Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A series of diplomatic incidents has undone decades of work building Sweden-China relations.

Why it matters: Beijing's bullying behavior is a test case in how China treats less powerful countries that refuse to submit to its demands.

What's happening: Rising distrust has led Sweden to shut down cultural exchanges and other long-standing agreements.

  • Gothenburg, the second-largest city in Sweden, has canceled its friendship city agreement with Shanghai, which was first signed 34 years ago. Several other cities, including Västerås, Luleå, and Linköping, have also ended their relationships with Chinese cities.
  • Sweden closed all of its Confucius Institutes, a Chinese government-funded program that sets up Chinese language and culture centers in foreign universities but which has come under scrutiny for censoring discussion of topics that Beijing considers sensitive.

Background: The breakdown in relations began in 2015, when Chinese authorities kidnapped Gui Minhai, a Swedish citizen known for publishing books on sensitive Chinese political topics, and held him without trial for years.

  • The Swedish government expressed outrage in February when a Chinese court announced that Gui had renounced his Swedish citizenship on a supposedly voluntary basis, and sentenced him to 10 years in prison.
  • The case demonstrated a blatant disregard for international norms of citizenship and the rights of foreign governments to protect their citizens.

The Chinese ambassador to Sweden has threatened Swedish media outlets who reported critically on China, and implicitly threatened anyone who opposed Beijing.

  • “We treat our friends with fine wine, but for our enemies we have shotguns," said the ambassador on Swedish public radio in November 2019.

The bottom line: The Chinese Communist Party has hailed China's rise as a kinder, gentler world power that will deal with all countries with respect. But so far, its treatment of smaller nations is not reassuring.

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