Once low-profile diplomatic players, China’s ambassadors are now going on the offensive, threatening sanctions on countries that challenge Beijing’s stand on big issues like Xinjiang and the anti-government protests in Hong Kong.
Among the most vocal is Gui Congyou, China’s envoy to Sweden, who said on Wednesday that China would limit economic and trade cooperation, according to Swedish news reports.
“The Chinese government absolutely cannot allow any country, organisation or person to harm China’s national interests. Of course, we must take countermeasures,” the Göteborgs-Posten daily newspaper quoted Gui as saying.
“The Swedish government’s cultural exchanges with China will of course be affected. Our economic and trade relations will also be affected.”
Sweden’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs said it was aware of the reports but declined to comment.
“We have not received any concrete information about this from Beijing via our normal channels,” the ministry said.
The Chinese embassy in Stockholm did not respond to a request for comment. But a statement on the embassy’s website offered another account of Gui’s comments.
“In the past 70 years, relations between the two countries have developed in a stable way,” he was quoted as saying.
“However, in recent years, a minority of Swedish politicians, media and personnel have been meddling in China’s internal affairs in the name of ‘freedom of speech’, which has created huge disruptions for the healthy development of the Sino-Swedish relationship.”
The statement made no mention of retaliation or countermeasures but it did indicate how Beijing’s formerly low-profile officials are increasingly willing to take up the bat in public on behalf of the Chinese foreign ministry.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has reportedly asked diplomatic staff to show a stronger “fighting spirit” in the face of international challenges.
The Chinese foreign ministry also launched a Twitter account this week to counter criticism from other countries.
Sweden’s ties with China have been strained in recent years, particularly by the detention of Swedish citizen and bookseller Gui Minhai, who disappeared during a holiday in Thailand and has been held in China since 2015.
While not linked to a specific incident, Gui Congyou’s latest threat on economic sanctions came after he openly warned Stockholm of “bad consequences” for honouring Gui Minhai with a free speech literary prize and said Culture Minister Amanda Lind would not be welcome in China if she attended the awards ceremony.
Bjorn Jerden, a research fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, said the ambassador’s comments this week were an escalation in his rhetoric.
“This is something new. Culture is one thing, economic issues [are] something quite different. Using cultural exchanges to punish other countries is something China does quite frequently. It’s symbolic, it’s quite easy to do, it doesn’t impose a lot of costs for China,” Jerden said.
“But if you move into restrictions when it comes to economic relations in general – and the ambassador openly declaring it – it is certainly an escalation. “In recent years, China wants to spread its voice around the world, and oppose unacceptable criticism against China. They [China] feel themselves in a defensive position, in some ways.”
A day after Gui made his declaration, the Chinese ambassador to Canada, Cong Peiwu, warned Ottawa of “very firm countermeasures” if the Canadian parliament pressed ahead with a call for sanctions over alleged Chinese human rights abuses against Muslim Uygurs in Xinjiang and pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
“[If bills are adopted], it suddenly would be a very serious violation of Chinese domestic affairs under such pretext of human rights or democracy,” Cong said.
Similar legislation in the United States in the last fortnight also triggered a heated response from China’s ambassador in the US, Cui Tiankai.
“Some people in this country are pointing fingers at the governing party and the national system of China, trying to rebuild the Berlin Wall between China and the US in the economic, technological and ideological fields,” Cui said on Wednesday in Washington.
Ingrid d’Hooghe, a senior fellow at the China Centre of the Netherlands Institute of International Relations Clingendael, said that while it was not new for Chinese ambassadors to express their thoughts publicly, the comments were becoming more frequent and intense.
“China is not only more actively projecting its power by promoting political and governance ideas abroad – where in the past they promoted Chinese culture as the best source for building its soft power – but they have also taken to the idea that in some cases, an attack is the best defence,” d’Hooghe said.
She said China’s confidence about its international presence and discontent with other countries and media outlets were growing, and it was now responding to hot-button issues such as Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
“Beijing feels they are under attack on these issues, by foreign governments and by – as they see it– ‘unfair and biased’ reporting in the media,” she said.