What damage could a single Chinese family do to Sweden’s economy?
Beijing media worker Wang Ming had previously not thought about visiting Sweden – but now he is sure he never will.
“Since a Chinese citizen’s mistreatment at the hands of Swedish police, I have now crossed Sweden off the list of potential travel destinations for me and my family,” said Wang, using a pseudonym. “There’s no need to put ourselves in a strange country and environment that might be uncomfortable.”
Wang’s decision follows a dispute between a Chinese family visiting Stockholm and Swedish police that escalated into a diplomatic incident.
On September 2, a man, identified only by his surname Zeng, and his parents had arrived at the Generator Stockholm hostel in the Swedish capital just after midnight, 14 hours before check-in time.
They were refused permission to wait at the lobby and later forcefully removed from the hostel by Swedish police, according to Zeng. Footage of the man screaming at the police officers outside the hostel was later posted online.
In the days that followed, the Chinese embassy in Sweden condemned the Swedish police’s conduct and warned Chinese visiting the country.
Then on Friday, a news channel on Sweden’s national broadcaster Sveriges Television (SVT) aired a satirical video listing a number of dos and don’ts for Chinese tourists.
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The clip featured signs discouraging Chinese tourists – represented as figures in farmer’s hats – from defecating on the streets, and advised them not to mistake pet dogs for lunch.
The programme prompted the Chinese embassy to lash out again, accusing the programme and presenter Jesper Rönndahl of “spreading and advocating racism and xenophobia outright”.
The embassy also issued a fresh warning to its citizens travelling to Sweden.
On Monday night, China’s digital warriors scaled the Great Firewall to descend upon the Facebook pages of the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, SVT and Rönndahl.
Members of an online forum of people who spam those who “insult China” left thousands of negative comments on those pages. Behind the firewall, there were calls across Chinese social media for people to not travel to Sweden.
Others called on patriotic Chinese citizens to boycott Ikea, a Swedish furniture chain popular in China.
“We should voluntarily boycott Sweden, make them sorry for what they’ve done,” one internet user wrote on China’s Twitter-like service Weibo.
But other commenters criticised the Chinese family and said there was no need to hit back at Sweden.
Travel and tourism revenue accounted for less than a tenth of Sweden’s gross domestic product last year, according to data from the World Travel and Tourism Council. But more Chinese tourists are visiting the country as they travel farther and more frequently.
Sweden was one of the top 10 destinations with the fastest growth of Chinese tourist numbers in the first half of the year, according to the Beijing-based China Tourism Academy.
And in the first half of 2017, Chinese tourists spent about 153,000 room nights in the country – up almost 20 per cent year over year – according to Li Chunmei, chief representative of Visit Sweden in China.
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However, despite the online onslaught, industry veterans and analysts said that the impact on Sweden would be minor, if any. China was also unlikely to take action on Swedish firms over the incident, according to Shanghai University international relations professor Jiang Shixue.
Liu Simin, a tourism researcher at Beijing Foreign Languages University, said that Sweden did not rely on tourism, let alone visitors from China.
“Sweden is far from China and its costs are high, so very few Chinese people travel there in the first place. It’s not such a popular travel destination among the Chinese,” Liu said.
But Björn Jerdén, head of the Asia programme of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, called it too early to tell if the incident would have any economic impact on Sweden.
There is a precedent of action for what Beijing deems politically sensitive issues having economic consequences, as has been the case for countries hosting the Dalai Lama, who visited Sweden this month but did not meet any high-level officials.
A 2013 study in the Journal of International Economics found that between 2002 and 2008 countries that received the Dalai Lama at the highest political level had an average fall in exports to China of roughly 17 per cent.
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Norway’s salmon exports to China took a hit after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Liu Xiaobo, according to a 2015 study published in the journal Asian Perspective.
Even if China takes no official action, public sentiment can land punches.
In 2016 and 2017, an unofficial public boycott of South Korean goods in protest against Seoul’s deployment of a US-backed missile shield brought the South Korean conglomerate Lotte to its knees in China.
According to South Korean daily Chosun, the chain suffered an operating loss of around US$140 million in China in those two years.
Additional reporting by Keegan Elmer