It appears China’s ambassador to Sweden, Gui Congyou, provoked the Swedes to anger. The Swedish Foreign Ministry summoned Gui last week for undiplomatic behaviors, including making threats to Swedish media over their coverage of political dissidents and other human rights violations in China that Beijing wants to cover up.
At the center of the issue is Gui Minhai, a bookseller who was born in China and later became a Swedish citizen. He is known for publishing sensational tales of Chinese Communist Party leaders’ private lives.
In 2015, Chinese agents abducted Gui Minhai from his own vacation home in Thailand. He was one of the five booksellers — the other four were from Hong Kong — abducted by Chinese agents in an effort to silence and punish those who dared to disparage CCP leaders. Gui was coerced into making a TV “confession,” claiming he turned himself in to Chinese authorities for a hit-and-run incident he supposedly committed in 2003.
After being detained for two years in China without any access to his family or a lawyer, Gui was “partially” released from his detention in October 2017, but was forbidden to leave China. On Jan. 20, 2018, while Gui was traveling by train accompanied by Sweden’s consul general in Shanghai, Lisette Lindahl, and another Swedish diplomat, several Chinese security agents in plain clothes arrested Gui again without presenting any arrest warrants, while ignoring the repeated protests from the Swedish diplomats.
Chinese authorities waited until Feb. 9 that year to make their explanation of Gui’s second arrest. They claimed Gui was suspected of leaking state secrets to “overseas groups” and trying to outrun his crimes with the assistance of Swedish diplomats. Gui’s daughter, who hasn’t seen her father since 2015, said the Chinese government’s accusation against her father is ridiculous.
The way Chinese authorities treated a citizen of another country in such a lawless manner has generated international outrage. Officials from Sweden, the European Union, and the United States have all demanded Gui’s immediate release.
Gui’s arrest especially strained the relationship between Stockholm and Beijing. One of the largest newspapers in Sweden published an editorial calling Beijing “a reckless tyrant — and increasingly as a bully to other countries.” Rather than admit any wrongdoing, Beijing accused Stockholm of meddling with China’s internal affairs, and warned that its media coverage of Gui could harm ties. Beijing’s hard-line stance on Sweden has been carried out by its ambassador to Sweden, Gui Congyou (who has no relation to the bookseller), who assumed his position in August 2017.
Chinese Ambassador Gui Threatens Sweden
As soon as he arrived at Stockholm, Ambassador Gui frequently sent emails and letters to Swedish media, including newspapers Svenska Dagbladet and Expressen, and Swedish state broadcasters Sveriges Radio and SVT. Through these communications, Ambassador Gui attacked the Swedish media for its persistent coverage on the bookseller and other Chinese human rights issues as “grossly meddling” with China’s internal affairs, and has threatened not to issue visas to China for journalists from these media outlets. In addition, it was reported that between January 2018 and May 2019, the Chinese Embassy under Ambassador Gui’s leadership issued 57 statements heavily criticizing local press coverage of China, and accused Sweden of escalating the tension between the two nations.
In November 2019, the Swedish PEN, a literary organization, announced it would be giving bookseller Gui the Tucholsky prize, named after the German writer Kurt Tucholsky, who fled Nazi Germany for resettlement in Sweden. PEN gives the award each year to a writer who has experienced unjust persecution. Its past award winners include Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarusian journalist who writes about people suffering in the Soviet Union.
Calling bookseller Gui a “criminal, a lie-fabricator and rumor-spreader” and the award a “farce,” Ambassador Gui demanded that PEN revoke the award. He threatened that both PEN and Sweden would otherwise “suffer the consequences of their own actions.” Ambassador Gui’s open threats to Sweden were so appalling and undiplomatic that some Swedish politicians called for him to be expelled from Sweden.
The Swedish government ultimately decided that expelling Ambassador Gui would not help ease the tension between Stockholm and Beijing. Still, Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Lofven told a TV interviewer, “We are not going to give in to this type of threat. We have freedom of expression in Sweden and that’s how it is, period.”
The PEN award went ahead as planned. Sweden’s culture and democracy minister attended the award ceremony. China immediately canceled two large business delegations to Sweden as retaliation. Despite this, Ambassador Gui kept further escalating.
In a recent interview with Sweden’s public broadcaster SVT, he compared the Swedish media to a lightweight boxer who would suffer by punching above its weight against a much bigger rival, China. In his own words: “It’s like a 48kg lightweight boxer who is trying to provoke a boxing match with an 86kg heavyweight, and the 86kg boxer wants to be nice and protect the 48kg boxer, so he tells him to go away and watch out for himself. But the lightweight boxer doesn’t listen, and instead continues to provoke the heavyweight, and even forces his way into his home. So what choice does the heavyweight boxer have?” Ambassador Gui also reiterated in the same interview that the Chinese Embassy would have total justification in “denying visas to journalists who did not want to visit China to promote friendship, communication, understanding, and cooperation.”
The Swedish Foreign Ministry summoned Ambassador Gui last week and criticized him for what Sweden regarded as an “unacceptable threat.” Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde later told the press, “What China’s ambassador now does is very serious. We have continuously conveyed to the ambassador from the foreign ministry and even from me personally that freedom of expression is protected by the constitution and that journalists have the right to carry out their work completely unhindered.”
Beijing Inspires the Behavior of Chinese Diplomats
Ambassador Gui is not an inexperienced diplomat, nor is he someone who suddenly decided to go rogue. His undiplomatic behaviors and confrontational style are backed by Beijing. Many observers have noticed that since 2019, Beijing has pushed its diplomats to take advantage of free speech in Western democracies and learn to use foreign media platforms, especially social media such as Twitter, to relentlessly promote Beijing’s propaganda and silence critics at the same time.
China’s ambassador to the U.K., Liu Xiaoming, took to Twitter to criticize Western media for not covering Hong Kong protesters’ “rioting” behaviors such as “looting, setting fires and attacking police,” while remaining silent about Hong Kong Police’s brutality against protesters. Zhao Lijian, deputy chief of mission to Pakistan, defended China’s mass detention of Uyghurs by listing racial issues in the United States, adding in a since-deleted tweet, “If you’re in Washington, D.C., you know the white never go to the SW area, because it’s an area for the black & Latinos. There’s a saying ‘black in & white out.’” He went on to say the living conditions of African Americans is worrisome, and people live in fear of “endless school shootings.”
Susan Rice, the national security adviser to former U.S. President Barack Obama, called Zhao “a racist disgrace and shockingly ignorant.” She asked China’s ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, to “send him home.” Zhao deleted his offensive tweets soon after. However, Cui himself defended China’s internment of Uyghurs by tweeting, “As a result of a resolute fight against terrorism and the education efforts to help those affected by extremism, no terrorist attack has occurred there in 3 years.” Someone should remind Cui that to Uyghurs, putting their families behind bars for years is worse than a terrorist attack.
Other Countries Should Take Note of China’s Tactics
It’s ironic that Beijing bars ordinary Chinese people from using social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to express their thoughts but encourages its diplomats to use these venues to aggressively spread Beijing’s propaganda to foreign audiences and shut down critics at the same time. Many of China’s ambassadors have blue checkmarks on their Twitter accounts, which means they are Twitter-verified, have accumulated a significant following, and are able to reach a large number of people in the West to achieve Beijing’s foreign policy objectives. Media platforms such as Twitter should ask themselves if they really want their platforms to be manipulated in such a way.
Besides aggressively pushing for China’s agenda online, Chinese diplomats have become bolder in other ways too. Last year, the U.S. government expelled two Chinese diplomats after they drove to a sensitive military base in Virginia. In both Australia and New Zealand, Chinese embassies openly supported pro-Beijing protests on college campuses that sometimes led to violent clashes with the protesters who support Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.
As for Ambassador Gui’s undiplomatic behaviors in Sweden, the voices in Sweden trying to get him recalled back to China are getting louder. I don’t see any likelihood of that happening, since Ambassador Gui only behaves this way with Beijing’s support.
Chinese diplomats’ belligerent behavior should be a wake-up call to countries all around the world, especially to comparatively smaller nations. Sweden should devise a plan to counteract Beijing when its value systems contradict Beijing’s demands. Sweden has learned that Beijing will not hesitate to use its economic and military might to coerce its will onto others.