KAOHSIUNG (Taiwan News) -The current trade dispute between the USA and Communist China was something everyone could see coming from the moment Donald Trump was elected President off the back of his ‘America First’ agenda.
But one diplomatic dispute that most people didn't anticipate is the ongoing spat between Sweden and China. On the face of it, the circumstances that brought about this dispute are extremely amusing.
But delve a little deeper and the case gives a graphic indication of how the societal norms of authoritarian Communist China, and so many of its brainwashed people, are at odds with much of the democratic, developed world. It also shows how, in circumstances like this, Taiwan is much closer to its allies in the west.
How one family’s petulance led to a major diplomatic incident
The ding-dong between Sweden and China began after a family of Chinese tourists, the Zengs, turned up at a hostel in the Swedish capital, Stockholm, at around midnight. They did not have a reservation to stay there until the following night and the hostel was full, so the staff explained to family that they would not be allowed to check-in until the following day.
According to the hostel manager, who spoke to Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet, the family then began to cause trouble, refused to leave, and hurled abuse at both hostel staff and other guests. In the end, staff had to call the police, and the family were ejected from the hostel.
While doubtless upsetting, most people would have recognized the error was their own, accepted that their behavior was out of line and apologized. Somehow, Chinese tourists often seem to manage to behave differently from people. This family’s reaction was to throw a full-on hysterical meltdown in the street, blaming absolutely everyone but themselves for their situation. It would have been funny if it wasn’t so cringingly embarrassing.
When the story went viral in China, Communist Party authorities decide to respond. Ironically, rather than laughing off the incident or criticizing the absurd actions of the family, they doubled down, turning the affair into a diplomatic incident and describing the family’s treatment as an outrage.
The Chinese embassy in Sweden accused Swedish police of ‘endangering lives’ and suggested that it had “violated the basic human rights of the Chinese citizens” (something the Chinese Communist Party has plenty of experience doing). They demanded an apology from the Swedish Government, which was not forthcoming given the clearly absurd nature of the statements.
To be fair, the reaction of Chinese netizens to the incident was mixed, with some criticizing the family’s childish reactions in lying down and screaming to try and get their way. But for many others, their nationalist conditioning took over and they too were quick to attack the Swedes.
Taiwanese people will have recognized the arrogant, entitled, and petulant attitude of the family visiting Sweden. Such behavior (and worse) was common back when Taiwan was awash with Chinese tour groups. It is for exactly this reason that many breathed a sigh of relief when China scaled back their numbers.
How freedom of speech upped the heat
Usually, such an incident would blow over pretty quickly, and all that would remain is another black mark on the reputation of Chinese people in the West. However, a satirical Swedish current affairs show, Svenska Nyheter (Swedish News) took up the story and opened up all the old wounds again.
They mercilessly mocked the actions of both the family and the Chinese authorities, while highlighting various other examples of bad behavior by Chinese tourists. These included the Louvre Museum in Paris having to put up a sign in Chinese asking tourists not to defecate in the grounds; Chinese graffiti being found on ancient Egyptian monuments; and some tourists throwing coins into aeroplane engines ‘for good luck’.
Their skit ended with a short, mock, informational film for Chinese tourists, which quickly went viral back in China. China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs called it “a gross insult to and vicious attack on China and the Chinese people”. They also criticized the use of a map of China which failed to include either Taiwan or Tibet.
While it is true that some of the jokes are of questionable taste (and the broadcaster has now twice apologized if any of its content was deemed racist) what the Chinese authorities have overlooked is a basic right that is afforded to all people in Sweden and none in China; freedom of speech.
In Sweden (and the rest of the free world) satirical content like this is par for the course, yet it is a totally alien concept in China. Both the Chinese Communist Party and the people don’t know how to handle it other than with ever-increasing outrage.
The situation must be truly exasperating for Swedish authorities who will, of course, retain the view that it is entirely of China’s own making. The bad behavior of the family, the over-reaction of the CCP, and then their inability to tolerate satire and freedom of speech have turned a storm-in-a-teacup into a major diplomatic incident.
Some analysts have suggested that it could all stem from a conscious CCP effort to punish Sweden for other recent events. Shortly before the incident in Stockholm, the Dalai Lama paid a visit to Sweden. And there is also the case of Gui Minhai, a publisher and Swedish citizen who was abducted by CCP officials while traveling in China in the presence of Swedish diplomats. Sweden has made frequent, strong representation to China for his release and condemned the regime for violating the rights of their diplomats.
Is now the right time for Sweden to switch diplomatic recognition to Taiwan?
With both sides refusing to back down on this issue, it seems inevitable that the CCP will look to punish Sweden for daring to stand up to them. It is a course of action they have taken so many times before. Sweden can expect several trade and economic setbacks in the coming months.
Orders from China are likely to be canceled and Chinese investment projects in Sweden will be suspended or cancelled. Believe it or not, Ikea stores in China are already seeing a downturn in business and much online abuse despite having nothing whatsoever to do with any of this. The number of tourists visiting Sweden from China can also be expected to decline sharply too. And the chances of Gui Minhai being released from his illegal incarceration is now just about zero.
So, how does Sweden react now? It could do what most Western countries do when they have incurred the wrath of the CCP for some innocuous incident. Keep their head down, take the punishment on the chin, and hope China will move on sooner rather than later.
Or, they could stand up to the CCP’s diplomatic bullying. One slightly outlandish idea which has been suggested by some is that this could be an opportune moment for Sweden to consider switching diplomatic recognition from China to Taiwan.
The potential motivations for taking this course of action are numerous. Unlike China, Taiwan and Sweden have both embraced freedom of speech and human rights. The two countries share a basic set of morals and values which will make it much easier to overcome the cultural differences between them. Both also have democratically accountable governments which work towards regional and global stability as well as offer social liberal policies designed to improve the lives of their people.
Then there are the Taiwanese people, who have a lot more in common with the Swedes than the Chinese do. Firstly, they have a sense of humor and can laugh at themselves and their government. They do not travel overseas with a sense of entitlement that the rest of the world should do what they and their government demand. They also know how to behave properly in public. There are no signs in traditional Mandarin at the Louvre asking tourists not to poop in the grounds .
Rather than slavishly accepting punishment for an incident that was entirely of China’s own making, Sweden could take a moral and political stand and potentially start a domino effect that changes south-east Asia and the world for the better. Sweden was one of the first non-Communist western countries to formally switch diplomatic ties from the Republic of China to Communist China back in 1950. Why not be the first the first to switch back?
If Sweden did switch ties to Taiwan, they could set a precedent for other democratic countries to follow suit. Such a step could lead to an improvement in the human rights situation in China. The CCP might think twice about locking up a million Uighur Muslims in concentration camps and introduce a social credit system which is beyond the imagination of the darkest dystopian sci-fi writer, if they thought the rest of the world would stand up to them about it.
It is a long shot of course, and economic realities mean it is unlikely to happen. But this incident highlights the contempt with which both the CCP regime and many of the Chinese people hold the rest of the world. Perhaps, it could also be an opportunity for the rest of the world to take action and try to change things in China for the better.