Björn Jerdén is the Head of The Asia Program of The Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI).
Björn Jerdén’s research focuses on the international relations of China, Japan, and the United States.
What has changed in the relations between Sweden and China since Xi Jinping came to power?
In the first couple of years, not much changed. Then, in the fall of 2015 a Swedish citizen, Gui Minhai, a bookseller based in Hong Kong, who used to live in Sweden earlier, published a book partly critical about the Chinese Communist Party leaders. He was kidnapped by Chinese agents while he was spending some time in Thailand, and then he showed up on Chinese state television (after months of his disappearance, Gui reappeared on national television confessing his guilt for an accident occurred 10 years earlier, when he killed a schoolgirl while driving drunk). He’s been detained in China since then. So I think that was when the relationship between Sweden and China started to deteriorate.
Where is Gui Minhai at the moment? What will happen to him?
Earlier this year it was announced by a court in Ningbo, in Zhejiang, that he had been sentenced to 10 years in prison. They didn’t disclose any details about the court ruling other than his alleged crime, sharing state secrets. So he’s in jail in China. Chinese authorities also stated that he had reapplied to become a Chinese citizen again. According to Chinese law, when you’re Chinese, you can’t be a citizen of any other country. So since this ruling, Chinese authorities stated that since Gui Minhai’s not a Swedish citizen anymore, this issue is no longer a matter for China-Sweden relations. Of course, the Swedish side views it differently because to renounce your Swedish citizenship, you have to apply to the migration agency. Gui Minhai hasn’t done that. So to the Swedish authorities, Gui Minhai is still a Swedish citizen. But we know he’s in jail in China at the moment.
Has Sweden received any kind of support from the European Union?
Initially, when Gui Minhai was detained, the Swedish government was not very active in making this an issue at the EU level. I think initially the hope was that Sweden could use so-called silent diplomacy to secure Gui Minhai’s release. However, as time went by, it was obvious that this strategy had failed. In recent years, the Swedish government has sought to elevate this issue to the EU level. And we have seen statements of support from the EU institutions and also from other leaders of other EU member states supporting Sweden’s case. So there has been some support, but so far it doesn’t seem to me that this issue has interfered in EU China relations.
Are you worried about possible retaliation against Swedish individuals, organizations, or business activities in China?
Well, we have seen some retaliation already. For example, last fall, when the Swedish minister for culture awarded a prize honoring Gui Minhai in Stockholm, the Chinese government responded by threatening Sweden with consequences. And one consequence was that representatives of the Swedish government working in the culture wouldn’t be allowed to visit China at all. After that, several Swedish films that were supposed to be screened in China were banned by the Chinese authorities. And there has also been canceled by the Chinese side meetings at the government level between Sweden and China as retaliation.
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However, so far, we don’t have any clear data on whether this has affected Sweden’s economic relationship with China. There are no clear indications that it has so far. But, of course, given the incidents we have seen in other countries in recent years, for example the two Canadian citizens that were detained in China as retaliation for Huawei, I think in light of that, you can rule out that also individual Swedish citizens might risk being targeted in some way. However, so far, there haven’t been any well-publicized cases. The public communication by the Chinese embassy here in Stockholm has been quite strident in the last few years and it includes quite a lot of either direct or indirect threats against different organizations, but also individual journalists.
What does the closure of the Confucius Institutes in the country mean?
The first Confucius Institute in Sweden was opened in 2005 at Stockholm University. It was the first Confucius Institute in the whole of Europe. But then a debate started, whether it was a good idea to have this kind of institutes in Swedish universities. It took another 10 years for Stockholm to close down its Confucius Institute, and this happened before this diplomatic downturn between Sweden and China.
At that time the relationship between the Swedish and Chinese government was quite good. In the last few years, the relationship deteriorated, and also the public discussion in Sweden about the Chinese government became much more negative. This debate has influenced also the remaining Confucius Institutes and Confucius classrooms. In the last year, the last Confucius Institutes and Confucius classrooms were closed down. These latest decisions have been influenced by this kind of pretty dire relationship between the Swedish and the Chinese governments.
What are the consequences?
One consequence, of course, is that Swedish students will have fewer opportunities to learn Chinese. The number of Chinese language learners has dropped quite a bit over the last eight years or so. But this is not only because of the Confucius Institutes. I think it’s mainly a limited interest among Swedish students to learn Chinese. When it comes to political consequences, these decisions to close these institutes have all been made by either the local universities or the local municipalities, the local governments in Sweden.
The central government has not been involved in closing any of these institutes, it’s not a matter for the relationship between Swedish and Chinese government. That might explain why so far at least, the Chinese government hasn’t said much about this development. Today I haven’t seen any indications that this would directly negatively influence Sweden’s relationship with China. But, of course, it represents a kind of disengagement. Fewer ties between Swedish society and Chinese society. Indirectly, I think it might have consequences also for the overall relationship between Sweden and China.
Was Sweden targeted by Chinese trolls on the internet?
Well, there are some cases here. The first happened in the fall of 2018 when three Chinese tourists arrived one day early to their hotel. And of course, this eventually made the news in China. A satirical show on Swedish television did an episode about this. They used imagery and language, which many people in Sweden, but also China viewed as being racist. After that, they received a lot of threats. These two issues made headlines in China. So at that time, there were some quite fierce attacks coming out from China to different Swedish organizations. However, as far as I’m aware, there is no study on whether this was sort of organized in any sense.
During the pandemics the Global Times in China ran an editorial a couple of months ago very harshly criticizing the Swedish government for allegedly surrendering to the virus. At that time, we saw some critical reporting in Chinese media about Sweden. But I’m not aware of whether it was some kind of organized troll attacks as well.
Will it be possible in the future to avoid dependence on China for the manufacturing industry?
This is a very tricky issue. Most countries in Europe are quite dependent on the Chinese market. Sweden is a country with a lot of export industries. I think 4.5 percent of Swedish export goes to China. And I think that’s around 4 in Europe. So in the European context, Sweden belongs to those countries most dependent on the Chinese market. And now also during the pandemic, if we get a situation where the Chinese economy recovers faster, the Chinese market might become even more important if other parts of the world aren’t interested in buying Swedish products. I think it’s rather about finding a balance. In the case of Sweden, Sweden is both a country that is dependent on the Chinese market, but Sweden is also a country in the European Union which is among the most active ones when it comes to bringing up human rights issues internationally, also toward China. Previously the Swedish government sort of managed to find a balance, maintaining stable economic relations with China, but at the same time criticizing China when it was needed and necessary. But this kind of balance is harder to achieve today. In recent years when we see this deteriorating diplomatic relationship and the harsh rhetoric coming from the Chinese side against Sweden, the discussion about the dependency on the Chinese economy has increased in Sweden, and different opinion-makers and politicians are trying to find ways to reduce this dependency.
When it comes to the Chinese market it will probably prove to be difficult. when it comes to Chinese investments in Sweden, they are discussing whether to introduce this kind of investment screening, to be able to stop investment in certain sectors, and so on. But if we look at the trends in recent years, both Swedish exports to China and Chinese investments in Sweden are only increasing. So we haven’t seen any kind of disengagement in the economic sphere.
CHINA-UNDERGROUND. Matteo Damiani is an Italian sinologist, photographer, author and motion designer. Matteo lived and worked for ten years in China. Founder of CinaOggi.it and China-underground.com.