On May 9th, 1950 Sweden became the first Western country to establish diplomatic relations with the communist People’s Republic of China (PRC), proclaimed by Mao Tse-tung (1893-1976) on October 1st, 1949 on the Tiananmen Square in Peking.
Still, Sweden nowadays probably has the worst relationship with China of any member of the European Union (EU), which it joined in January 1995 together with Finland and Austria.
This is the case despite the fact that during these seven decades, Sweden built many economic ties with China. In 2018, bilateral trade was worth about 17 billion US dollars and of all EU states, from 2000 to 2019 Sweden was the seventh-largest beneficiary of Chinese foreign direct investment.
One of the most noticed was the acquisition in 2010 of luxury vehicle manufacturer Volvo Cars by Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, a private Chinese multinational automotive company headquartered in Hangzhou.
Their long friendship deteriorated significantly for political reasons on October 17th, 2015, when Swedish citizen and author Gui Minhai, born 1964 in Ningbo and also known as Michael Gui, disappeared while on holiday in Thailand.
Gui, who since October 2014 had been publishing books in Hong Kong not approved by China’s General Administration of Press and Publication, in 1988 had enrolled in a doctoral program at the University of Gothenburg, located in Sweden’s second largest city.
After the Tiananmen Massacre, the violent crackdown on a reform movement demanding more civil liberties in China on June 4th, 1989 in Peking, he first obtained Swedish residency and later even renounced his Chinese citizenship.
On January 7th, 2016, Gui appeared on Chinese state television, allegedly confessing that he had run over a school girl while driving drunk in December 2003 and returned to his homeland voluntarily to face charges.
Gui was released after spending exactly one year in prison, but denied permission to leave his country of birth. He was rearrested on January 19th, 2018 on a train bound for the Chinese capital while on his way to a medical examination accompanied by two senior Swedish diplomats.
About two weeks later, Gui stated that Sweden had sensationalized his case and tricked him into an unsuccessful attempt to leave China and repatriate him, using a medical appointment at the Swedish embassy as a pretext.
The spat flared up yet again on November 4th, 2019, when the Swedish chapter of PEN International, a worldwide association of writers founded in London in 1921, announced Gui as the 2019 recipient of its Tucholsky Prize.
Outraged by what he considered harmful to his homeland’s interests, Gui Congyou, China’s Ambassador to Sweden since August 2017, dared to say on public Swedish radio: “We treat our friends with fine wine, but for our enemies we’ve got shotguns.”
At the same time, he announced that cultural exchanges and business opportunities would be restricted. Soon afterwards, a Chinese trade mission to Sweden was canceled and some Swedish movies banned from screening in China.
He also warned of the “bad consequences” of this decision, hinting that Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven from the Social Democratic Party wouldn’t be welcome in the Middle Kingdom.
While Culture Minister Amanda Lind on November 15th, 2019 honored an empty chair representing Gui at the ceremony, Löfven on the same day made clear that he would never give in to intimidation.
After reportedly renouncing his Swedish citizenship on February 24th, 2020, a move that cut him off consular access, Gui was jailed for 10 years on charges of “illegally providing intelligence overseas”. Sweden, which had been denied access to the trial, strongly demanded Gui’s release.
Nevertheless, the current government is in fact reluctant to impose tough penalties on China, as Stockholm has to walk a fine line between strong criticism and legitimate concern about a possible retribution from Peking.
However, on April 23rd, 2020 Sweden closed the last of its Confucius Institutes, China-funded programs that teach Chinese language and culture around the world, ending an academic experiment that began in 2005.
On April 29th, Health and Social Affairs Minister Lena Hallengren proclaimed that Sweden would push the EU to support an international investigation into the coronavirus pandemic’s origins, which is bound to look at allegations of a Chinese cover-up.
During the virtual conference of European Union foreign ministers on May 29th, 2020, the day after China approved the national security law for Hong Kong, only one participant asked whether Brussels should at least consider sanctioning the Red Mandarins: Swedish representative Ann Christin Linde.
Simultaneously, as Sweden refused to impose a lockdown and put its faith in “herd immunity,” it has been the prime target of a huge Chinese campaign portraying Western democracies as weak against the threat.
This seems to be the culmination of a strategy: from January 2018 to May 2019, the Chinese Embassy made 57 statements denouncing Swedish media coverage of China.
Not surprisingly, seven of Sweden’s eight biggest newsrooms belonging to national television stations confirmed that had been contacted in recent years with complaints about content.
Somehow, the pressure doesn’t seem to bear fruit: around 70% of Swedes held rather unfavorable views of China, the highest percentage among Europeans and the second-highest worldwide after the Japanese.
On January 21st, 2020 Christian Democrats, the Left Party and Sweden Democrats advocated in the Swedish parliament for Ambassador Gui to be declared persona non grata and therefore prohibited from entering Sweden and meddling in Swedish affairs.
Regarding Anna Lindstedt, who while serving as Sweden’s Ambassador to China from 2016 to early 2019 tried to help Gui, the District Court in Stockholm ruled on July 10th that it couldn’t be proven that she had exceeded her authority and acquitted her of all charges.
They included “arbitrariness during negotiations with a foreign power,” because she failed to notify the Swedish Foreign Ministry before setting up a meeting between Angela Gui, daughter of the imprisoned, and two Chinese businessmen who claimed they could help arrange her father’s release.
Obviously, there were no concrete results and Gui ended up in prison. Though due to the growing mistrust resulting from this case, Swedish authorities increasingly scrutinize or directly advise against Chinese investors.
There are few signs that the bilateral relationship will improve anytime soon. Nowadays, old friends face each other as ideological adversaries. An uncertain future awaits Gui Minhai.