The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China’s row with Sweden over a ‘racist’ TV skit has citizens urging boycotts of Ikea and H&M

Host Jesper Ronndahl of Svenska Nyheter, or Swedish News, a satirical news segment on SVT, presents a 10-minute segment on the controversy surrounding Chinese tourists. (SVT)

BEIJING — It started as a relatively standard, if somewhat melodramatic, dispute over a family of Chinese tourists in Sweden and a hotel reservation. Now, amid jokes about eating dogs and pooping in public places, it’s descended into a full-blown diplomatic incident. There are even calls for Chinese consumers to boycott Swedish brands such as Ikea, H&M and Volvo in retaliation.

It all started when a Chinese family with the surname Zeng arrived at the Generator Hostel in Stockholm before midnight on Sept. 1, even though their reservation was for Sept. 2. They thought they could hang out in the lobby until check-in time at 2 p.m. the next day.

The hostel staff had other ideas and asked the family to leave until their reservation began. The family refused, and the staff called police, who physically removed the family from the lobby.

Video from the scene shows police carrying out one man, and another man and a woman lying on the sidewalk, crying theatrically. A man can be heard yelling in English: “This is killing!”

The video lit up the Chinese Internet, and the nationalist Global Times newspaper quoted the son as saying his parents were beaten up by the police and the whole family was driven to a remote graveyard and left there in the dark.

The Swedish version of events was quite different.

A man who watched the family being kicked out of the hostel told Sweden’s biggest newspaper, Aftonbladet, that the police tried to calm down the situation while the Chinese family just “shouted and screamed.” The son’s behavior was particularly strange, suddenly just “throwing himself flat on the ground,” according to the InBeijing blog run by the Swedish journalist Jojje Olsson.

They were then driven to a subway station with the name Woodland Cemetery after a UNESCO heritage site. It is “within walkable distance from the very center of Stockholm” and a common place for depositing people who have behaved badly in the center of the city, the blogger wrote.

But the incident escalated, with China demanding an official apology from Sweden for the mistreatment of its citizens.

“Why were the Chinese tourists treated so brutally and tossed at a graveyard in a desolate place by the police when they did not break any Swedish law?” Gui Congyou, the Chinese ambassador to Sweden, asked in an interview with Aftonbladet. “Why has the police not informed the Chinese Embassy and not responded to our requests for a meeting?”

These melodramatic scenes might seem ripe for satirizing. That’s exactly what the people at Swedish News, a comedy show on SVT, Sweden’s national public TV broadcaster, did. Swedish News features a satirical news segment, much like the “Weekend Update” segment on “Saturday Night Live.”

In it, presenter Jesper Ronndahl delivered a 10-minute-long segment about the whole debacle that was apparently meant to be funny. It ended with a spoof video that the Swedish News team made and said they uploaded onto Youku, the Chinese version of YouTube. (We checked Youku and the video is not there — it’s not clear whether it was ever uploaded, or if Youku took it down.)

The spoof video opens with a woman saying, “Here are a few tips to avoid cultural clashes.”

“For example, we do not poop outside historic buildings. And if you see someone who’s out walking a dog, it’s not because they just bought lunch,” she continued, alluding to the cliche that Asians regularly eat dogs and to old reports that Chinese tourists had defecated outside the Louvre museum in Paris. This part of the report was illustrated with a sign of a person in a Chinese-style hat squatting and pooping while eating out of a bowl with chopsticks.

Then, in what was probably meant to be another attempt at humor, she went on: “Another important cultural difference is that you Chinese are racists. And here in Sweden, there are black people, Jews, Arabs and even homosexuals.”

Well, this rubbed salt into the wound. China’s Foreign Ministry in Beijing and its embassy in Stockholm decried the segment as a show of racism and demanded an apology.

Ronndahl responded by posting a photo of the Chinese Embassy statement on Twitter and Instagram and saying, “I started a diplomatic crisis with a superpower.”

In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the program was “a gross insult to and vicious attack on China and the Chinese people” and that it was “full of prejudices, biases and provocations against China.”

The whole incident is now huge on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, where posts with the hashtag “Swedish TV humiliating China” have been read 150 million times.

Numerous Weibo users, including Liu Chun, a journalism professor with 8.5 million followers on the site, have urged Chinese consumers to boycott Swedish companies.

Others urged a boycott of Swedish fashion chain H&M and even Volvo, the car company that was originally Swedish but is now owned by Geely, a Chinese company.

Chinese Internet users have even been able to get over the Great Firewall to post comments on the Facebook pages of the Swedish Embassy in Beijing and Swedish broadcaster SVT. Facebook is officially blocked in China.

China didn’t accept that the show was “humor,” reported the People’s Daily, a state-run newspaper.

“It cast the behavior of individual tourists as a ‘culture clash’ and portrayed the Chinese people in insulting ways,” the paper wrote. “It is hard to imagine that such ‘humor’ was allowed on public television in a country that is essentially the definition of a ‘multicultural society.' ”

As the incident dragged on, SVT apologized in a bid to stop the bleeding.

“The purpose of the short segment published on Youku was to gather Chinese reactions. This was a mistake, as the entirety of our message and ambition was then lost,” said Thomas Hall, head of entertainment at SVT, according to the Hong Kong Free Press. “We recognize that this may have been an insult, for which we are truly sorry.”

But it was not enough. In a commentary published Wednesday, Dong Yifan, a researcher at the state-backed China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, saw a larger conspiracy.

“Behind these actions, there are official and diplomatic moves,” he wrote, adding that Swedish authorities were “ignoring the larger picture of bilateral relations between China and Sweden.”

“If Sweden fails to adhere to the bottom line of treating each other equally and mutually respecting each other in all aspects of relations, bilateral relations and people-to-people exchanges might veer off their normal track and damage the common interests of the two peoples,” he wrote.

But elsewhere, analysts see a link between the Chinese government’s vehement reaction and the fact that Sweden has been pushing for the release of Gui Minhai, a China-born publisher with Swedish citizenship who has been detained since January. Gui was previously detained after publishing unflattering books about Chinese leaders.

Gui was traveling on a Beijing-bound train with two Swedish diplomats when police swarmed the car, dragged him away and charged him with giving state secrets to “overseas groups.” The Swedish government has continued to press for Gui’s release, while Beijing has told Stockholm to stop its “rude and unreasonable interference in China’s judicial sovereignty.”

In fact, the satirical Swedish News poked fun at the Swedish government for putting its trading relationship with China ahead of its concerns for Gui.

But the blowup also comes amid an “unprecedented propaganda offensive” from the Chinese ambassador to Sweden, according to Bjorn Jerden and Viking Bohman of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. “Swedish commentaries on everything from the Belt and Road Initiative to the treatment of Tibetans to the imprisonment of the Swedish citizen Gui Minhai have been portrayed as the product of a misunderstanding of facts or ‘hidden agenda,’ ” they wrote in the South China Morning Post. This appeared to be part of a wider push by China against European criticism of its actions, they wrote.

“Friction is imminent when a more proactive and authoritarian China confronts exasperated European countries. China’s handling of its ‘Sweden problem’ might tell us a great deal about what is to come in the Europe-China relations.”

Yang Liu contributed to this report.