Recent shifts around the world are currently offering a good opportunity for China and Europe to develop closer relations. However, as recent incidents in Sweden and Germany have shown, mutual misunderstanding between China and European states and the resultant mishandling of diplomacy could threaten to derail this potential advancement.
The presidency of Donald Trump in the United States and the current, escalating “trade war” mean that China is increasingly looking toward Europe, something which is also the result of the continent’s position at the western end of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). At the same time, Trump’s actions have pushed some in Europe toward reassessing their traditional relationships. The BRI and China’s ongoing economic growth mean that it continues to offer considerable economic opportunities for European states at a time when the United States appears to be turning inward.
The current situation could therefore offer a great opportunity for a strengthening of Europe-China relations. However, instead of this, ways in which China and European countries have misunderstood the values and concerns of the other have shown signs that they could generate considerable tension in bilateral relationships. Often European states fail to fully understand the deeply entrenched historical grievances and strong desire for restoring national pride held by the Chinese side.
Meanwhile, the Chinese side frequently misunderstands the nature of European societies and the specific values these societies feel pride in upholding. China’s attempts to transfer the political tools it employs domestically, or the methods used when dealing with the United States, often do not work when it seeks to apply them to the complicated, value and culture laden democratic states of Europe.
Two recent incidents — in Sweden and Germany — offer examples of the ways in which these misunderstandings between the two sides play out.
Several weeks ago, an incident involving two Chinese tourists occurred in Sweden’s capital Stockholm. The details are still somewhat unclear, but it has been reported that three Chinese tourists tried to check into a hotel late at night. Because their booking was for the next day, they were told they could not check in at that time. The hotel called the police to help remove the tourists. According to the staff, they called the police because the tourists were unruly and refused to leave the premises. The tourists allege that they were mistreated, but a prosecutor has decided that the police actions were in line with established practice.
Many embassies probably would have engaged in discussion with the Swedish authorities to ensure that the case was properly handled and investigated. The Chinese Embassy chose to use the incident to make political points, and in doing so drew greater attention to the incident. This produced a huge amount of discussion by both Swedish and Chinese media and publics. An incident that could have been allowed to go away quietly was instead escalated, making the tensions between China and Sweden seem much greater than they arguably really are.
Sweden is a country with a fairly aggressive free media and a public which takes an interest in what is happening in their country. Swedish people are proud of the nation’s upholding of human rights and fair treatment for all and bristle at any accusations that this is not the case.
Given these sentiments, the Chinese Embassy’s expectation that it could dominate the narrative of the incident seems ill-founded. Equally, its accusation that the Swedish police infringed upon the rights of the Chinese tourists involved was sure to generate anger and defensive reactions among the Swedish side. The embassy’s statements were seen as a criticism of Swedish society and institutions.
The Swedish government proceeded very much by the book. They investigated what had happened and said more time would be needed to look into the matter fully. However, their response arguably lacked sensitivity to what was driving the sense of offence voiced by the Chinese Embassy and the reasons why the Chinese side made so much of the affair.
A few days after the incident, Sveriges Television (SVT), perhaps feeling the need to respond to criticism of Swedish society, chose to air a satirical section welcoming Chinese tourists to Sweden as part of a show that satirizes current affairs. The clip showed a sign advising tourists not to defecate in public and informed them that if they saw somebody walking dogs in a public place these were pets rather than to be eaten. SVT went as far as uploading the clip to Youku, the Chinese version of YouTube, and deliberately aimed it at Chinese audiences.
The producers of the program claimed the clip was embedded in a broader critique of racism. However, they failed to understand that Chinese audiences would be unable to appreciate this broader message or the satirical nature of the program. They also failed to understand the huge sensitivity to racism from Europeans, and to suggestions that Chinese people are inferior, held by China and its population. The Chinese ambassador to Sweden, Gui Congyu, responded to the clip, spelling out this Chinese sentiment.
“When Chinese people interact with foreigners, what they care about most is whether they are treated as an equal. Why? In 1840, Britain forced China to open with cannons and warships and started the Opium War. Between then and 1949, western powers invaded and enslaved China. They divided China, and even took parts of Chinese territory as their own. During the 110 years, Chinese people were discriminated, shackled and oppressed… Such a painful part of history makes ‘being treated as an equal’ of paramount importance and a prerequisite to China in its foreign relations,” he said.
That Gui felt the need to speak at such length on the issue is indicative of the Chinese sense that they are not being understood or respected. China, in a sense, comes at its relations with other countries from assuming at the outset that it is misunderstood, which does not provide a healthy basis for building ties.
Despite some recent frictions, Sweden and China have historically had good relations. Although the official Swedish response to China’s BRI has been more cautious than in some comparable countries, there was a desire in Sweden to engage with this initiative. The responses to the tourist incident, first by the Chinese Embassy and then by people in Sweden, have only succeeded in stirring up problems between the two countries and creating a very visible rift between them.
Another incident worth examining occurred in Germany in November last year. The Chinese under-20s football team was playing a match in the German city of Mainz, the first of 16 friendly matches it had arranged to play in the country. When a group of six protestors in the stands unfurled Tibetan flags, the Chinese players stopped playing and refused to continue. The game was interrupted for 25 minutes and only after the organizers had agreed to remove the flags was the Chinese team willing to continue.
Like in Sweden, the Chinese government was not responsible for the initial incident, but chose to use the event to make a political point. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Lu Kang, issued a statement in which he conflated the incident to Germany’s approach to China more generally.
“We are firmly opposed to any country or any individual offering support to separatist, anti-China and terrorist activities or activities defending Tibet independence, in any form or under any pretext,” he said. “I must stress that mutual respect is what the official host should provide their guest, and that respect between any two countries should be mutual.”
Again, these actions only succeeded in drawing more attention to the incident and stirring discussion about Germany and China’s relations more generally. The result was that an incident, like that in Sweden, which could have passed fairly quietly instead generated numerous articles in both the Western and Chinese media and provoked discussion of the countries’ relations.
The handling also showed a misunderstanding of German society and particularly a failure to recognize the strength with which people value the freedom of speech. Like in the Swedish incident, instead of limiting criticism to the actions in this one football match, the Chinese Foreign Ministry extended their criticism to a more general German allowance of this kind of protest. In doing so, their criticism again became a broader critique of German society and the free speech which it values highly.
As in Sweden, when a society feels it is being criticized in such a way it is naturally prone to respond defensively. The dispute escalated from a single incident at a sporting event into a discussion about the different values held by the two countries. In doing so, it again made China and Germany’s relations seem worse than they arguably actually are. The curtailed match was followed by a decision by the German Football Association (DFB) and the Chinese Football Association together to suspend the remaining games of the Chinese team’s tour. The team then flew back to China.
The German Football Association stated that they could not ban the protests because of the right to freedom of speech in Germany. Whilst the German side may have been correct in standing by their values in this case, they arguably could have done more to understand the Chinese position and to resolve the situation. The football matches represented a good opportunity to build ties between the two countries and it would have been beneficial to negotiate a solution which allowed them to go ahead. After the incident, Chinese media pointed out that freedom of speech is not absolutely adhered to in sporting events in any country.
As with relations between Sweden and China, those between Germany and China have historically been good and have gained in strength over time, with a large amount of trade between them. Through its reaction to the incident at the football game, the Chinese side risked unnecessarily exposing underlying fault lines in the relationship, cracks which the two countries had largely managed to bridge over to further broader cooperation.
The handling of such incidents also threatens to harm China’s relations with Europe more generally. China has typically shown considerable respect for European states and the EU project and appreciated different kind of, less conflict-prone, engagement pursued by Europe (as opposed to the United States). While China and Europe do clash over human rights, there is generally the ability to work around such points of tension and continue engagement. If European states act in ways that do not show sensitivity to Chinese feelings, this could potentially damage the high level of esteem given to Europe by both the Chinese government and its population. These states also need to consider the ways Beijing makes strategic use of alleged affronts to the “feelings of the Chinese people.”
Meanwhile, from the European point of view, there is currently considerable debate going on regarding China. While there are many voices in Europe describing China as a significant threat that should be resisted, there are also others more keen on increased engagement and building trade. China’s actions in response to the incidents outlined above and others largely serve to prove those voices speaking of a “China threat” correct. Such actions present China as belligerent and unable to effectively deal with societies that have different values from its own, aggressively asserting itself in order to get its own way. In both incidents, the statements from the Chinese side have spoken of the need for “mutual respect” from foreign countries. However, in contrast to this, the Chinese actions have often shown an inability to respect value systems different to their own.
There is a great opportunity at present for the fostering of stronger relations between China and Europe, but going by these recent incidents the two sides will need to considerably improve their understanding of each other for this to happen.
Nicholas Olczak is an Associate Fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, where he researches Chinese foreign policy as part of the Institute’s Asia Programme. He is also a PhD candidate in international relations at Stockholm University.