese state security agents on a train from Shanghai to Beijing, while being escorted by Swedish diplomats. Chinese authorities have repeatedly denied the Swedes consular access to Gui.
In November of last year, when Gui received an award from the Swedish branch of PEN International, a free-speech group, the Chinese embassy demanded it be rescinded and China’s ambassador to Sweden warned of “consequences” if Sweden’s culture minister participated in the ceremony. As The Economist noted, the minister ignored the warning and attended anyway.
The Chinese ambassador has also threatened Swedish media outlets who reported critically on China, and implicitly threatened anyone who opposed Beijing. Ominously, the ambassador made an explicit threat on Swedish public radio in November 2019: “We treat our friends with fine wine, but for our enemies we have shotguns,” said the ambassador, according to The Economist.
In December, the Chinese ambassador continued threatening Sweden when he warned that China would restrict trade with Sweden in retaliation. The Swedish government then expressed outrage in February this year when a Chinese court announced that Gui had renounced his Swedish citizenship on a supposedly voluntary basis, and sentenced him to 10 years in prison, reports Axios.
In Sweden’s case, China’s bullying has won it few concessions. According to The Economist, Sweden now plans to subject Chinese investments in Swedish companies to more scrutiny, and Sweden’s business press has also turned more skeptical of Chinese investment.
The Economist further explains how Sweden is responding to China’s threats:
In November the parliament passed a law that allows for a national-security review of Huawei as a potential supplier to Sweden’s 5g network. That could mean favouring Ericsson, a Swedish native, over the Chinese firm. In December some opposition MPs called for Ambassador Gui [not related to the dissident bookseller] to be declared persona non grata. The public is no more friendly: in a survey of 34 countries last year by the Pew Research Centre, 70 percent of Swedes had an unfavourable opinion of China. Only Japan was more hostile.
Despite the hardening of Swedish views against China, last year the United Nations Development Program’s office in Stockholm suddenly cancelled a human-rights gala due to Chinese objections because it would have had photos of the Dalai Lama.
More concerning, according to The Economist, is the news that a former Swedish ambassador to China will stand trial in March for allegedly secretly arranging talks between Chinese authorities and the imprisoned Gui’s daughter in an attempt to silence her and lower the profile of the bookseller’s case.
While Sweden has made great strides in recognizing and responding to the China threat, Sweden — and the rest of Europe — must stay the course, and firmly stand for freedom, democracy and sovereignty, and against Chinese threats and bullying.