A spat over the treatment of Chinese tourists abroad has degenerated into a blistering attack by Beijing at a Western democracy, making Sweden the latest proving ground for a new type of irascible response from the world’s second-largest economic power.
In the midst of the furor, Chinese internet users have pledged to boycott IKEA while foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang lashed out at a Swedish television show for “a gross insult to and vicious attack on China and the Chinese people,” calling its content “full of prejudices, biases and provocations against China and some other ethnic groups.”
The dispute comes as Beijing tests what Peter Dahlin, a Swedish human-rights activist previously imprisoned in China, calls a fractious “new model for dealing with the West,” one that dispatches diplomatic niceties in favour of acid-laced words intended to communicate maximum dissatisfaction between China and foreign countries unwilling to do its bidding.
Chinese officials have said they want to push back forcefully against what they see as long-standing distortions of their country. Mr. Dahlin believes “this is how China wants bilateral relationships to look like. It’s just that until now, they have not been or felt strong enough to try it outside of their own region or against smaller countries.”
The latest outburst comes amid a weeks-long fracas between Beijing and Stockholm, which began Sept. 2, when a trio of Chinese tourists accused a Swedish hotel and police of abuse. The tourists had arrived a day before they were booked to stay, and refused to leave the premises. Police carried them out of the hotel – with one shouting in English “this is killing!” – and delivered them to a transit station situated near a graveyard.
Chinese authorities demanded an apology, with Gui Congyou, the ambassador to Sweden, telling Expressen newspaper that the tourists had endured “brutal treatment” that “threatened and endangered their life, safety and dignity.”
The dispute took a turn for the worse last Friday, when Svenska Nyheter, a satirical program on national broadcaster SVT poked fun at the incident, in part by creating a sardonic tourism commercial that was posted to online video site Youku and subtitled in Chinese. The skit, whose creators say was meant to be a condemnation of Swedish racism toward Chinese people, included a series of recommendations intended to be ironic – but which, read literally, shocked viewers. They included exhortations to “not poop outside historic buildings” and “if you see someone who’s out walking a dog, it’s not because they just bought lunch.”
The outcry from China was immediate, and irate.
Xinhua, China’s state news agency, called the program “disgusting,” while Chinese scholars accused it of attempting to “vilify Chinese people.” The Chinese embassy in Sweden, which published a travel alert warning tourists about the risks of a country the U.S. State Department classifies “a low-threat location,” said the program’s claim to be entertainment was “totally unacceptable.” The foreign ministry issued its blast against the “gross insult,” and the Chinese public followed.
On Weibo, the country’s Twitter equivalent, a chorus of critics called for boycotts of Swedish brands – IKEA, Ericsson, Fjallraven, Hasselblad, H&M – and Sweden itself.
Still, for Chinese authorities, “the harsh tone is a way to take back the initiative and show who is in charge,” said Jojje Olsson, a Swedish journalist and author booted from China in 2016. He called it “an attempt to scare Swedish authorities into obedience.”
In the background stand a series of irritants between Stockholm and Beijing: China’s lengthy detention of Gui Minhai, a Swedish-Chinese bookseller snatched from Thailand; a September visit to Malmo by the Dalai Lama; and a recent decision by Sweden not to deport Muslim Uyghurs to China for fear they will be placed in internment camps for political indoctrination.
But as China has gained in economic power, it has also used trade and tourists to exact financial pain on countries with whom it has disputes. More recently, it has augmented that with fierce rhetorical attacks, a shift in communications that has come from the top. Foreign Minister Wang Yi, in 2016, berated a Canadian journalist for being “full of prejudice against China and arrogance.” Since then, foreign ministry officials in Beijing and elsewhere have taken on targets around the globe. In recent weeks alone, they have accused the Australian government of “ideological biases” and Australian media of “anti-China hysteria” and paranoia; Britain of seeking “to create trouble” and the Republic of Nauru of confusing “right and wrong” while making “bogus accusations.”
In Sweden, meanwhile, the accusations have come amidst a broader local debate over “fake news” and the trustworthiness of local media. So the Chinese attacks are not “harmless,” said Monica Lofgren Nilsson, head of the department of journalism, media and communication at the University of Gothenburg. She called Chinese statements “astonishing” in tone.
For now those statements appear to have accomplished little. Svenska Nyheter has refused to apologize, though the video has been pulled from Youku. And the broader Chinese approach has been "extremely counterproductive,” said Mr. Olsson.
The hostility has only raised Swedish awareness of Chinese repression, he said. “Never before have so many articles been written in Swedish media on the dire situation of human rights and civil rights in China, and a majority of them are written as a response on comments or veiled threats from the embassy.”
With reporting by Alexandra Li