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International relations

Sweden-China ties grow ever icier over Hong Kong and coronavirus

Beijing's 'worst relationship' in EU gives preview of 'wolf warrior' diplomacy

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven's government is caught between negative domestic perceptions of China and the dangers of antagonizing Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Source photos by Rueters)

PRAGUE -- When European Union foreign ministers held a video conference on May 29 -- the day after China approved national security legislation for Hong Kong -- only one member state asked whether Brussels should at least consider sanctioning Beijing: Sweden.

Nothing came of it. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell later brushed off the idea, telling reporters he does not "think sanctions are the way to solve problems in China."

Yet Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde's query was a reminder of the steady deterioration in Sweden-China relations in recent years. Long before European governments started rethinking ties with Beijing over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic and other concerns, Stockholm was grappling with China over a book publisher's imprisonment and getting a taste of "wolf warrior" diplomacy.

"Sweden probably has the worst relationship with China of any EU country," said Bjorn Jerden, head of the Asia Program at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs.

Like many countries, Sweden shares significant trade and business dealings with China -- including Chinese ownership of one of its most iconic brands, Volvo Cars. But the controversies over Hong Kong and the coronavirus have only further frayed ties that worsened in October 2015, when Chinese-born Swedish citizen and publisher Gui Minhai disappeared.

Gui, who was known in Hong Kong for publishing books critical of Beijing, vanished while on holiday in Thailand. Months later, he appeared on state television in China, "confessing" that he had killed someone while driving drunk a decade earlier.

Released in late 2017 after a year in prison but denied permission to leave the country, he was rearrested in 2018 on a train to Beijing traveling with two Swedish diplomats. The spat flared up yet again last November, with news that Swedish free speech organization PEN International intended to give him an award.

Gui Congyou, China's ambassador in Stockholm, warned of "bad consequences" if it went ahead, hinting Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven could be barred from visiting China. "We treat our friends with fine wine," Gui said on a Swedish radio show. "But for our enemies we've got shotguns."

Lofven, whose government has trodden carefully, said on the day of the ceremony that he would "never" give in to intimidation. Culture Minister Amanda Lind presented the award to Gui -- or, to be precise, an empty chair representing him.

China's ambassador to Sweden, Gui Congyou, has made waves with statements such as, "We treat our friends with fine wine, but for our enemies we've got shotguns."   © Reuters

Soon afterward, a Chinese trade mission to Sweden was canceled and Ambassador Gui told a newspaper that Beijing would "restrict cultural exchanges and cooperation on the economy and trade."

In February, Gui Minhai was jailed for 10 years on charges of "providing intelligence" to foreigners. Chinese officials claim he renounced his Swedish citizenship.

The Gui saga has coincided with what the Swedish Institute of International Affairs called an "unprecedented" campaign to "shape Sweden's public debate of China."

The institute found that from January 2018 to May 2019, the Chinese Embassy in Stockholm made 57 public statements denouncing Swedish media coverage of China. A separate report released this January by Sweden's national television stations said seven of the country's eight biggest newsrooms had been contacted by the embassy in recent years with complaints about content.

The pressure does not seem to have paid off: A Pew Research Center survey last year found 70% of Swedish respondents held unfavorable views of China, the highest percentage among Europeans and the second-highest worldwide after the Japanese.

"Swedes have a strong sense of pride and confidence in their democratic system," Jerden said. "Such views might contribute to hardened views on China, which is increasingly portrayed in Sweden -- although not by the central government -- as an ideological adversary."

Jojje Olsson, a Taiwan-based Swedish journalist who covers Sweden-China relations, suggested the kidnapping and mistreatment of Gui Minhai combined with the ambassador's aggressive approach has created a sense that Beijing's repression is "more immediate in Sweden than is the case in most other European countries."

PEN's Tucholsky Prize is awarded to book publisher Gui Minhai -- represented by an empty chair -- in Stockholm last November.   © Reuters

In Swedish media and civil society, Olsson said there is "almost total unity in calling out the crimes and repression of the Chinese regime." But when it comes to Sweden's politicians, the China issue is "more tricky."

Some may fear compromising trade and investment. In 2018, bilateral trade was worth $17.1 billion, and of EU states Sweden was the seventh-largest recipient of Chinese foreign direct investment from 2000 to 2019, according to the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin.

Even though Foreign Minister Linde raised the issue of sanctioning China over Hong Kong, she only did it because a vote in the Swedish parliament forced her hand. The current government, led by the dominant Social Democrats, is in fact reluctant to impose tough penalties on China, and Linde has told media she opposes them. Opposition parties, however, regularly criticize China.

Overall, analyst Jerden said, "Sweden has traditionally been one of the EU countries most willing to publicize China's human rights record. I would say that this is still the case, although Stockholm -- like any European government -- has to walk a fine line between criticism and concern about Beijing's retribution."

The coronavirus has only widened the rift between the countries.

In April, Health and Social Affairs Minister Lena Hallengren said Sweden would push the EU to support an international investigation into the pandemic's origins, which is bound to look at allegations of a Chinese cover-up.

Simultaneously, Sweden -- partly due to its own COVID-19 response -- has been a prime target of a Chinese campaign portraying Western democracies as weak against the threat. Sweden is one of few countries that ordered no lockdown and put its faith in "herd immunity." Even Anders Tegnell, Sweden's state epidemiologist, earlier this month admitted the authorities should have done more.

Sweden this year closed the last of its Confucius Institutes -- Beijing-funded programs that teach Chinese language and culture. In April, Stockholm joined other European governments in introducing legislation to prevent foreign takeovers of sensitive companies, a move ostensibly aimed at China.

And the Gui Minhai case may create new complications.

The trial of Anna Lindstedt, Sweden's former ambassador to China, began in Stockholm last week and runs until June 22.

She stands accused of "arbitrariness during negotiations with a foreign power." Prosecutors contend she failed to notify the Swedish Foreign Ministry before setting up a meeting last year between Gui Minhai's daughter, Angela Gui, and two Chinese businessmen who claimed they could help arrange her father's release.

One theory is that Lindstedt was unwittingly aiding Beijing's effort to silence Angela Gui, who says she was told by the businessmen to stop speaking out if she wanted to see her father freed. Others speculate Lindstedt, under pressure to give up her post, attempted a last-ditch face-saving attempt to resolve the Gui affair.

Whatever the truth, the trial will stir more debate about Stockholm-Beijing ties. Olsson, the journalist, sees little hope for a thaw.

"I see no signs that the bilateral relations between Sweden and China will improve anytime soon."

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