Features | Diplomacy

Is Sweden Ready to Combat China’s Influence Operations?

A diplomatic scandal ended with Sweden’s ambassador to China being acquitted – in large part because prosecutors had to rely on a centuries-old law to press charges.

By Jojje Olsson for
Is Sweden Ready to Combat China’s Influence Operations?

A paramilitary police officer stands guard at the gate of the Swedish Embassy in Beijing, Feb. 14, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

“The law contains a number of outdated words and expressions,” said Judge Anna Flodin during a press conference after Anna Lindstedt had just been acquitted. The former Swedish ambassador to China was charged with “arbitrariness in negotiations with a foreign power,” a law that was crafted for times of war. Sweden has not been to war for centuries — the law had not been used since 1794.

According to Flodin, it was hard to interpret the formulation and purposes of the law, which is barely mentioned in the judicial literature. Nevertheless, the law was used to determine the outcome of what has been called Sweden’s biggest diplomatic scandal in modern times.

It all started when Lindstedt invited Angela Gui, the daughter of kidnapped Swedish book publisher Gui Minhai, to Stockholm with the pretext of offering her a job. Instead, Angela Gui found herself in a string of intimidating meetings including with two “businessmen” with Chinese connections, who were trying to silence her to avoid further international attention to the case of her abducted father.

“Don’t talk about your father if you ever want to see him again,” was the message. As the threats were issued, Lindstedt was sitting next to the businessmen, nodding and encouraging Gui to try this “new approach” to set her father free.

Bad News in a Nice Way

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I wrote in detail on the case for The Diplomat in March last year. Like the case itself, the trial and acquittal of Lindstedt have now created more questions than they have answered. Above all, it raises the question of whether foreign ministries and legal systems in Western countries are equipped to face the growing threat from Chinese intelligence and influence operations.

A detailed, 800-page long preliminary investigation by the Swedish Security Service (Säpo) contains a lot of information that suggests Sweden might not be quite ready to handle this threat just yet. The investigation — published only in Swedish — reveals how Nina Lissvik, head of administration and consular affairs at the Swedish embassy in Beijing, issued several warnings to her superiors in Stockholm regarding Lindstedt’s way of working, starting not long after Lindstedt assumed her ambassador post in the fall of 2016.

“Completely useless. Not a leader in any way at all,” Lissvik answered when asked by Säpo about the leadership qualities of Lindstedt. She said the ambassador was not fond of rules and regulations or guidelines. According to several employees, the working environment hit rock bottom not long after Lindstedt arrived.

But the most important factor for recalling Lindstedt before the end of her three-year contract was her handling of the Gui Minhai case, characterized by a deeply emotional personal involvement. Among other things, Lindstedt would call Angela Gui at times on a daily basis, often crying on the phone, having Angela support the ambassador rather than the other way around.

It was Lena Nordström, HR manager at the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), who was tasked with telling Lindstedt that she would have to leave her position early, a decision taken by then-Foreign Minister Margot Wallström. But when delivering this piece of bad news to Lindstedt during a meeting already in May 2018, it was apparently a high priority to do so in the “best possible way,” to avoid Lindstedt being upset or sad, according to Nordström’s reasoning in interrogations with Säpo.

“Foreign Ministry Language”

Before her meeting with Lindstedt, Nordström crafted a number of talking points with the help of colleagues. The preliminary investigation contains Nordström’s handwritten notes of those points, which were conveyed to Lindstedt when asking her to leave her post: “Your efforts are highly appreciated back home” and “You have been under pressure on many levels!” are some examples.

According to Nordström, the ambassador took the news with “total surprise,” followed by calmness and then anger. She didn’t want to leave, citing a high grade of support among colleagues and arguing that her departure would be seen as a “propaganda victory” by the Chinese.

The surprise might have been related to the fact that no criticism was delivered regarding Lindstedt’s work. Nordström did not mention the Gui Minhai case, not even when asked directly if Lindstedt had done something wrong.

In interrogations with Säpo, Annika Söder, at the time secretary of the cabinet and number two in the hierarchy of Sweden’s MFA, admitted that for an outsider, the working ways of her department might seem “odd.” This, explained Söder, is because the Swedish MFA has “a very special culture.”

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Unfortunately, this culture is also an obstacle for communication. At one point, Lindstedt received an e-mail from her superiors with instructions that contact with Gui Minhai’s relatives should “mainly” be handled from Stockholm. According to Söder, the e-mail was written in “[Swedish] Ministry of Foreign Affairs language,” and as such should have been interpreted by Lindstedt to cut contact with Angela Gui.

The MFA’s apparent aversion to offending anyone could be used to Lindstedt’s advantage in court. In the preliminary investigation, she was quoted as saying that she could not remember “any particularly clear guidelines” on how to handle the case — which, to her credit, is perfectly true.

Officials Without Criminal Responsibility

Still, when Angela Gui called the Swedish MFA in early February 2019 to expose the secret meetings, Lindstedt was immediately removed from Beijing. Her conduct had undoubtedly crossed a line, but it was far from clear what charges could be made against Lindstedt.

“It’s a riddle,” said Pål Wrange, professor of public international law at Stockholm University, about the prosecutor’s use of “arbitrariness in negotiations with a foreign power” to bring the case. But on the other hand, there wasn’t many other options on the table.

In 1976, a reform known as “ämbetsansvarsreformen” all but abolished criminal responsibility for Swedish officials. To put it bluntly, it’s no longer a crime for Swedish officials to lack competence or moral judgement.

In the spring of 2018, the Swedish parliament unanimously passed a bill to reintroduce this criminal responsibility. The bill was said to be designed so that public officials mishandling their positions could be charged with modern legislation, adapted to suit modern times. But the government has yet to act. Instead, the absence of such a legislation forced the prosecutor to bring charges against Lindstedt using a law that is so old that the court had problems interpreting its content.

Green Light For Shady Schemes

As the trial began in June, Lindstedt told the court that it was “unreal, not to say Kafkaesque, to stand accused of crime against national security.” As a condition for letting six of its staff members appear as witness in the trial, the Swedish MFA invoked confidentiality and demanded hearings behind closed doors.

Hence, not much new information came out during the trial. It was known before the trial that the notorious Chinese ambassador to Sweden, Gui Congyou, on several occasions had demanded the Swedish government “take action” against individuals portraying the Gui Minhai case in a negative way. It was also known that the two “businessmen” who appeared at the meeting with Angela Gui tried to bribe journalist Kurdo Baksi to keep silent.

On top of this, Säpo’s preliminary investigation showed that Kevin Liu, one of the two businessmen, had been on a Swedish visa blacklist since 2011, when the Migration Board received a warning about him. Liu had been denied a visa to Sweden and the Schengen area several times, applying with different identities and forged passports at both the Swedish Embassy in Beijing and the General Consulate in Shanghai.

Worse still, the embassy in Beijing filed Liu’s rejected application under his false identity in 2011. Again due to lack of communication within and between ministries and agencies, no one at the Swedish MFA was aware of this before the scandal with the meetings unraveled early last year. (Apparently, Liu had managed to obtain a visa by applying at the Finnish General Consulate in Hong Kong, which represents all Scandinavian countries in the city on visa matters.)

Even so, the court decided that there was no “robust” evidence that individuals representing the interests of a foreign state had been present during the meetings arranged by Lindstedt.

Magnus Fiskesjö, one of the witnesses at the trial, told The Diplomat that the “mountain of circumstantial evidence” obviously was not enough for the court to conclude that those men were agents. “That definitely is an opening for the Chinese regime, which will surely continue with shady schemes which they then deny, as they did this time,” said Fiskesjö, who is a former cultural attache at the Swedish embassy in Beijing and now teaches at Cornell University.

Hopeless Prosecution

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The court also said there was not enough evidence that a negotiation had been taking place. But it wouldn’t had mattered anyway, because according to the court’s interpretation of the law, a suspect can only be found guilty if he or she is posing as someone representing Sweden without the authority to do so.

As Lindstedt was an ambassador, this was not possible, argued the court. Or in the words of Flodin, the judge: “Already due to this reason, the charged ambassador should be acquitted.” The prosecution was doomed to fail from the moment it was initiated. Putting aside charges that she was being manipulated, acting recklessly, and putting people at risk, Lindstedt was always authorized to negotiate in her role as the Swedish ambassador.

According to Fiskesjö, Sweden, like many democracies, needs to review its legal framework against the growing influence schemes of the Chinese regime. He highlights Australia, with the new Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act, as a good example.

By the use of a centuries-old law in her trial, Lindstedt has been cleansed from any wrongdoing, legal or moral. A few voices have even suggested that she be compensated.

For Angela Gui, the sentence doesn’t change much. “The damage has already been done,” she said to the Swedish daily Expressen after the verdict. “It doesn’t change anything for me for for my father.” She describes the entire process as “tragic” on a personal level.

She continues: “I think the most important aspect is that, even if Lindstedt’s actions did not constitute a crime, she did in fact actively participate in an influence operation where I was threatened and blackmailed because I was using my freedom of expression.”

Due to bad communication within and between the ministries and lack of relevant legislation, the biggest Swedish diplomatic scandal in modern times ended with everyone getting away scot-free. Beijing (and other regimes) are watching carefully.

Jojje Olsson is a journalist and author living in Asia since 2007.