In March 2019 Reporters Without Borders urged the Chinese ambassador in Sweden to stop harassing journalists and media in Sweden. Since then the attacks have continued. The increasing threats against Swedish media is clearly part of a Chinese Communist Party agenda that includes repression of free press in European democracies.
Since Gui Congyou was inaugurated as the ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to Stockholm at the end of 2017, the Swedish foreign department has summoned him more than 40 times for his spiteful attacks on Swedish media and Swedish journalists. The ambassador has even threatened the Swedish minister of culture, Amanda Lind, to prevent her from presenting a prize at an award ceremony, arranged by the Swedish section of PEN International.
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China is ranked 177 out of 180 countries in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). More than 120 journalists and bloggers are held in prison in China under deplorable conditions. The Chinese communist party rules the country with an iron fist. Xi Jinping, the president of the People’s Republic of China, has under his presidency strengthened his control of the Chinese media and continues to expand China’s network of foreign correspondents, an undertaking initiated by his predecessor Hua Jintao.
Xinhua, China’s official news agency with 180 offices, China Daily, the official English-language newspaper with 500 employees and also China Central Television (CCTV), helps in spreading the communist party’s ideology globally. This is also described in the RSF report China´s pursuit of a new world media order, from March 2019.
It is the duty of every Chinese state official to contribute to this process. It is in light of this practice that one should understand the ambassador’s eager attempt to influence Swedish media and his abrasive behaviour.
— What the ambassador is doing in Sweden is in line with what he has been enjoined to do. He should safeguard the interests of China and spread its message to the rest of the world, says Björn Jerdén, in charge of the Asian program at Swedish Institute of Foreign Affairs, in Stockholm.
— Sweden is an important target because of its strong commitment to human rights. Many issues that concern the defence of human rights have a direct bearing on problems in China, explains Jerker Hellström.
He is the head of the Asian Middle East Programme at Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI). He continues his argument:
— Sweden is a small economy, and at the same time it is of interest for China. This is why it behoves China to change the prevailing image of China. In the long run, this would facilitate the possibilities of acquisitions in Sweden and other kinds of trade.
Another reason has to do with the case of Gui Minhai, the Swedish-Chinese publisher, who was kidnapped by Chinese agents in Thailand in 2015 and who is still imprisoned in China. He is like a red flag to a bull for both Beijing and the Chinese embassy in Sweden.
The issue is extremely sensitive since the European Community follow his case with great interest, and the Chinese regime does not want to upset the European Union. By attacking Sweden the ambassador and Beijing are trying to divert the attention from China’s unlawful arrest of Gui Minhai.
— Now they are trying to turn around by criticizing Sweden instead, remarks Björn Jerdén.
Attacks on Swedish media
Journalists, researchers, opinion-makers and human rights activists who are dealing with issues concerning China are often exposed to campaigns intended to pressure and influence them. These campaigns come in different shapes and forms. They can be written statements on the embassy’s homepage. They can be letters or e-mails sent directly to a journalist or the editorial staff.
There has been an increase of attacks in terms of intensity and scope since Gui Congyou took office. The summer and fall of 2018 there was a noticeable augmentation. Between June and October the embassy issued 36 critical statements about the Swedish authorities and Swedish media.
— They dialed from Chinese numbers to a couple of the editorial staff. One person received human faeces in a letter to the home address. Some people linked to the editorial staff experienced people with Chinese traits outside their home entrances, says Micke Lindgren. He is the former producer of Svenska Nyheter, the Swedish public Service (SVT) equivalent to The Colbert Report.
The background of the whole incident that triggered the reactions goes as follows: In September 2018 a group of Chinese tourists were evicted from a hostel in Stockholm by the Swedish police. According to the staff at the hotel a Chinese family had by mistake made reservations for another date and decided to sleep in the lobby. A video clip was posted on Youtube in which the tourists are seen lying on the ground, yelling and weeping and accusing the police of excessive force and lack of compassion.
Within hours the clip on Youtube goes viral. An outcry is heard all the way from Beijing to the Chinese embassy in Sweden. The latter accuses Sweden of disrespecting human rights and demands a thorough investigation and compensation for the afflicted tourists and that the policemen should be punished. A statement published at the Chinese embassy´s website in Sweden was issued to that effect:
”The Embassy and Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China have made solemn representations to the Swedish government respectively in Stockholm and Beijing, stressing that what the police had done severely endangered the life and violated the fundamental human rights of the Chinese citizens”, September 15th 2018.
With the incident as a starting point, Svenska Nyheter makes a show that is dubbed into Chinese and posted on Youku, the Chinese equivalent to Youtube. The show is made like a how-to-behave guide for Chinese tourists travelling to Sweden. In a demeaning way, one is told not to defecate outside public buildings, not to defecate at the dining table and that one has to wash one’s hands after defecating. This show triggers violent reactions against the editorial staff. Micke Lindgren admits with hindsight that they went too far and that the show was “culturally insensitive”.
— Hate, threats and insults inundated the host and many of the staff. They received scatological jokes and death threats, says Micke Lindgren.
He felt uneasy about the whole thing, but no real fear for his own life. However, he was worried about his colleagues and is very critical of the way the management at SVT handled the situation. Three Swedish-Chinese organisations felt offended by the show and demanded a meeting with SVT. The meeting took place at the editorial staff’s office:
— It was most inappropriate that I and some others from the team had to sit in on this meeting, face to face with the representatives of these organisations. Especially considering the aggressive pitch of the embassy. We did not know whether they were connected to the embassy or not, Micke Lindgren points out.
He sees a high risk to give in to that kind of pressure:
— This is a very vulnerable point. Everyone is vulnerable. All it takes is that they reach one decision-maker and influence that person to avoid a subject or a news angle, says Micke Lindgren.
Karin Olsson, the culture editor and deputy publisher at the Swedish daily Expressen, thinks it is important to point out that it is “unacceptable to threaten or blackmail somebody in Sweden. And you cannot sound like a mafia boss if you are an ambassador in Sweden”.
Her newspaper Expressen has also been subjected to different types of attacks and attempts to influence by the Chinese embassy. Karin Olsson tells about the first letter:
— At first, I thought it was a joke, that it was somebody posing to be from the Chinese embassy. The approach was so unusual for an embassy. They used a parlance. “Your reporting is unacceptable and deceitful”.
Karin Olsson criticizes the Chinese embassy for exposing people it dislikes and spreading lies about them on it´s homepage. This has happened to Expressen’s special collaborator, freelance journalist Jojje Olsson and the imprisoned publisher, Gui Minhai:
— Jojje Olsson has been smeared, and so has the publisher. The embassy has spread lies about his [Gui Minhai] time in Sweden and his background in China.
No one at Expressen has feared for his or her safety because of the embassy’s actions. But there is a real fear that they one day will be denied a Chinese visa. This has happened in the past.
Not only journalists are threatened
Last November when Gui Minhai was going to be awarded The Tucholsky Prize in absentia, it seems that the Chinese ambassador flew off the handle. He launched spiteful attacks on the president of Swedish Pen, Jesper Bengtsson, and both threatened him and slandered him.
In addition to that, the ambassador threatened, Amanda Lind, the Swedish minister of culture, saying that she would not be able to obtain a Chinese visa unless she would withdraw from the ceremony, during which she was supposed to be the presenter. She refused and presented the award in spite of the threat.
Jerker Hellström defines the Chinese ambassador’s strategy as being “tantrum diplomacy.
— This means that a person representing the authorities, a news organization or anything else has to worry that one’s comments will cause a tantrum, which could result in remarks on the embassy’s homepage. Therefor one would be careful with one’s statement. This is self-censorship! This is the goal, says Jerker Hellström.
But he does not think that this strategy works particularly well. Quite the opposite! A survey by PEW Research Center from 2019 shows that 70 percent of the Swedish population had a negative view on China. The year before 52 percent had a negative image of China.
All the subjects interviewed by Reporters Without Borders Sweden (RSF Sweden), also think that the embassy’s strategy has resulted in a negative image of China.
One has to be aware that much of the behaviour of the ambassador is intended to send a signal to Beijing. The purpose is to show his superiors in China that he is actively spreading the message of the Chinese communist party. So perhaps from their point of view, he is very successful with the task at hand, considering how much media coverage he is getting in Swedish media.
In March 2019 RSF urged the Chinese ambassador to Sweden to stop harassing media in Sweden. Since then the attacks have not only continued, but also escalated. RSF welcomes the fact that the Swedish government has summoned the ambassador for meetings concerning his attacks, but so far there has been no results. When the ambassador attacks media he also attacks press freedom, in Sweden, a country with the world´s oldest press freedom law, ranked at 3rd place in RFS World Press Freedom Index.
Handling media manipulation – recommendations
Work together with EU
— I think it is very important that the EU act together in this case. Luckily, Germany has taken the lead for this task, Karin Olsson, Expressen.
Let the communications department and security department handle it
Micke Lindgren’s, former producer, Svenska Nyheter, advice is that it should be the duty of the communications department and the security department to deal with threats and attempts to manipulate and influence the contents of a show, never the editorial staff. This way, one can reduce some the stress and pressure off the team.
Reduce coverage in Swedish media
— The Chinese ambassador has been given a lot of coverage in Swedish media because of his behaviour. I need to do some soul searching and try to figure out if this proportionate, says Charlotta Friborg, editor in chief at Swedish Television, SVT, news.
Maintain an open society
— It´s difficult for China to influence media in a country, where there is a free media landscape, says Björn Jerdén, Swedish Institute of Foreign Affairs.
Cooperation between the authorities and the media outlets
— Maintain an open dialogue between the authorities and the media outlets. Make sure there is knowledge about what is going on, and that nobody can handle this by himself. Map: How the embassy contacts various media outlets, says Jerker Hellström, FOI.
He adds that we have to be “emphatic about the fact that there is freedom of expression in Sweden” this is written in our constitution and covers all Swedish citizens.
People interviewed for this report:
Micke Lindgren: comedian, Director and former producer, Svenska Nyheter, SVT.
Karin Olsson: culture editor and deputy publisher at the Swedish Daily Expressen.
Jerker Hellström: head of the Asian Middle East Programme, Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI).
Erik Petersson: journalist, Medierna, SR.
Håkan Holmberg: journalist, former political editor, Uppsala Nya Tidning.
Björn Jerdén, head of the Asian program at Swedish Institute of Foreign Affairs
Lars Ströman: political editor, Nerikes Allehanda.
Charlotta Friborg: editor in chief at Swedish Television (SVT) news.
Sources in English
Utrikespolitiska Institutes rapport: China’s propaganda campaign in Sweden, 2018–2019
Chinese embassy web site, Stockholm
PEW Research Center: Attitudes Toward China 2019
RSF report: China’s pursuit for a new world media order
RSF press release: RSF urges Chinese ambassador to stop harassing media
Sources in Swedish
SVT/Svenska Nyheter: Svenska nyheter ber om ursäkt efter satir om kineser
SVT/Svenska Nyheter: Inslaget om kineser
Expressen: Så ska Kinas medier manipulera världen
Research and production: Urban Hamid och Bilbo Göransson
Produced by: Reporters Without Borders Sweden
This report was made possible thanks to Sätila Foundation
February 2020, Stockholm, Sweden