Last month, the Swedish chapter of PEN (a worldwide association of writers) gave its Tucholsky Prize to Gui Minhai, a persecuted Chinese-born book publisher. In retaliation, China seems to be preparing to impose sanctions on Sweden. Minhai is currently being detained by Beijing for criticizing the communist state.
China had warned Sweden not to go ahead with the award as it could trigger “serious consequences.” However, the Swedish Prime Minister, Stefan Lofven, dismissed the threat, reminding Beijing that his country was not an authoritarian regime. “We are not going to give in to this type of threat. Never. We have freedom of expression in Sweden and that’s how it is, period,” he had said in an interview with a Swedish television (RTHK).
Minhai was arrested by Chinese officials last year and no one has had any constant contact with him. Though born in China, he had given up his Chinese citizenship for a Swedish one. His wife, who lives in Sweden, has been threatened by Chinese authorities to remain silent and not to speak about Minhai to the press. Since the Tucholsky Prize is awarded to writers who are persecuted by their governments, PEN organizers decided that Minhai was the best person to receive the award this year.
China’s envoy to Sweden, Gui Congyou, indicated that China will soon act against Sweden. “The Chinese government absolutely cannot allow any country, organization or person to harm China’s national interests. Of course, we must take countermeasures… The Swedish government’s cultural exchanges with China will, of course, be affected. Our economic and trade relations will also be affected,” he told local reporters (South China Morning Post). However, the Chinese ministry has not officially made any such declarations.
According to Ingrid d’ Hooghe from the China Center of the Netherlands Institute of International Relations Clingendael, the aggressive comments from Chinese ambassadors are becoming more commonplace as their country gains more power and influence internationally. Last month, China banned a Swedish documentary from participating in the Hainan Island International Film Festival.
Expansion of authoritarianism
China’s authoritarian attitude is inspiring its Asian neighbors to mimic the same according to a report entitled The People Power Under Attack 2019. Prepared by rights group Civicus, the report reveals that of the 25 countries in Asia, only Taiwan was rated as an “open” country when it came to fundamental freedoms. Ten nations were classified as “obstructed,” eight as “repressed,” and four as “closed.” Even in countries like Japan and South Korea, civic space was found to be very narrow.
“Governments in Asia are increasingly adopting China’s authoritarian tactics to hold on to power or control the narrative… Censorship is on the rise with states blocking news outlets and social media sites, shutting down the internet and attacking journalists exposing abuses of the state… This is often coupled with the use of restrictive legislation such as defamation laws as a weapon to silence public debate or prevent activists and journalists from revealing inconvenient truths,” Josef Benedict, a researcher at Civicus, said to Radio Free Asia.
Censorship was found to be the most common form of civic space violation in Asia, as it was practiced by 20 countries. Restrictive laws that stifled political and democratic rights were found in 18 Asian nations. The total percentage of people living with obstructed, repressed, or closed civic space was estimated to be 95 percent.