Sweden and China have become embroiled in an unlikely diplomatic row after three Chinese tourists were thrown out of a hostel in Stockholm in an argument over check-in times.
Videos showing what China has described as the “brutal mistreatment” of a man and his elderly parents by Swedish police have been viewed more than 100 million people on social media, sparking a heated debate in the Chinese blogosphere.
The incident began innocently enough on 2 September, when a family identified as the Zengs arrived at the Generator Hostel in Stockholm one night before they had booked to stay.
The Zengs reportedly asked to wait out the night on the sofas in the hostel’s lobby, but were told they couldn’t and were asked to leave. When they objected, hostel staff called the police – at which point videos of the incident show Zeng being carried out by two officers, screaming in English: “This is killing, this is killing.”
Reactions on social media have been divided between those who question the Swedish police’s handling of the situation, and those who criticise the behaviour of the Zeng family. At one point in the videos, filmed by passers-by, all three are lying prone on the pavement calling out for “help” as the police officers stand around looking bemused.
The Chinese government, however, is taking the matter very seriously indeed. Two statements have been issued by the Chinese Embassy in Sweden, the first a safety alert warning would-be visitors to Sweden of incidents involving theft, robbery and poor treatment at the hands of the Swedish police.
The second statement ups the ante, explaining that China is “deeply appalled and angered by what happened and strongly condemns the behaviour of the Swedish police”. It claims: “What the police had done severely endangered the life and violated the basic human rights of the Chinese citizens.”
Representations have been made, it says, to the Swedish government both in Stockholm and in Beijing, and the Chinese government “cannot understand why the Swedish side has not given us any feedback”.
Sweden eventually issued a formal response, two days after the first Chinese embassy statement, saying it was aware of the incident and that a special prosecutor would be appointed “to determine whether the police have actually committed negligence or illegal acts”.
That appears not to go far enough for China’s liking, however. An editorial published on Sunday night by the state-run CGTN website said the incident called into doubt Sweden’s self-appointed role “as an arbiter of human rights”.
The police’s actions “raised questions over Sweden’s ability to protect human rights and conduct law enforcement in a civilised manner”, it said.
Some observers on Weibo – China’s closest equivalent to Twitter – have linked the dramatic escalation to the fact that the Dalai Lama visited Sweden last week. The Tibetan spiritual leader lives in exile in India, and is viewed by Beijing as a hostile separatist.
“The Dalai Lama visits Sweden and the foreign ministry uses this incident as a pretext to make a fuss,” wrote one user on Weibo, according to a translation by the The Guardian.
Another blogger, Ju Baiyu, wrote a post on WeChat comparing the tourists’ behaviour to that of “self-indulgent” Chinese shoppers who kick off their shoes and go to sleep in the beds in Ikea showrooms. “There may be 10 billion sofas in the world,” the commentator writes, “but only the sofas in your home belong to you.”
A spokesperson for the Generator Hostels chain said the company was still working to establish exactly what occurred in the exchange between the three Chinese tourists, hostel staff and the police.
“Our priority is always the health and wellbeing of our guests, and as far as we are concerned the Chinese tourists were our guests,” the spokesperson told The Independent. “We want to express how saddened we are by this situation, and are willing to work with both parties, the tourists and the police, to work out what happened here.”
By Adam Withnall