OPINION: China’s attacks on Sweden are unacceptable in a democracy

China's verbal attacks on Swedish journalists, experts, opinion makers and human rights activists have been harsh, with wording and threats that do not belong in a democratic discourse, argue Gunnar Hökmark and Patrik Oksanen of the Stockholm Free World Forum.

OPINION: China's attacks on Sweden are unacceptable in a democracy
The Swedish and Chinese flags. Photo: Maja Suslin/TT

In September 2019, journalist Kurdo Baksi was accused of “insanity” by the Chinese embassy. In a spokesperson's remarks, Baksi's defence of publisher Gui Minhai was attacked with words such as “insanity”, “ignorance”, “anti-China” and he was accused of not understanding democracy. The embassy's goal was openly stated, to silence Baksi: “We urge Baksi to immediately stop. We urge him not to live in a world of fantasy and self-delusion, and never underestimate the ability of Swedish people to discern right and wrong.”

The embassy has also emailed newspapers writing about issues that are sensitive for China, for example after the “summer talk” on Swedish Radio by journalist Ola Wong, emails from the embassy described Mr Wong as an “anti-China expert” .

Even the Christian Democratic party leader, Ebba Busch, has been lectured after a debate in Swedish parliament when she used the term “Wuhan virus” in a reference to the coronavirus pandemic. In his letter, the ambassador Gui Congyou stated his objection to the use of the term “Wuhan virus” and expressed his “hope” that the political leader would “express herself in a less discriminatory manner” in the future.

Ambassador Gui Congyou has maintained the same admonishing message in interviews. For example, in an interview for the Swedish TV station SVT, the ambassador stated that the newspaper Expressen needed not bother applying for visas to China unless it changed the theme of its reporting. “Swedish journalists are welcome to visit China to monitor the country objectively, but they must renounce their prejudices and their preconceived agenda, and they must change their erroneous approach to reporting on China.” In the same interview, the ambassador attacked Karin Olsson, culture editor at Expressen, for “having lost all sense of reason”.

These examples are not isolated cases, not in Swedish, nor in a global context.

China's ambassador to Sweden, Gui Congyou. Photo: Magnus Hjalmarson Neideman/SvD/TT

Free and open societies all over the world are under attack from the regime of the Communist Party of China (CPC). The Chinese regime is using its increased economic power to threaten governments, silence critics and force media to obedience. When the biggest dictatorship in the world becomes the biggest economy, the threats to democracies all over the world are obvious. Chinese leaders are acting with the logic of a global dictatorship because they have interests all over the world.

CPC has the vision of China being the dominant power in the world, thereby replacing the US as a global leader – something the US today voluntarily abdicates from. Regionally, China is projecting its rising military force in Southeast Asia against its neighbours with the elimination of the treaty based on “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong as an initial step. Increased military pressure against Taiwan, border tensions with India and maritime power projection in the South China sea gives evidence of Chinese regional strategy.

Globally, China is projecting all sorts of economic power in order to establish a world order by 2050 where Chinese rules and interests are at the forefront, to celebrate 100 years of communist rule of China.

Investments in strategic infrastructure and technologies are combined with industrial espionage, thefts of patents and cyber warfare. Being a closed totalitarian dictatorship, China has no problems using the freedom of open societies to enforce its rule and its ideas. All over the world Chinese embassies are speaking with the same tongue of the dictatorship, and Chinese people operating in Chinese companies abroad are seen as a resource for intelligence and sharp power.

If you don't buy Huawei you can be threatened; if you do buy Huawei you are at risk of Chinese control of information in a way that has never before been possible. If you attack the persecution and violence against Uighurs you will be threatened; and if you criticise the dictatorship you will be attacked – in Europe as well as in Australia, New Zealand and Canada. These are threats to the free world and the ideas of human rights, freedom of speech and democracy.

In a report that Stockholm Free World Forum and its Center for Influence and Disinformation Analysis presents internationally, we highlight how the Chinese embassy in Sweden acts against those who are critical to the dictatorship. The same logic is applied elsewhere in the world. The freedom of expression is threatened by the tactic to scare critics into silence.

The Chinese embassy in Stockholm. Photo: Karin Wesslén/TT

First and foremost, this entails repressing those voices that speak up for human rights in areas controlled by China, and which are therefore considered a threat to the power and ambitions of the CPC. To safeguard the monopoly of the party, outside critics must be silenced and the diaspora remain loyal to Beijing. These verbal attacks in Sweden are published on the embassy's homepage: there are 67 posts since 2018, targeting human rights fighters, journalists, politicians, political refugees, media companies and the Swedish government and authorities. 

Targets are slandered, mocked and ridiculed, and responsibility for the overall relationship with China is placed on them. In addition, there is frequent mailing from the embassy to politicians, journalists and others with the same message; and occasionally the ambassador follows suit during interviews. These verbal threats are combined with other psychological tools applied by an authoritarian state to make targets feel vulnerable. 

The attacks are long-term in nature; the People's Republic of China is prepared to accept setbacks and some loss of credibility in the short term in order to invest in the future effects it is striving to achieve by 2050. The horizon is thus thirty years in the future – not here and now, as is more typical in Western politics. 

This does not mean we wait until 2050. We need to act now. Governments must disclose threats. Media must be transparent about all the threats and actions coming from the Chinese government, either embassies or from those parts of business life that are under communist control. It cannot be accepted that trade and investment is developed on the criteria of Western silence and self-censorship.

The nations of the free world together must draw the line for what cannot be accepted in free economies. Together, standing united, we are and will be much stronger than China. It is for obvious reasons that the European Union should take the lead in in this.

Chinese leaders of today must understand there are lines that should not be crossed, for the good of China's future as well as the world.

This opinion piece was written by Gunnar Hökmark, Chairman of Stockholm Free World Forum and a former Member of the European Parliament, and Patrik Oksanen, a Senior Fellow at Stockholm Free World Forum who leads its Center for Influence and Disinformation Analysis.

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Swedish clichés: Is the alcohol monopoly really a sign of an all-controlling state?

In this new series, The Local's reader Alexander de Nerée seeks to challenge some of the clichés about Sweden.

Swedish clichés: Is the alcohol monopoly really a sign of an all-controlling state?

There are some undeniable truths about Sweden (lots of Volvos, lots of trees) but when asked, most people don’t get far past the usual clichés. And nor did I. 

A well-organized country full of high tax paying, IKEA flatpack-loving, slightly distant Fika fanatics, all happily queuing to buy some much-needed state-controlled booze to get through the never-ending cold and dark winters.

In this series, I give my take on some of the more commonly heard assumptions about life in Sweden and how I experience them.

When you are visiting family back home after your move to Sweden, you will note that nothing seems to get a tipsy uncle quite as riled up as your story about the state-controlled alcohol market. It’s also something that comes up surprisingly often when you tell people you live in Sweden. The mere mention of having to go to a special shop to purchase alcohol seems to set people off in a certain way.

That the shops are called Systembolaget, like some Soviet-era holdover obviously does little to calm your uncle down.

To start with the concept itself. Having grown up in The Netherlands, I was not bowled over with indignation at the idea of having to go to a separate shop to purchase my poison. Although supermarkets in the Netherlands do sell alcohol, it is pretty common to buy your wine, as well as any stronger stuff, at what Australians call a ‘bottle shop’  (which rather misses the point of what’s actually for sale).

READ ALSO: Like having sex in a church: Sweden’s uptight attitude to alcohol

Apart from having a larger assortment than supermarkets, these shops also have specialized staff that can recommend wines with your food. 

But with plenty of well-stocked and reasonably priced Systembolagets around and one right outside my local supermarket, I don’t think the airtime this topic gets when people talk about life in Sweden is actually justified.

For the now properly drunk uncle at your family dinner, the Systembolaget is of course a sign of a bigger problem with Sweden: the all-controlling state. The outrageous combination of high taxes, free healthcare and schooling and state-controlled alcohol must mean that the government has a finger in every aspect of life.

It turns out your uncle is engaging in a long-standing tradition that has been dubbed ‘Sweden bashing’. It started with Eisenhower, but in more recent years lesser statesmen dabbled in it as well. Although there is no clear definition, it seems to involve cherry-picking facts about Sweden – or alternatively just making them up – in order to ridicule the Swedish model. It’s a model that, according to the ideology of the bashers, should fail miserably but somehow stubbornly refuses to do so.

Despite the long-standing tradition of Sweden bashing, I think anyone who lives here will agree that in everyday life there is nothing particularly invasive about enjoying free education and healthcare in exchange for higher taxes. Come to think of it, that is pretty much the model applied in the Netherlands and they never got stuck with a reputation for an overbearing government. On the other hand, Holland does get bashed for easy access to drugs and euthanasia, so I guess you have to be careful what you wish for.

Considering it now really only functions as a lightning rod for politicians, it may not be a bad idea to let go of the state monopoly on alcohol sales.

As for the bashing itself, I think the current Swedish response to it works just fine: a light shrug of the shoulders and let the system speak for itself.

Alexander de Nerée moved to Stockholm with his husband in October 2020. He is Dutch, but moved from Zürich, Switzerland, after having lived in Hong Kong for 10 years. Not having been to Sweden before the move, Alexander had some broad assumptions about what life in Sweden would be like. In this series, he revisits these assumptions and gives his take.  Alexander wrote for series for The Local before about his “firsts” in Sweden.