Why you should care
A diplomatic spat between China and Sweden could have real economic consequences.
This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.
WHAT TO KNOW
What happened? Swedes may be known for avoiding conflict, but they’re in the thick of one now with China. The diplomatic spat stemmed from a call made to police by a Swedish hostel about three Chinese tourists who turned up in the early morning hours — long before their reservation was valid — and tried to stay in the lobby overnight. In an incident captured on video, the tourists threw themselves to the ground, claiming to be sick and screaming “This is killing!” Though the video does not show any police brutality, they made a complaint to the police, and the Chinese Embassy charged that the tourists had been subjected to “brutal abuse.” Swedish police, meanwhile, say an investigation found that officers didn’t commit any crimes.
Is that all? Things escalated last week when Swedish satirical show Svenska Nyheter picked up a video of the incident and satirized it with a sketch propagating stereotypes about Chinese tourists, including that they eat dogs and defecate in public. The skit was dubbed in Mandarin and posted on Chinese video site YouKu, attracting a lot of attention — something a spokesperson for Swedish national broadcaster SVT now says was a mistake, though the program director has refused to apologize.
Why does it matter? The initial video got millions of views and mixed reactions: Some criticized the police while others condemned the “dramatic” tourists. But the sketch has caused more fallout — and perhaps allowed China an excuse to punish Sweden for larger underlying diplomatic issues.
HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT
Hit ‘em where it hurts. The hashtag #SwedishTVShowInsultsChinesePeople was started on Sina Weibo, a Chinese social media platform, along with calls for boycotts of Sweden and Swedish companies like IKEA and Volvo (which is actually now a subsidiary of a Chinese automaker). The Swedish Foreign Ministry cited freedom of expression and gave no further comment, but the program manager from SVT — not the program director — apologized on his own blog, explaining that the sketch’s intent was “anti-racist.”
Keep your friends close. Sweden was the first Western country to establish official diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China in 1950 and among the first to sign bilateral economic agreements with the country 20 years later. Now, hundreds of Swedish companies are operating in China, and thousands more do business there. But closer economic ties mean a diplomatic spat could be more costly, and some — including Svenska Nyheter — have pointed out that Sweden’s government may be more malleable in the face of Chinese aggression owing to its business interests. Chinese tourism to Stockholm rose 74 percent between 2011 and 2016.
Keep your enemies closer. Recent relations between the two countries have been anything but smooth. In January, Gui Minhai, a Hong Kong book publisher with Swedish citizenship, was seized by Chinese authorities while on a train to Beijing in the company of Swedish diplomats. He had only recently been released in 2017 from Chinese detention after having disappeared in 2015. Now he’s back in custody, despite protests from Sweden. Earlier this month, the Dalai Lama visited the Swedish city of Malmö, which added to diplomatic tensions between the two nations.
Not only trouble in the north. While Sweden and China’s spat heats up, Europe as a whole may be ready for a pushback against China’s influence on the continent. A number of European countries are looking twice at Chinese foreign direct investment, which is now around nine times greater in Europe than in the U.S. More serious diplomatic conflicts with China and European states may be just around the corner.
WHAT TO READ
Could one Chinese family’s night in Stockholm send a chill through the Swedish economy? by Phoebe Zhang at South China Morning Post
“Even if China takes no official action, public sentiment can land punches.”
Swedish broadcaster: Satirical China sketch ‘misunderstood,’ by David Keyton at Associated Press
“The Swedish broadcaster said its sketch aimed to comment satirically and humorously, and to highlight ’Sinophobia’ in Sweden.”
WHAT TO WATCH
Chinese Tourists Claim Mistreatment by Swedish Police
“When they refused to leave, [hostel] staff called police…”
Watch on South China Morning Post on YouTube:
Swedish Comedy Show: “Sinophobia is Not OK.”
“Because Swedes hate racism as long as we are not talking about the Chinese.”
Watch on SVT Humor on YouTube:
WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATER COOLER
Meddling mystery. Even before President Donald Trump recently claimed (without citing evidence) that China is meddling in upcoming U.S. elections — a charge China called “slander” — China took the initiative to defend itself against similar charges relating to Sweden’s recent ballot. A week before the hostage incident, the Chinese embassy released a statement claiming that “Swedish forces, media and individuals have made unwarranted claims that ‘China may have interfered in the Swedish election,’” denying any meddling. But, say Swedish academics, no such claim was made by Swedish authorities or the media.