The new Chinese ambassador to Sweden is much more active than his predecessor. Through disinformation campaigns and attacks on Swedish media, the Chinese envoy has attempted to change the narrative on issues ranging from Gui Minhai to Taiwan. This pattern has also been observed in other countries.
During a dark and cold November night in Stockholm last year, the Swedish-Chinese Association, an organization for Swedes interested in China, held a panel discussion regarding the upcoming Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress. The Chinese embassy in Sweden had contacted the organization in advance, and indicated it wanted to be a part of the panel. When this request was turned down, the embassy sent its political secretary — second in rank only to the ambassador — to the event, together with a translator.
When the discussion was over and it was time for questions, the political secretary immediately seized the occasion to hold a long monologue. He was enlightening the audience on China’s so-called alternative view on human rights, and in particular provided a long “explanation” regarding the case of Gui Minhai, a Swedish publisher who was kidnapped by Chinese security agents in Thailand in the fall of 2015 and is still locked up in China today.
According to the political secretary, Swedish media and public opinion do not properly understand the case or the background of Gui Minhai, a “reckless criminal” who is now being handled according to Chinese law. One person who attended the event remembers the embassy staff as being “extremely persistent,” while someone else described the political secretary’s speech as “aggressive.” Another member of the audience told me of the feeling that “the watchful eye of the Chinese embassy” had found its way not only at this event, but into the entire Swedish-Chinese Association.
Located in a large and beautiful piece of real estate at the Djurgården island in central Stockholm, the Chinese embassy has changed how it operates considerably since Gui Congyou assumed his post as ambassador to Sweden in August 2017. According to several persons I have spoken to, his predecessor was “invisible” and “quiet” in comparison. But under Gui, the embassy has not only made several public remarks, it has also started to frequently approach or even attack media, academics, civil society, and even politicians.
On national radio
To the public at large, Gui Congyou made a name for himself when he attended the popular show Konflikt on national Swedish radio in June. Earlier that year, the same show had broadcast a program on China with contents that the ambassador found “unacceptable.” Consequently, he contacted national Swedish radio out of “goodwill and kindness” to correct the allegedly biased picture being portrayed of China.
The interview makes for a chilling study in CCP mentality. Gui Congyou said he could not understand or think of a single reason why several Swedish universities have closed down their Confucius Institutes in recent years. In the next breath, he pointed out the “duty” of its teachers to provide “facts” about the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Massacre if Swedish students asked about it.
Chinese authorities do not want their Swedish counterparts to pressure China with opinions regarding the case. If Sweden does so anyway, it will “seriously damage bilateral ties” between the countries.
Ambassador Gui then denied any existence of Chinese espionage against refugees, even after a Swedish man working on behalf of the Chinese intelligence apparatus was convicted for doing just that against Tibetans this summer. When Taiwan was brought up in the interview, the radio host, Ivar Ekman, pointed out the difference between de jure and de facto independence, asking what would happen if Taiwan declared formal independence. “A dead end” was the short answer.
The cases of Gui Minhai and Peter Dahlin, a Swedish activist kidnapped and expelled from China early 2016 after three weeks in a secret prison, were discussed at length. Ekman asked why the broadcasted confessions of Gui Minhai should be believed as sincere, when Dahlin revealed that his similar “confession” was made under duress. Dahlin is a “dishonest” person, the ambassador replied, and hence cannot be believed: “Why did Peter Dahlin [in the first place] say something he doesn’t mean or want to?”
The ambassador added that he was an honest and sincere man himself, and opposed the idea that Dahlin would ever talk against his will, no matter the circumstances. He then issued — on national Swedish radio, of all places — a threat to the Swedish government: Chinese authorities do not want their Swedish counterparts to pressure China with opinions regarding the case. If Sweden does so anyway, it will “seriously damage bilateral ties” between the countries.
Background in Russia, Central Asia
As we will see later, this performance failed to win much support and instead backfired on the ambassador. One explanation for this unconventional approach can likely be found in his background. The career of Gui Congyou began in 1991 at the Central Policy Research Office, an institution within the Central Committee of the CCP responsible for drafting its ideology and political theories.
During the post-Tiananmen years, the work of this institution was deemed crucial for the survival of the party. One of Gui’s contributions was work on the collapse of communism in former Yugoslavia. His career kept a clear focus on Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and in particular Russia, working at the Chinese embassy in Moscow for over a decade. In 2014, Gui defended Russia’s annexation of Crimea, explaining that while China opposes independence referendums, “this doesn’t apply to Crimea.”
Just after taking up his post as ambassador to Sweden in August 2017, Gui Congyou told an interview with Chinese language media that he had never visited Sweden before, and never had any contact with so-called “Swedish friends” before his appointment. Rather than someone with experience or knowledge about Western Europe, Gui is better described as an anti-democratic political theoretician and an old-school party bureaucrat. What might have been the reasons behind his posting in Stockholm?
According to researcher Jichang Lulu, it is likely that Gui was posted in Sweden exactly to implement his hardline methods here. This might have been triggered by the desire within the central leadership to win the narrative over the Gui Minhai affair, which is putting increasingly large stains on China’s reputation in Sweden and beyond. This could also explain the lack of sensitivity in the ambassador’s approach: he simply lacks the understanding of how media and civil society work in a democratic country like Sweden.
Extensive smear campaigns
Jichang Lulu made his remarks not only after the radio interview, but after several actions from the Chinese embassy this summer, mostly related to the Gui Minhai issue. Its activities geared up after the biggest coordinated call to date for Gui Minhai’s freedom was made in early June, when the publisher had been a prisoner in China for two and a half years. The call was signed by 45 individuals with interest in the case, and was published simultaneously by 38 Swedish newspapers. Among the signatories (apart from this author) were several academics, sinologists, writers, directors from civil society, members of the Swedish Academy, and even the leader of Sweden’s fourth-largest political party.
The response was swift. The Chinese embassy sent mail, posts, SMS, and even made phone calls to the signatories, as well as to other journalists and people who were writing about or were otherwise related to the case. Over two thirds of the signatories have confirmed they received several documents by mail — nothing short of a dossier by post — containing information about the alleged criminal activities of Gui Minhai and his flawed personality.
According to this material, during his time in Sweden Gui Minhai had established a “fake school,” the Gothenburg International Institute (GII), which enrolled over 100 students from China to cheat them of their money. The school, the said alleged, had falsely portrayed itself as an arm of Gothenburg University (GU), offering fake degrees without the knowledge of the university. As a result, the Chinese students trapped in financial hardships had to steal or prostitute themselves, with two of them eventually committing suicide due to the situation Gui Minhai had put them in. When the scandal was exposed, the embassy said, Gui Minhai fled Sweden to escape the law.
Investigations by me and other Swedish journalists — to be published in a book at the Gothenburg book fair later this month, and also translated into English — proves that this story is false. There was indeed a GII established while Gui Minhai was in Sweden, and for a short time he was its director. But the founders were three professors from GU. The three were also legally responsible when the institute had to close down over Swedish rules regarding student fees from overseas students.
Hence, Gui Minhai’s name was not even to be found in any of the media reports of investigations carried out by GU when the institute closed. Gui Minhai was only hired to work with practical matters such as selection and accommodation. When the institute was ordered to close down, he had already left not only GU but Sweden and moved to China. An investigation by Ernst & Young showed that no financial crimes had occurred during the two years the GII was active.
Furthermore, a Swedish law firm ruled that none of the involved individuals could be suspected of committing wrongful acts in their work, let alone any crimes. Contrary to the embassy’s claims, GU had approved of and was even involved in the project. The university’s headmaster personally welcomed the Chinese students, and graduation ceremonies took place at the GU’s facilities.
As for the suicides, there were indeed two deaths among the Chinese students at GII. One was a suicide due to personal reasons, with no relation to the studies. Investigations by Swedish police did not mention any GII staff as suspects, and the institute was in contact with the family without any acrimony. The second case was not even a suicide but instead an accident, involving a student who had already left GII. The Chinese embassy was simply making use of two tragic deaths for propaganda purposes.
The attempts to smear Gui Minhai were exacerbated by several statements on the embassy’s web site — in Swedish, English and Chinese — attacking by name media organizations and journalists that were reporting on his case. Having written a book on Gui Minhai, as well as dozens of articles, I was first in line to receive a lengthy attack.
“Olsson’s deceptive and shameful behavior fully indicates that he is not an honest or credible person,” one of the earliest statements said. “People with even just a little common sense and independent judgment have no difficulty in seeing that the articles he wrote about China are filled with false and exaggerated content intended to maliciously smear China,” it continued. The attack was condemned by the International Federation of Journalists and Reporters Without Borders. The Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs also confirmed to Swedish media that it had contacted the Chinese embassy on the matter.
Despite his persistence, the ambassador was still not making many friends. If anything, his activities raised interest and awareness not only for the Gui Minhai case, but also for the Chinese influence on Swedish society in general. In late June, a rally was organized outside the Chinese embassy on the 1,000th day of Gui Minhai’s kidnapping. There, participants, including myself, shared their stories of mail, phone calls and intimidation by the Chinese embassy with the public and the media.
Undeterred, Gui Congyou doubled down. His embassy continued to publish statements on its web site attacking Swedish media, and even attacking academics who were speaking to the media. The embassy also continued to contact media organizations, inviting them to the embassy for interviews on certain topics. One of the most notorious interviews was carried out by Arne Lapidus, reporter with Expressen, one of Sweden’s two largest daily newspapers to which I contribute regularly.
The ambassador didn’t miss the chance to further smear me during the interview. It is true that I had been reporting from China for many years without a journalist visa. But it is definitely not true that the embassy had been in contact with me regarding this, and that I had “refused” to file an application according to their instructions. The ambassador had even dug up something I did in 2013 after having had too many beers. On smaller issues, he also said that I should have changed the name of my blog, “InBeijing,” to “InChineseTaipei” after I relocated to Taiwan.
While Expressen would not publish the part of the interview that contained accusations against me, the embassy went ahead and published the entire interview in English and Chinese on its web site — not the entire interview, because the two versions differ slightly. The Chinese-language version, with China as target audience, omitted any mention of Gui Minhai. That’s because Lapidus also asked some troubling questions about the jailed Swedish publisher.
Those questions were met with lies, such as the claim that China always “positively considers” Swedish requests for consular visits to Gui Minhai. Chinese security officials snatched Gui from a train in January when he was traveling in the company of two Swedish diplomats, and no consular visits have been allowed since.
When discussing press freedom in general, Lapidus cited reports from the International Federation of Journalists and Reporters Without Borders regarding imprisoned journalists and China’s dire ranking in the global press freedom index. Predictably, the ambassador replied that he is “not aware” of those reports, adding that individuals and organizations which complain about press freedom in China should “scrutinize themselves.” Instead, the ambassador recommended that Lapidus travel to China, talk to reporters there, and witness the free media environment by himself.
An invitation to Gui Minhai
Swedish civil society clearly continues to be irritated by the ambassador’s arrogance. In late August a formal invitation was written for Gui Minhai to attend the book fair in Gothenburg — Sweden’s biggest — by Swedish PEN, Swedish Publishers Association, International Publishers Association, and the director of the book fair. It was then published in Sweden’s leading morning paper, and sent to the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as to the Chinese embassy in Stockholm.
Within a day, the embassy published a statement with the headline “‘Inviting Gui Minhai Is a Show of Ignorance of Law.’” Again, Gui Minhai was depicted as a criminal, and the invitation described as an “utmost insult” to the book fair. To highlight the tone and rhetoric of this and many other embassy statements, one excerpt should suffice:
The claim “China forced Gui Minhai to make TV confessions” is a total lie, a fictitious invention that they want to hype up. Gui Minhai said on different occasions that he hopes the Swedish side will stop playing up the case. He also publicly rejected the so-called “Voltaire award” of SvF. But to realize their hidden political agenda, certain forces continued to hype up the issue and imposed the “award” on him despite his rejection. Is that “respect”? Is that “human rights”? If they truly care about Gui Minhai, they should respect his decision. We urge certain forces, media and individuals, including SvF, Svenska PEN and organizers of the Gothenburg Book Fair, to cease and desist, stop hypocritical behaviors, and bring back their rationality and conscience. We urge them to have some respect for rule of law, for human rights and for democracy, and to respect China’s judicial sovereignty and the right of relevant Chinese authority to handle the case under the law.
The embassy’s frustrations over the failure of its strategy to yield the expected results could be further seen in a following interview with the Swedish Book Trade magazine. There, the ambassador claimed that several of the 45 signatories to the call for Gui Minhai’s release in June had been “forced” to sign, or had their names put on the list without their consent. When asked which of the individuals this pertained to, the ambassador said he wanted to protect their personal integrity. On the final question Where is Gui Minhai now?, the short answer was: “Where he is supposed to be.”
The Chinese embassy continues to publish statements on its web site, and Gui Congyou continues to contact media and civil society. This is not against Swedish law, though it is very unusual and in some ways counterproductive. For most of the target audience in Sweden, the purpose behind this strategy is quite obvious. By smearing Gui Minhai, the embassy wants to move focus of the discussion from its own behavior and instead create discussions about Gui Minhai’s personality. Rather than investigating China’s assaults, the embassy hopes that media will investigate the supposed lies about Gui Minhai instead.
There is also a scare factor in these activities. By attacking journalists and academics, the Chinese embassy hopes to scare other individuals into silence. The signals could not be clearer: avoid those issues, or you will lose your visa or other kinds of access to China as a journalist or an academic.
Taken together, the tactics are effective not only in parts of the world where Gui Congyou spent the majority of his career, but also in Sweden. Not long ago, I spoke with a Swedish journalist who was based in Beijing during the olympics. The journalist had refrained from reporting about sensitive issues over fears of not getting a new visa. Likewise, many Swedish academics now might think twice before they get involved with Gui Minhai or other sensitive cases.
The intensive public criticism and smearing campaigns against media, civil society and single individuals that have taken place in Sweden in the past year constitute something new. Looking beyond my native country, I cannot help but wonder whether the increased activities of the embassy in Stockholm are just a part of a new strategy. Recently, the Chinese embassies in Australia and Ireland contacted media in order to influence or stop reporting on certain topics.
There is every reason to believe that Chinese embassies and consulates elsewhere have been stepping up their activities — to control the narrative, or to silence us outright.
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