Recently, a minor argument over check-in time between a visiting Chinese family and the staff of a hostel in Stockholm has escalated into a diplomatic spat between China and Sweden.
According to a mainland newspaper, a man named Zeng and his elderly parents arrived at the hostel in the early morning of Sept. 2, quite early for their 2 p.m. booking time.
However, Zeng later said, the hostel staff refused to let them stay in the lobby until their room was available, and even called the police to evict them.
Zeng said he and his parents were thrown out of the hotel by Swedish police officers and hauled into a police patrol vehicle, adding that his parents were beaten up.
He said they were then dumped at a cemetery dozens of kilometers away from downtown Stockholm.
The incident immediately drew the attention of the Chinese Embassy in Sweden, which issued two statements, one of which was a safety alert to future visitors to Sweden.
But as video clips of the incident came to light, it became increasingly apparent that Zeng wasn’t telling the whole truth.
The video clips made by witnesses and later released by local media show that the Zengs were escorted – not dragged as Zeng had alleged – out of the hostel by the police.
Neither Zeng nor his parents were pushed to the ground by the police as he had claimed. Instead, it appeared that it was Zeng himself who suddenly dropped to ground and started yelling, “This is killing!”
Zeng later also admitted that the hostel had initially agreed to let them stay in the lobby. It wasn’t until after he brought a female Chinese student studying in Sweden, who failed to find any place to stay for the night, into the lobby without any permission from the hostel staff that things began to get ugly.
Based on the available information, we can perhaps piece together the jigsaw puzzle and make a logical inference about what really happened that night:
The hostel staff kindly agreed to make an exception and allow Zeng and his parents to stay in the lobby.
Yet it appears someone could have abused that hospitality and brought another stranger on the street into the hostel, an act seen by the hostel staff as abusing their goodwill, and this eventually led to police intervention.
As to why Beijing appeared to have overreacted to this minor tourist row, some people in the Swedish government have speculated that it could have had something to do with the missing bookseller Gui Minhai.
Gui is a naturalized Swedish citizen who co-owned Causeway Bay Bookstore, which published books that were unpalatable to some Chinese political figures. He was allegedly abducted in Thailand in 2015 and then he re-appeared on Chinese state television in early 2016 confessing to a crime he had committed in the mainland about a decade earlier.
Stockholm also didn’t rule out the possibility that Beijing was deeply upset by the Dalai Lama’s recent visit to Sweden.
In an interview with a Swedish newspaper, the Chinese ambassador to Sweden, Gui Congyou, bewailed that “some Swedish forces, media and individuals are full of arrogance, bias, stereotype and ignorance against China”.
Whether or not Beijing’s concern about what happened to Zeng and his parents was politically motivated, we believe it is rather unlikely that the incident would draw widespread sympathy from the international community.
Even some Chinese commentators have raised doubts about the validity of Zeng’s accusations against the Swedish police, and suspected that the entire incident could have been blown out of proportion by him.
The saga is still unfolding. While the Swedish prosecution department concluded that the police did nothing wrong, Gui urged Swedish authorities to carry out a “thorough and immediate investigation” and promptly “respond to the Chinese citizens’ requests for punishment, apology and compensation”.
We believe, however, that the episode is unlikely to spin out of control. That’s because there are video clips of the incident, and they don’t appear to be working in Zeng’s and Beijing’s favor.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept 19
Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting
[Chinese version 中文版]
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