China and the World

Stockholm syndrome

Relations put to the test as Chinese state TV parades Swedish nationals

stockholm supreme court

The diplomatic response from the Swedish capital has been restrained

Sweden was the first Western country to establish diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China, which it did in 1950.

Conversely, the Nordic state also has a history of providing political asylum to China’s most wanted fugitives. Take Kang Youwei. The mastermind behind the failed Hundred Days’ Reform in the late Qing Dynasty fled to Sweden in 1904 while many of his followers were executed (see WiC144). Kang lived for three years on an islet east of Stockholm, which is now also known as the Kang Youwei Island.

Peng Ming-min was another notable visitor. Regarded as “the father of Taiwan’s independence movement”, Peng was arrested for sedition by the Kuomintang in 1964 for advocating a democratic state (he was wanted by the Communist Party for the same reason). In 1970 Peng managed to flee to Sweden before beginning his 22-year exile in the US.

Since the turn of the year relations between Beijing and Stockholm have faced renewed pressure, after two Swedish nationals were paraded on China’s state broadcaster CCTV to deliver what some observers believe to be “scripted confessions”.

One of the pair, Peter Jesper Dahlin, a human rights activist, was expelled from China on Monday. The Guardian newspaper reported that the 35 year-old disappeared on the night of January 3 while making his way to Beijing’s international airport, from which he planned to fly to Thailand.

Few knew Dahlin’s whereabouts until January 19, when he popped up on a CCTV news programme.

“I violated Chinese law through my activities here,” the activist confessed. “I apologise sincerely for this and I am very sorry that this has happened.”

Dahlin also said he’d been given “good food” and suffered “no mistreatments of any kind”.

Foreigners seldom receive such media exposure in China, although it is becoming more common for the authorities to broadcast the confessions of suspects before they go to trial. The last to go through this ordeal was British private detective Peter Humphrey, who was hired by GlaxoSmithKline. He was caught up in a scandal that centred on widespread bribery in the British drugmaker’s China operation (which led to a record fine by Chinese authorities, see WiC238).

Humphrey was specifically accused of “illegally obtaining private information”. This time the Xinhua news agency insinuates that Dahlin is a foreign spy, saying that state security bodies have smashed an illegal group which receives “long-term overseas funding to train and fund many agents to carry out criminal activities that harmed state security”.

Dahlin’s colleagues rebuffed the accusation. According to the New York Times, Dahlin appears to have been the sole foreign citizen detained since July as part of a crackdown on human rights lawyers. “The Chinese government has already used his case to present the arrested lawyers as tools of foreign forces seeking to subvert the Communist Party,” the American newspaper comments.

However, Dahlin is actually the second missing Swedish national in as many days to get a ‘perp-walk’ parading on television by the Chinese government.

Step forward Gui Minhai, a 51 year-old born in China but now a Swedish passport holder. He is a co-owner of Hong Kong publishing firm Mighty Current, which specialises in books featuring political gossip about the Communist Party’s elite. It also runs a small bookstore, stocked with tabloid-style political books.

Gui’s target audience are mainly Chinese tourists visiting the city. Most Hongkongers hadn’t even heard of him before his strange disappearance. But Lee Bo, another shareholder at Mighty Current, told the South China Morning Post in November that four executives of his firm had gone missing. They included Gui, who was last heard of in mid-October, holidaying in Thailand.

The missing booksellers’ story garnered wider attention after Lee Bo went missing late last month. It stoked concerns in Hong Kong that the Chinese authorities had sent special agents to abduct Lee and take him across the border. If that speculation is true, it would be a serious violation of the territory’s legally-enshrined ‘high degree of autonomy’.

In fact, since China launched Operation Fox Hunt last year to bring back Chinese fugitives from abroad (see WiC259) the campaign has drawn ire from Washington, which claims Chinese agents have been secretly operating on American soil (the Australians have aired the same concern).

The Swedish foreign ministry has made clear to the Thai government that it takes a “serious view” over Gui’s situation. But this seems the only serious diplomatic support Gui will get from his naturalised country. “There is very little to suggest Thai authorities are following up on the case at all,” the Guardian reports.

When Gui finally showed up on CCTV on January 17, his disappearance wasn’t attributed to his publishing career. Gui told the television audience he was found guilty in 2004 of drink driving, which led to the death of a young university student in Ningbo. Gui claimed he was given a suspended two-year jail term but that he had decided to flee China instead.

“I was afraid of going to jail, and there was no way I could develop on the mainland after this incident, so I thought I’d better run,” the bookseller said, adding that he turned himself in to mainland police in October last year, as he was, rather suddenly, “overwhelmed by guilt”.

Gui also said he hoped that the Swedish authorities would not get involved: “Even though I am a Swedish national, I truly feel that I am still Chinese… So I hope that the Swedish side will respect my personal choice, my rights and privacy and let me solve my own problems.”

Critics believe Gui was making a forced confession. As to Lee Bo’s whereabouts, there’s been no new information this week, further angering many Hongkongers.

The Swedish foreign ministry has not yet lodged a formal complaint with the Chinese, although its diplomats told media that they have spotted “an extremely worrying trend” and that the cases of Gui and Dahlin have “caused grave concern”.

Nonetheless, the Global Times insists that the China-Sweden relationship is undamaged and suggests that Hongkongers must calm down too. “Recent legal affairs in the mainland have more than once involved Swedish people. The Swedish government and public have responded in a milder way than some Hongkongers and showed willingness to cooperate,” the state-backed newspaper chided.

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