n evolving diplomatic tiff between China and Sweden only got more surreal over the weekend as a Swedish comedy program put itself in the crossfire with a segment satirizing bad behavior by Chinese tourists, striking a nerve among netizens.
If you haven’t been following this whole imbroglio as it has unfolded over the past few weeks, the details bear repeating.
China has accused Swedish police of human rights violations stemming from a head-scratching incident that took place earlier this month. Shortly after midnight on September 2nd, a Chinese tourist surnamed Zeng arrived at a Stockholm hostel with his elderly parents, roughly fourteen hours before their slated check-in time. The hostel was reportedly unwilling to let the Zeng family wait in the lobby for their rooms to become available, even for a fee. When they refused to leave, staff called the police, at which point narratives of what transpired begin to diverge.
Zeng claims that his father, sixty-seven years old and suffering from cardiovascular disease, was forcibly removed from the hostel by police and thrown on the pavement outside. Strange footage of this scene later surfaced on social media, but it does little to corroborate Zeng’s story. One video shows officers carrying an elderly man outside and gently placing him on the sidewalk as Zeng wails off camera, “This is killing.” Another captures Zeng’s father curled up on the pavement, his mother raising her arms and bawling “Save us!”
By Zeng’s account, armed back-up soon arrived at the scene, herded the family into a police car, and deposited them at a remote graveyard after about an hour’s drive, during which his parents were allegedly beaten. He told the state-run Global Times “the police threatened to abandon them in the woods to stay with the animals… the temperature was lower than 10 degrees Celsius, so he and his parents huddled together for warmth in the dark as they heard the sounds of animals.” After half an hour or so, someone picked them up and gave them a lift back into the center of Stockholm.
“I could not imagine this happening in any modern country,” Zeng said, “especially Sweden, the hometown of the Nobel Prize.”
In fact, as Swedish journalist Jojje Olsson later clarified, the “graveyard” where police supposedly left the family for dead was actually the Woodland Cemetery Metro Station, a transit hub that takes its name from a nearby world heritage site shaped like a graveyard. Located less than four miles away from the hostel, the metro stop is, according to Stockholm chief prosecutor Mats Ericsson, “a common place for the police to drive people who have been disturbing the social order.”
Zeng has demanded an official apology, punitive action against the officers involved, and compensation from the Stockholm Police Department. The Chinese embassy has issued a safety warning for Chinese travelers in Sweden and released a statement condemning the police for having “severely endangered the life and violated the basic human rights of Chinese citizens.”
As the controversial incident went viral on social media last week, escalating tensions elicited netizen reactions ranging from sympathetic to nonplussed to derisive. Some clucked at the Swedish police for their callous treatment of the elderly. Others framed the Zeng family’s behavior as melodramatic and performative. As reported by What’s on Weibo, several commenters went so far as to say, “They might as well have buried them at the graveyard.”
Netizen bloggers also contextualized the Chinese embassy’s sharp response as a disproportionate reaction to recent political tidings. Some speculated that China was retaliating against Sweden for recently hosting the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing has labeled a separatist terrorist.
The Swedish comedy sketch that aired on Friday drew a less equivocal response from netizens. According to What’s on Weibo, the segment functioned as a “satirical ‘information video” that listed “a number of do’s and don’ts for Chinese tourists.” Among those cited by What’s on Weibo are several that play off of caricatured tropes: i.e. don’t take a shit by a historical landmark, and don’t confuse pet dogs for lunch.
The Chinese embassy issued a statement condemning the program and its host, Jesper Rönndahl, for “spread[ing] and advocat[ing] racism and xenophobia outright, and openly provok[ing] and instigat[ing] racial hatred.” “To think,” it went on, “that such things could happen in Sweden, an advocate of ethnic equality!” It also took issue with a map of China featured in the program in which Taiwan and parts of Tibet were noticeably absent. A Global Times article lambasted the broadcaster for its “abusive words and incorrect maps,” a sentiment that was strongly echoed on Weibo.