“Damned if you do, damned if you dont”? I won’t.
I had a very strange experience in Stockholm two weeks ago. What I thought was going to be a meeting about the Swedish government’s latest efforts to win my father’s release turned out to something quite different.
In my three years as an accidental, and somewhat reluctant activist, I’ve ended up in a fair number of bizarre situations. I usually opt not to talk about these. The magnitude of this most recent experience, however, forces me to take a different approach. Last week I gave a brief, and rather vague, interview to Swedish paper Svenska Dagbladet, which was later picked up by Hong Kong Free Press and Radio Free Asia. Since then there has been some speculation as to what really happened, as well as a statement on the Chinese Embassy in Sweden’s website denying any involvement and accusing me of fabrication to gain publicity (!). My apologies if the following generates publicity. But I think it’s time for me to fill in some of the blanks.
In mid-January I was contacted by Anna Lindstedt, Sweden’s ambassador to China. Her and I had been in quite frequent touch over the phone since her assignment two and a half years ago. She asked me to travel to Stockholm for around the 24th of January, saying there was ‘a new approach’ to my father’s case. She didn’t explain very much, but said that there were some businessmen she thought could help, and that they wanted to meet me in Stockholm. She’d join too, and these were people she trusted, she reassured me. She put me in touch with one of these men, and he offered to cover my flights and hotel, asking me to send him my passport details.
And so in the morning of Thursday the 24th I flew into Skavsta Airport. I got the bus to central Stockholm and checked into the hotel, where I would meet Ambassador Lindstedt and the two businessmen she wanted to introduce me to. They told me to get into their car, and drove to another hotel in the same area. We took the lift up to a members’ lounge which could only be accessed by card. With the exception of two other meetings I’d arranged separately, and restaurant meals with larger groups of people, we spent most of the Thursday and the following Friday in this hotel lounge. I was told that they needed me to ‘be around as much as possible’, but wasn’t given any reason for this. When I wanted to leave to see a friend on Thursday afternoon I was instructed to have my friend come see me in the lounge instead. The businessmen and the Ambassador had invited people to the lounge for meetings as well – well-known, respected Swedish China scholars. But nobody would tell me what was going on, or why it was what I had to be there. The businessmen spoke to me with a mix of flattery and reassurances that they were going to ‘help me’, without explaining how this help was going to be delivered — or indeed asking if any help was even required. Instead I was asked questions about my PhD studies and my personal life. There was only one key-card to access the lounge with, so whenever I needed to use the bathroom, which was downstairs, there would be somebody following me downstairs with the card so we could get back in. I was introduced to Swedish employees and partners of the two businessmen. There was a lot of wine, a lot of people, and a lot of increasingly strange questions. But because Ambassador Lindstedt was present and seemingly supportive of whatever it was that was going on, I kept assuming that this had been initiated by the Swedish Foreign Ministry. One of the businessmen had a habit of interrupting people’s sentences and finishing it for them, after which he would respond to his own attribution. This didn’t leave me much time or space to identify and articulate my growing feeling of unease. So I played along — joking, laughing, and answering their questions. After dinner on Thursday, this man told me I should go work with them in China; they could arrange a visa for me via the Chinese Embassy in Stockholm. I had potential, he said. He showed me a picture of them with Chinese ambassador to Sweden Gui Congyou. I politely declined.
The next day I was told that one of the businessmen had gone to the Chinese Embassy to ‘negotiate’ my father’s case on Sweden’s behalf. The man who offered me the visa told me that they had ‘connections within the Chinese Communist Party’. He said the Chinese ambassador was ‘on the phone to Beijing’, and that it was possible my father might be released. There would, however, need to be a trial first – in which my father might be sentenced to ‘a few years’ before he’d be allowed to come back home. In order for this to happen, I was told I needed to be quiet. I wasn’t to tell anyone about this, or say anything publicly about the case. I was also to stop all media engagement with it. I could give it a week, and if nothing had happened by then, I could resume the campaign activities — although later on in the conversation, the week was extended to two weeks, and then extended again to a month. The businessman said that ‘the Chinese’ were very angry with me. Ambassador Lindstedt, who was sat next to me, agreed to the plan. She said that if my father was released, she’d go on Swedish television and speak of the bright future of Sweden-China relations, as well as express regret over the Chinese tourist hotel incident in Stockholm last year, and the subsequent coverage of it on a Swedish comedy show. I asked the businessman why negotiations had been initiated without my knowledge or consent. I pointed out that he didn’t seem to have enough knowledge on the case to be handling negotiations. The businessman then raised his voice at me. He said I should have stopped an article about my father, written by someone else, which was published earlier that week. When I responded that I didn’t even know him or what he was planning to do when the article was published, he told me I should have ‘used my brain to figure out the logic’. He added that the ‘negotiations’ had been going on for two weeks, and asked me why I hadn’t told him everything I knew on the case. I was taken aback, and said I didn’t trust him. He then said, ‘you have to trust me, or you will never see your father again’. I asked him if he had ever successfully won a Chinese prisoner’s release. He told me no; however, he said, he had been to prison himself and had made it out — had he been my father, he would’ve been out by now. He began asking me questions like ‘what is most important to you? Your values or your father?’. When I pointed out that the businessman was being manipulative, Ambassador Lindstedt said she was sorry I felt that way. The businessman said, ‘you care about Anna [Ambassador Lindstedt], right? If you keep talking to the media it’ll damage her career. You don’t want her to come to any harm, do you?’. Ambassador Lindstedt added that China were adopting a new diplomatic line which meant that if activism and media coverage was to continue, China might ‘punish Sweden’. I responded saying I didn’t feel very good about this being my responsibility. She said it was ‘unfortunate’ that I’d had to take on so much responsibility since the very beginning. The ambassador also told me she believed this — commissioning two businessmen to negotiate on a sensitive case — was the best course of action, as the negotiations handled by the Foreign Ministry ‘didn’t seem to make much progress’. ‘Damned if you do, damned if you don’t’, she said.
In the end, it was 7pm and I desperately wanted to leave. I explained to them that I felt I they had painted me into a corner, but said I would reluctantly make the arrangements they’d requested, so I could head back to my hotel.
I must not have seemed very convincing, because the following morning one of the businessmen’s younger employees reached out to me wanting to meet up, in another attempt to convince me to be quiet. She said she felt sorry for me, as I’m having to deal with so much on my own (for some reason this woman didn’t think I had any friends). I said I would think about it, to get out of the situation.
As I left Stockholm, I wondered how much of this the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs was really aware of. Nothing at all, it turns out. When I rang up officials at the Ministry the following week, they told me they hadn’t had the slightest idea this whole affair was taking place. They hadn’t even been informed the ambassador was in the country.
When I messaged one of the businessmen afterwards saying I wasn’t actually interested in their offer, but that I needed to be reimbursed for my airfare (which I had ended up covering myself), he did not reply. There were also taxi, bus and food costs which I am guessing won’t be reimbursed either. Somehow my PhD student budget has ended up subsidising a government official’s rogue operation.
But for the record, I’m sorry to have initially misled. I’m not going to be quiet in exchange for a visa and an arbitrary promise that my father ‘might’ be released. Threats, verbal abuse, bribes, or flattery won’t change that.
Thanks for the offer, though.