China’s arrest of Peter Dahlin marks ominous new stage in crackdown

Swedish PM Löfven meets Xi Jinping in Beijing, March 2015.

“China is entering a dark night of repression and detentions under Xi Jinping” – Chinese activist in Sweden

On 3 January human rights activist and Swedish citizen Peter Dahlin was taken into detention by Chinese security agents. Early official reports said Dahlin, who lived in Beijing and whose Chinese wife has also been arrested, was being held on “suspicion of endangering national security”. This case represents a chilling new stage in Xi Jinping’s sweeping authoritarian crackdown. It follows the apparent abduction by Chinese security forces of five Hong Kong book publishers – including another Swedish citizen Gui Minhai who disappeared while in Thailand – all of whom are now in detention in China.

Swedish authorities were refused access to Dahlin for a fortnight and the Chinese side refused to give information on where he was being held or whether he was receiving medicine for a rare illness. Like many other victims of state repression he has not been allowed to see a lawyer. These actions by the Chinese state contravene international agreements. “The denial of consular communication is a direct violation of Chinese law and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. Furthermore, that the authorities have continued to conceal Peter’s whereabouts could amount to an enforced disappearance, a violation of international law,” said a statement from the NGO that Dahlin works for, Chinese Urgent Action Working Group (CUAWG).

Swedish NGO activist Peter Dahlin arrested in China.
Swedish NGO activist Peter Dahlin arrested in China.

Against ‘Western values’

Dahlin’s case is clearly not an isolated incident and could be connected to at least two other trends in China today, the mass arrest of human rights lawyers and legal workers that began in July last year, and the new ‘Foreign NGO Management Law’ that Xi’s regime is enacting. This law seeks to block overseas funding for NGOs in China and further hamstring their operations.

These measures are part of the most severe crackdown in China for a quarter century. “China is entering a dark night of repression and detentions,” says Da Hua Zhao, who is organising a protest demanding Dahlin’s release at the Swedish parliament.

“The targets are the green shoots of civil society, bloggers, labour activists and others who challenge the control of the dictatorship – even those who work within the system and haven’t broken any laws. The government wants to show it can do whatever it wants and doesn’t care what other governments or media say,” he says.

With the Chinese dictatorship displaying increasing fears over possible mass unrest – the crackdown is undoubtedly linked to the latest economic turbulence – all such groupings are branded in nationalistic terms as representatives of ‘Western values’. Foreign NGO activists like Dahlin therefore make a useful additional target to underline the regime’s anti-foreigner narrative. “That Peter is a foreigner points to a serious escalation in this assault on the legal aid profession in China,” a CUAWG spokesperson told the New York Times. Chinese state media report that CUAWG is a “US-based NGO” – a claim it says is completely untrue.

Since July, more than 300 lawyers, staff members of law firms, and other activists have been detained and interrogated. In the past week, serious charges have been pressed against ten of these lawyers, indicating trials in which a guilty verdict will be a foregone conclusion. In China’s court system 98 percent of defendants are found guilty – 100 percent in high profile political trials. An open letter published in the Guardian newspaper from 20 international lawyers and jurists expresses the – reasonable – fear that the detained lawyers have faced a “high risk of torture or other cruel and inhumane treatments.”


The ten lawyers face charges of “subversion of state power” – an extremely serious charge that can lead to a life sentence. Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Prize winner who was given an 11 year prison sentence in 2009, was charged with the lesser offence of “inciting subversion of state power”. This is a measure of how Xi has raised the stakes as far as state repression is concerned.

Those now charged include Wang Yu, who defended one of the ‘Feminist Five’ who were arrested last March but then released after worldwide protests. Among the others are Wang’s husband Bao Longjun, and Zhou Shifeng, the founder of the Fengrui law firm in Beijing. Fengrui has irked the Chinese dictatorship by assisting victims in sensitive cases such as the toxic milk scandal of 2008, in which 300,000 children were poisoned and eight died.

“Fengrui and its team of lawyers are now being smashed by the dictatorship. It is a massive frame-up in order to scare others,” says activist Da Hua.

Dahlin’s case could well be linked to the state’s persecution of the human rights lawyers. His friends say he had become worried before his arrest. “His name had come up in the interrogation of a human rights lawyer a few days prior to his detention,” a co-worker said. According to Sweden’s Radio, Dahlin is now accused of “financing criminal activity” – which can mean anything the Chinese regime disapproves of.

Gui Minhai appears in bizarre scripted TV interview after going missing for 4 months.
Gui Minhai appears in bizarre scripted TV interview after going missing for 4 months.

Hong Kong abductions

The disappearance of five Hong Kong publishers, which has triggered protests and a new political crisis for the territory’s Beijing-appointed government, also represents an escalation of Beijing’s crackdown. As with Dahlin’s arrest it marks the ‘globalisation’ of Xi’s repression with little regard to how overseas governments may react. The five, who specialise in gossip-style books about the Chinese leadership, have all disappeared under mysterious circumstances in the past four months. They were reportedly planning a new book about Xi Jinping’s sex life, which could have been the trigger for their abduction.

The apparent brains behind the new Xi book, Gui Minhai, who became a Swedish citizen while living in Gothenburg, was according to his daughter illegally abducted last October in Thailand. The Thai military junta have close ties with Beijing. Gui made a tearful and obviously scripted appearance on Chinese state television on Sunday, saying he was in China of his own free will and urging the Swedish government not to intervene. He also said he hoped there would be no protests or “malicious media hype” about his case.

Gui’s TV appearance has all the hallmarks of Stalin’s show trials – lacking any logic or credibility. He claimed he voluntarily went to China to make amends after absconding ten years ago, when he was given a two-year suspended sentence following a fatal car accident. But then why go via Thailand? Why the secrecy for four months? And in what way does Gui’s story explain the disappearance of his his four fellow publishers at the same time? It is a well-known method of the Chinese state – in addition to torture, extrajudicial confinement and other forms of pressure – to offer a more lenient punishment if a suspect ‘cooperates’ by incriminating themselves. Studies show that confessions feature heavily in 95 percent of criminal indictments in China.

Sweden’s ‘muted’ response

The use of gangster methods, threats and blackmail to frame its opponents also extends to how the Chinese dictatorship manages relations with other governments. The New York Times notes the response of Swedish authorities has been “muted” over Dahlin’s disappearance and arrest. Again this is not an isolated occurrence but part of a pattern. Swedish governments have been desperate not to upset Beijing and incur economic punishments. Norway’s experience after it awarded the Nobel peace prize to Liu Xiaobo is a case in point – with China freezing its political relations with Oslo and threatening to boycott Norwegian goods. Subsequently, Norway refused a visit by the Tibetan religious leader, Dalai Lama, in order to please Beijing. David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, promised not to re-offend, after angering Beijing by meeting the Dalai Lama in 2012. Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven took things one step further on a visit to China last year. Pressed repeatedly by a journalist, Löfven refused to call China a “dictatorship” preferring to say it was a “one-party state”.

The escalation of repression in China, and the latest wave of arrests, must be resisted both at home and internationally. In this struggle Chinese activists can only rely on the support and sympathy of fellow activists and grassroots working people around the world. It is ironic that while the Chinese regime pumps out propaganda claiming foreign capitalist governments want to undermine it and instigate protests in China, these governments prove to be its most reliable allies in seeking to maintain “stability” and failing to protest against vicious authoritarian repression.

Swedish PM Löfven meets Xi Jinping in Beijing, March 2015.
Swedish PM Löfven meets Xi Jinping in Beijing, March 2015.