Swedish cities are reviewing and even halting their co-operation with Chinese towns amid a deterioration in relations between the two countries in a fight over free expression, human rights and the fate of a Hong Kong publisher.
Swedish politicians at local and national level have been shocked by the increasingly aggressive rhetoric China has used against the country over Gui Minhai, a Hong Kong book publisher and Swedish citizen who has now been sentenced after being held on charges of “endangering national security”.
On Tuesday, Mr Gui was jailed for 10 years and convicted of illegally providing intelligence to overseas parties, the Ningbo Intermediate People’s Court announced. The court also said that he had “applied to recover his Chinese citizenship in accordance with the law” in 2018.
Mr Gui had first announced he was considering giving up his Swedish citizenship in a press conference arranged by the Chinese government. Beijing has a record of forcing activists to confess on state television interviews, which Mr Gui had also done.
There are also widespread concerns in Sweden over human rights following the crackdown against Uighurs in the northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang.
Vasteras, an industrial city in central Sweden, has ended a government-funded dialogue project with Jinan, while Lulea in Swedish Lapland has halted a collaboration with the city of Xi’an. Lulea’s university and city has also stopped a co-operation with the Confucius Institute, which teaches Chinese culture and language but which critics accuse of pushing propaganda.
“We decided to stop it right now. There was one situation when we started in 2013. During the last years, the repression has been much harder in China,” Anders Teljeback, mayor of Vasteras, told the Financial Times.
Sweden had long been keen on encouraging closer ties with China in an effort to improve business links as well as push local democracy through government-funded projects and twinning cities.
But now, in moves with no connection to the current coronavirus outbreak, Swedish cities such as Gothenburg and Vara are looking at ending their twin city agreements with Chinese counterparts with decisions expected this year.
“We feel that efforts to influence the important process of enhancing democratisation in China are more effectively managed through international diplomacy,” said Gabriela Bosnjakovic, Vara’s mayor.
Several Swedish opposition parties including the populist Sweden Democrats and centre-right Christian Democrats have called for Gui Congyou, China’s ambassador to Stockholm, to be declared persona non grata after he compared Sweden with a 48kg boxer challenging an 86kg heavyweight to a fight and even breaking into his home.
“What choice do you expect the heavyweight boxer to have?” Mr Gui, who is not related to Gui Minhai, told Swedish TV in January.
David Lega, a former deputy mayor of Gothenburg who now sits in the European Parliament for the Christian Democrats, said: “We can’t continue to accept everything China does without it having consequences. Sweden isn’t in a position to affect China economically. But we must criticise their brand when they have a complete disregard for human rights, not least regarding the Uighurs.”
He added: “I refuse to sacrifice our values for economic reasons.”
Stig Bertilsson, mayor of Bengtsfors in western Sweden, said the town had decided to “downgrade” its co-operation with Wuzhou in southern China but would wait to see what happens to Swedish-Chinese relations before breaking it off completely.
“We listen to the Chinese ambassador and what he said was completely unacceptable. But that is something for Sweden as a country to deal with,” he added.
The Chinese ambassador has threatened Sweden with unspecified consequences after the culture minister handed a literary prize to the daughter of Gui Minhai, Angela Gui.
Sweden’s media industry umbrella group last month urged its government and the EU to “protest in the strongest terms possible” against China’s attacks on press freedom, adding that it was “unacceptable that the world’s largest dictatorship is trying to prevent free and independent journalism in a democracy like Sweden”.
Relations between the two countries have been complicated further by the extraordinary case of Anna Lindstedt, Stockholm’s former ambassador to China. She has been charged by Swedish prosecutors with the offence of unauthorised negotiation with a foreign power over a meeting she allegedly set up with Chinese businessmen and Ms Gui last year.
Additional reporting by Yuan Yang in Beijing