Diplomats Are Driving China’s Latest Spat With Sweden
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China is testing just how far it can go with Sweden — but the message is meant for the world, say experts.
For years, Gui Minhai was known for the gossipy political tomes he wrote and published in Hong Kong. Now the Swedish citizen has himself become the subject of an extraordinary saga, with far-reaching political and diplomatic consequences, almost as outrageous as the books he once wrote.
Gui first went missing while on vacation in 2015, only to resurface in China the following year with a state media “confession” over a 12-year-old drunk driving charge.
In 2017, Chinese officials said Gui had completed his sentence and was “free,” but he was seized again by plainclothes Chinese police in January 2018 on a train to Beijing while accompanied by Swedish diplomats. He is currently being held in an unknown location on suspicion of “endangering state security.”
While Sweden’s left-wing government has tried to carry out negotiations discreetly, the recall of the Swedish ambassador to Beijing earlier this year and the prosecutors’ decision this week to charge her for “arbitrariness during negotiations with a foreign power” have underscored tensions between the two countries.
With relations already strained by an outspoken Chinese ambassador angry at free expression advocacy group Swedish PEN’s decision to award a human rights prize to Gui, a trade meeting scheduled for this week was called off by China, officials in Stockholm said.
China is trying to see where the red lines are and what the right approach is, as well as send a signal to the rest of the world.
Jerker Hellström, Swedish Defence Research Agency
“I am worried that the tensions between Sweden and China could worsen, not least because of the upcoming trial of Ambassador Anna Lindstedt and potential revelations in conjunction with that,” says Kristina Sandklef, senior China adviser at consulting firm Consilio International.
Experts such as Sandklef think possible escalations could include a reduction in twin city agreements and official visits. There are also fears it could become harder for Swedish companies to set up in China.
The latest argument began when Angela Gui, Gui Minhai’s daughter, was invited to a meeting in a Stockholm hotel by Lindstedt, with two businessmen. Gui said the two men hinted they could have her father released if she stopped talking publicly about the case.
Sweden’s Foreign Ministry said it had no prior knowledge of the meeting and recalled Lindstedt from Beijing. She has been charged with a crime that carries a sentence of up to two years in prison. Lindstedt denies the charge.
Adding to the fractiousness of relations between the two countries, China’s ambassador to Stockholm, Gui Congyou, threatened Sweden with “bad consequences” when Gui was awarded the Tucholsky Prize for writers or publishers facing persecution.
“The reaction goes beyond anything I’ve encountered, and I’ve been working in human rights for 30 years,” says Elisabeth Löfgren, chair of the Writers in Prison committee of Swedish PEN, which awards the Tucholsky Prize. “You don’t behave like that as a diplomat. But the problem is it’s China, and China does what it wants.”
Several Swedish politicians have called for Ambassador Gui to be sent home. He has made dozens of outbursts against Swedish authorities and journalists over everything from how Swedish police had “brutally abused” tourists evicted from a Stockholm hostel to reporting on China’s detention camps in Xinjiang.
Government officials in Stockholm say they have had frank discussions with the Chinese diplomat but were not seeking to escalate the matter. The Chinese Embassy in Stockholm did not respond to requests for comment.
Sandklef says that the Swedish government has annoyed China by “sitting on very high moral horses.” “What I hear from my Chinese friends is that the Chinese have not been that impressed with Swedes for some time,” she adds.
The dispute follows Beijing’s criticism of Denmark a decade ago after its prime minister met the Dalai Lama and also of Norway for awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to dissident Liu Xiaobo.
“I think China is trying to use the Nordic countries as a testing ground,” says Jerker Hellström, head of the Asia and Middle East program at the Swedish Defence Research Agency. “China is trying to see where the red lines are and what the right approach is, as well as send a signal to the rest of the world.” Sweden’s outspoken approach on human rights is one reason for China’s reaction, according to Hellström.
In recent years, Beijing has made regular use of China’s economic heft in diplomatic spats, using market access and trade as leverage to press other nations into toeing the Communist Party line.
Some South Korean conglomerates, most notably retailer Lotte, are still reeling from a Chinese backlash in 2017 over the deployment of the U.S. anti-missile defense system THAAD in Seoul.
Sweden is the site of one of China’s biggest overseas acquisitions. In 2010, Zhejiang Geely bought Volvo Cars. A senior Swedish executive warns that China is in danger of squandering the goodwill it has garnered by turning around Volvo. He points to industrial espionage and patent theft in Western countries as well as “the lack of a level playing field — they can buy our companies but we can’t buy theirs.” Löfgren says the rising tensions over Gui also serve as a warning shot to other European countries. “Holding on to their principles is what I would like the government to do, even if it would be costly. This time it’s Sweden; next time it could be Germany, it could be France,” she adds.
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