Calling the deer a horse: The CCP’s ham-fisted drive to control discourse in Sweden

Interview with Magnus Fiskesjö, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Cornell University and former Director of the Stockholm Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities.

The Chinese-born Swedish publisher Gui Minhai 桂民海 was kidnapped in 2015 in Thailand during a wave of abductions of critical Hong Kong booksellers. He was later released, rearrested and forced to deliver a statement to CCP-friendly media, including Jack Ma’s South China Morning Post. Gui’s detention, as well as that of another Swedish citizen, the NGO worker Peter Dahlin, forced to endure a staged televised confession, have fueled public debate on Sweden’s relationship with the PRC. As discussed in a recent Sinopsis piece, the combative tactics implemented by a new Chinese ambassador have hardly improved the public’s appreciation of the CCP’s policies. The embassy devoted special effort to a character-assassination campaign against the still-imprisoned Gui Minhai, bombarding media outlets with a set of accusations an investigation by journalist Jojje Olsson found to be fabricated.

Days after the Swedish king’s cancellation of a China visit on short notice, reportedly because of negotiations over Gui’s fate, Sinopsis conducted an e-mail interview with Magnus Fiskesjö, one of the most prominent voices advocating for Gui’s release. Fiskesjö teaches Anthropology and Asian Studies at Cornell University. He was the director of the Stockholm Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities (Östasiatiska museet).

You are among the most vocal advocates for Gui Minhai’s release. What are the reasons for your personal connection to this case?

I got to know Gui Minhai while I served as the Cultural Attaché of Sweden’s Embassy in Beijing, in 1985-88. He was one of numerous young and talented poets, writers, and artists that I knew at the time. My memories are of a very bright young man always up for a joke and a laugh, as well as for serious discussions about literature and culture.

This was in the optimistic times before the massacres of the students and ordinary Beijingers at Tiananmen Square in 1989, and before the despair and cynicism that took over China afterwards. Before the tragedy, I had already helped Gui, as well as many others, to go to Sweden to study. We had only intermittent contact: this was in the era before email, and I was away from Sweden, for years. But I knew that he completed an MA thesis on Communist historiography, as well as publishing Chinese books and articles on Scandinavian culture. And that he changed to Swedish citizenship.

Gui then moved to Hong Kong to enter the publishing industry. We met up there once, in 2012. He was still the same optimistic and jovial figure, someone whose company you would enjoy. When he was kidnapped from Thailand in 2015, and then put up for a forced confession on Chinese state TV in early 2016, it was a shock for me personally. I knew the regime could be cruel. But this kind of fake show was a truly bone-chilling horror. It was despicable for the government to stoop to such games, with no respect for human dignity. So, I felt I had to speak up, mainly by telling people, not least people in my own country, what was going on. Also, the forced confessions unavoidably became a new research topic for me (see, e.g., “The return of the show trial: China’s televised ‘confessions’”).

Voices in support for Gui Minhai in Sweden have gone beyond academic Sinology to include many journalists and others from the publishing industry. How well-known do you think his case is among the general public in the country?

Don’t forget that our elected Government has repeatedly spoken up for Gui and demanded his release, as has our Parliament (jointly, by all parties!). The Chinese embassy tries to paint the voices supporting Gui as a “handful of hostile elements” but people can see that’s total nonsense. Their critics include long lists of public figures, such as Ove Bring, our foremost expert in international law, and Björn Skala, one of our former ambassadors to China. The Chinese propagandists want to believe they are still in China, and they can decide what is the truth. But no, we are still a free country.

And, in addition to a vigorous independent press and publishing industry, we also have very good public service radio and TV. Overall, their reporting has been decent, and it has made the general public aware of the case. I say this even as I myself was mightily frustrated that it took quite some time for media to wake up to it, and also that media sometimes swallowed Chinese propaganda designs (such as the re-packaged traffic incident that the Chinese government first used to smear Gui, and to delay and confuse the response to the case; I wrote about this here).

In sum, most people now do know about Gui Minhai’s case, and paradoxically, all the new vitriol from the recently appointed Chinese ambassador has in a strange way clarified the situation for most people: China’s holding a Swedish citizen, they are lying about it, they don’t follow any laws but constantly move the goalposts. The whole affair is an insult against our country.

People in Sweden have previously had to learn about the Eritrean-born Swedish citizen Dawit Isaak, who has long been held by a pretty awful dictator in that country. And a few years ago, a Swedish tourist was held for years by an Al Qaeda terrorist band holding fort in the desert of Mali.

That’s now the league to which China belongs. Swedish people also know that China forced a second Swedish citizen, Peter Dahlin, to go through a similar ordeal; after he was released and deported, he has contributed his personal behind-the-scenes account of how he was coerced, as did Gui’s bookseller colleague Lam Wing-kee [林荣基]. After hearing these and other similar accounts, no-one can regard the official Chinese spectacle as credible in any way.

What is your assessment of the Swedish government’s actions on Gui Minhai since he was kidnapped in 2015?

Having worked as a diplomat myself, I have a lot of respect for the Swedish diplomats on the frontline that have to bang their heads bloody on those Chinese walls made of cold stone. I can appreciate the value of efforts that aren’t public, and I trust that our officials have been trying very hard to convince the Chinese regime to release Gui.

They were very cautious and only went public with rebuking China after the shockingly disgraceful mob-style re-arrest of Gui on that train in early 2018, after they had been told that he was now free to go. The shock may have been partly due to the fact that our foreign ministry would be talking to the Chinese foreign ministry, and believed that they were getting an honest deal. But of course that ministry has no real say: Chinese diplomats may well themselves have been aghast and mystified, that after they’d told the Swedes that Gui was now free, he’s suddenly dragged off the train by plainclothes men acting out a second kidnapping right in front of Swedish diplomats!

The Parliament, in May this year, instructed our government to give high priority to working for Gui’s release. They will continue to do so, however long it takes, and whichever party is the government. We will never forget a citizen languishing in detention and cruelly paraded and forced to parrot lies on camera, just because someone did not like the books he published. Giving up on him, would mean giving up the fundamental values of our democracy, and consequently giving up our country as it is.

The King has cancelled a visit to China on short notice, allegedly because of negotiations over Gui’s release. Do you think there is any substance to those rumours? Is there precedent for involving the royal house in similar negotiations?

It is possible that this is true, although the official message is that the cancellation was due to the still-ongoing post-election efforts to form a new government. (The King must be on hand to inaugurate it.)

I myself met the King several times, and he once granted me an audience in my capacity as director of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities (which was once founded with the help of his grandfather). I also often listen to his Christmas speeches, and I do believe he is genuinely concerned with the wellbeing of our citizens.

It is thus quite possible that he would have been appalled by the Chinese embassy’s vicious outbursts against Gui Minhai over the last few months, including just before the visit. I have no inside knowledge about whether the King might intercede with China on Gui’s behalf, but in fact I suggested just that in an op-ed co-authored last month with Kurdo Baksi, the well-known Swedish author and activist. While the King constitutionally cannot take foreign policy initiatives by himself, the elected government can request his aid, just as they often request his aid in traveling the world to promote Swedish companies and trade, as would have been the case here as well. We argued that there is a precedent in how the King was involved in successfully freeing several Swedish engineers that had been imprisoned by Saddam Hussein, in Iraq, in the 1990s.

How do you evaluate Sweden’s China policy in general, and do you think the case of Gui Minhai has had much influence on it? More generally, has the Gui Minhai case affected China’s image in Sweden?

I think that going into the future, for a long time to come, China will be associated in Sweden with the wanton kidnapping and imprisoning of a Swedish citizen, because he published books they did not like.

Because of the naïveté and shallow understanding of China that long prevailed in Sweden, as well as in much of Europe, it took longer than expected for our government to wake up to the seriousness of Gui Minhai’s case. Part of the reason was the once-popular but now largely defunct misunderstanding that China, as it turned to (state) capitalism, would also develop decent politics. The delay was undoubtedly due to how some businessmen and other pro-Chinese people welcomed (and benefited from) Chinese business ties, and were reluctant to accept the reality that for the Chinese regime, business is politics by other means.

But I think that by now, the case has caused many in Sweden to wake up and realise that China represents a threat. We have seen concretely what China can do, and does, to our country. This — together with other grim news from China, including the new concentration camps in Xinjiang, the brutal denial of basic rights to ordinary people, the censorship and silencing of every kind of dissent — has resonated in Sweden as well as around Europe, and like others, we are now also beginning to re-assess our policies on China. This includes the questions on whether to allow Chinese ownership of key infrastructure, and so on, so as to preserve our independence and democratic political system in the face of a China seeking economic and political domination, and evidently incapable of observing international rules. This is important.

Few were paying attention when China sent warships blasting around the Baltic Sea alongside the Russian Navy, just outside Sweden’s coast. But I think that was an unmistakable sign that the threat from China is now very real.

Gui Congyou 桂从友, the ambassador to Sweden appointed in 2017 whose background has been covered, among other places, on Sinopsis, has been unusually confrontational towards media coverage of China, which has failed to engineer a pro-CCP narrative. What do you think could be the reasons behind these new tactics?

The propaganda he issues is counterproductive, and surely harmful to China’s image in Sweden and in Europe. The Chinese ambassador is probably following orders. But the ambassador, and those who sent the orders, either may not fully understand the downside,or they think they can simply treat Swedes as they would their own people: barking out orders, and expecting not only obedience, but self-humiliation. I am sure that the ambassador is sending glowing reports back home, about how many times he’s figured in the local press.

But some Chinese people in Sweden, who do understand the harm that the propaganda campaign is causing to the image of his country, choose silence.

In this context one cannot fail to think about the old saying in China, about “calling a deer a horse” [指鹿为马] — which is what the ambassador is trying to do. To summarize the original story, during the first Chinese empire, over two thousand years ago, a power-hungry top official staged a confrontation to test the subservience and obedience of his subordinates by presenting them with a live deer, but telling them this was a horse, and then demanding they speak up on this. Those who jumped up to laud the “horse” were retained; those who hesitated, or said “But… it’s a deer?” were later executed. This story is eerily relevant today: the Chinese ambassador lives in a very similar world. He even gloated on Swedish radio that he would never tell anything but the truth, if he was made to confess (under torture). This is the equivalent of the kind of official who spoke up to praise the beautiful “horse”.

Have other European nations shown sufficient solidarity with Sweden over Gui’s case? Do you think such bilateral issues should be handled at the European level?

The EU has several times demanded Gui’s freedom, in statements from the high representative for foreign affairs, Federica Mogherini, and as part of its “human rights dialogue” with China, last summer. Sweden has expressed its thanks for this. As a Swedish citizen, Gui is also a European and an EU citizen, so yes, it is a very good idea to bring it up at the EU level, and in the European Parliament where it has also been raised.

On the other hand, it has not been enough, perhaps partly due to Swedish hopes — until this year — to protect its “silent diplomacy” (which I think was a mistake). And so, with the exception of Germany and a few more member countries, not many individual countries have expressed support for Sweden on this case, and in that sense, the solidarity and the attention has not been enough. Similarly, in the recent review of human rights in China, at the UN in Geneva, only some countries asked about Gui (though the constraints of the UN format were draconian).

Britain, which sadly is abandoning the Union, is the only other foreign country so far (other than Taiwan) that has seen its citizens forced to confess on Chinese TV. The victim, Peter Humphrey (see the new book edited by Peter Dahlin, Trial by Media: China’s New Show Trials and the Global Expansion of Chinese Media), is now requesting that Chinese state TV should be barred from broadcasting in Britain as a result. But we in Sweden and the British as Europeans should be standing up together to Chinese propaganda abuses, not divided.

So I think this issue brings up the whole question of the future of the EU. Some nationalistic forces want to destroy and abolish it, and they are encouraged by China and Russia, because they would like to split us, and dominate us. But then it would be so much easier for them to bully a country like Sweden, and Britain, or Germany, for that matter. As the extraordinary Mogherini argues, the EU is our best future, and we can do even better.

Besides the horror of the treatment Gui has suffered at the hands of the PRC government, what is, in your opinion, the global significance of his case? What should Western governments do to deter similar extraterritorial kidnappings of their citizens by the PRC government?

Gui’s case raises the question of how China can fit in the world, if it cannot respect the painstakingly built rules for how to be neighbors in this world, which includes respecting the citizenship and rights of others. In the case of Gui Minhai, China’s government is imposing its own whims, in lawless fashion: kidnapping Gui, lying about it, denying him consular visits, and so on. Unfortunately, his case is not isolated, but part of an ominous trend where China imposes its wishes unilaterally, claiming to own people on racist grounds, while ignoring even its own laws on citizenship.

For other nations, the only way to deter this is to insist on international law, and to defend and strengthen this system.

But it is weakened, and not strengthened, when powerful countries like the US practice secret renditions, torture, and black jails, itself setting aside international law as it did for years, during its so-called War on Terror. Such practices embolden China’s regime, by providing convenient reference points for them: “If they can do it, so can we?”

Introduction and interview by Jichang Lulu.