China is learning how to lose friends and alienate countries

Tricking Sweden into building a military base on its territory is not the best way to go about winning an ally

It is often said that the Beijing political elites are encouraged to read the works of the great thinkers of the West. The theory is that by reading the books of people like Alexis de Tocqueville and Thucydides, politicians will glean an insight into the Western mind that should, all things considered, be useful in replicating the West’s global success.

One book they might want to put on the reading list is Toby Young’s 2001 “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People”. It describes how a new kid on the block manages to make all the wrong moves and lose the trust and confidence of those around him, so that he ends up fluffing the break of his career. This is the risk that China now faces as it spreads out into the world.

China is gaining a reputation amongst many countries as a bully and a trickster. There has been a debate for instance over the last few years on whether the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is just a way to get countries into debt and thus turn them into unhappy dependents.

Whilst there is some doubt as to the total veracity of this particular claim about the BRI – something I will cover in later posts – China is certainly behaving internationally in a way that’s putting the back up of even the most tolerant of nations.

Take Sweden, which has over the last few years or so learned the hard way that China is not to be trusted. 

It started back in 2014 when China set to work building a scientific research facility in the northern Swedish town of Kiruna, located high up in the Arctic circle. The site’s construction had been requested by the Chinese Institute of Remote Sensing and Digital Earth (RADI) for strictly scientific reasons, for example to “improve China’s capability of acquiring global remote sensing data efficiently”. Sweden, a good global citizen wanting to help bolster cross-border research, agreed to the proposal. 

Except… it wasn’t quite as it seemed.

As completion on the Kiruna facility neared in 2016, it became clear to China watchers that Sweden had been duped. Reports written in Chinese started to appear openly discussing the Chinese military’s excitement about gaining access to its new research base in the Arctic. No one in the Swedish government, which had taken the Chinese at their word, was monitoring the chatter from within China, and it was only when external observers notified them that they realised something was afoot. 

According to sources interviewed for this post, the reaction inside the Swedish government to this betrayal of trust was one of disbelief. ‘But they weren’t wearing a military uniform’, said one official, revealing either a gold-plated sense of naïveté or a cunning display of chutzpah, depending on your point of view. 

A more aggressive nation might have pushed back hard on Beijing for this betrayal of trust. Yet Stockholm refused to pull the plug on what was now obviously a dual-purpose civilian-military site, citing the rule of law as reason not to break their commitment to Beijing. Disapproval was apparently limited to the refusal to send any official Swedish representatives to the opening of the base. 

This was not the first time that Sweden has seen its interests and sovereignty infringed upon by China. 

In 2015 a Swedish national, Gui Minhai (or Michael Gui as he is also known), was involved with a bookstore in Hong Kong that included anti-Communist Party literature in its stock. No matter that Hong Kong at that time was still officially in the Two Systems phase, five men associated with the bookshop were arrested by Chinese police. Gui himself, although a Swedish national, was abducted from a holiday in Thailand by presumed Chinese agents.

Gui was briefly jailed, and then released. Shortly afterwards he was being escorted on a train to Beijing by two Swedish diplomats. Notwithstanding his escorts’ official status, plainclothes officials boarded the train and abducted Gui again. He was made to appear on TV and tell Sweden he didn’t want their help, before being taken away to serve a ten-year sentence for what Human Rights Watch calls “completely unsubstantiated” charges.

These are just a few of the running issues between the two countries. There was also the acquisition of a naval shipyard on the strategic island of Gotland by a Chinese businessman, and the attempt by a Chinese conglomerate to bypass the Stockholm government and build a Chinese-controlled port at the mouth of the Baltic. Not to mention the more farcical story of the Chinese family being removed by police from a hotel in Stockholm after refusing to leave, which led to a massive boycott of Swedish brands like Ikea and Volvo and sucked even more warmth out of the relationship between the two countries. 

Not surprisingly this has not gone down well in Sweden, an historically relaxed and tolerant nation with a generally positive view of the world. Indeed, China’s attitude to Sweden has had “consequences”, to use a word that Beijing likes to throw around.

Overall perceptions of China have declined to the point that a poll in the summer of 2019 revealed that that Swedes hold more unfavourable views of China than any other country, aside from Japan.

Stockholm has also banned Huawei and ZTE from participating in its 5G networks. 

Sweden’s state-owned space company that oversees Kiruna, said last Monday that it would no longer renew contracts with China or accept new Chinese business, because of “changes in geopolitics”. Whilst the Chinese military will have access to Kiruna for a while yet, at least Sweden has shown that it can’t be taken for granted.

None of this is good news for China’s long-term international aims. If, as they say they do, they want to be respected then bullying smaller countries is not the way to bring them willingly to their side. China’s attitude to Sweden is summed up by its ambassador there, Gui Congyou, who used the analogy of a 48kg boxer (Sweden and its media) squaring up to an 86kg fighter (China). The message was clear: you can annoy us, but we can clobber you. 

This Wolf Warrior diplomacy is causing real offence, and turning the average Westerner off China. In the words of one British woman as the Chinese Ambassador to the UK yet again threatened the country with consequences if it didn’t allow Huawei into its 5G networks, “The more I see of how the Chinese Communist Party speaks to us, the less I like of it.”

America, for all its faults, remains popular. Whilst popularity alone cannot secure long term influence (see my recent Moneytalks post for more on that), alienating countries left, right, and centre through threats is not the way to prove a country’s global leadership qualities.

China fully understands that it needs to boost its soft power to become a real global power. Trust and respect are two fundamental pillars of soft power, and two that are increasingly being chipped away by Beijing’s rough attitude to the world. China desperately needs to learn how to win friends and influence people if it is to cement its place at the top.