BEIJING—The detention and televised confession of political crimes by a Swedish activist in China has sent chills through communities of foreigners that engage in civic issues in the country.
Beijing’s public shaming of Peter Dahlin is a sign that China’s leaders may now be trying to muzzle international critics with the same tactics they’ve deployed against local dissidents, say activists, lawyers and academics.
In footage that was played repeatedly by state broadcaster China Central Television on Wednesday, Mr. Dahlin is shown admitting to having broken Chinese laws through a small legal-aid nonprofit he co-founded in 2009.
“I have caused harm to the Chinese government, I have hurt the feelings of the Chinese people,” Mr. Dahlin says in the video. “I apologize sincerely for this and am very sorry that this ever happened.”
State media reports accused the Swede of endangering state security—a serious crime that carries a potential life-sentence—by funding Chinese human-rights lawyers and compiling reports on China’s rights record. They also alleged that hostile foreign forces planted Mr. Dahlin in China.
In a statement on Thursday, a spokesman for Mr. Dahlin’s nonprofit, called the China Urgent Action Working Group, dismissed the allegations as baseless and suggested his confession had been coerced. The charges show “the authorities consider the promotion of human rights through public interest litigation to be a criminal activity,” said Michael Caster, the spokesman.
The Swedish Embassy in Beijing noted the media reports about Mr. Dahlin but declined to comment further. Swedish officials “continue to work intensively” on Mr. Dahlin’s detention, an embassy spokeswoman said.
China’s Foreign Ministry has said it is respecting Mr. Dahlin’s legal rights, including granting consular officials access to him.
Televised confessions are increasingly common in China, but rare for foreigners and even more so for political crimes. In 2013, Charles Xue, a Chinese-American businessman who criticized the government online, confessed on TV to soliciting prostitutes. The same year, Peter Humphrey, a British investigator involved in a business dispute, confessed on TV to illegally obtaining personal information on Chinese citizens for profit. Both men were detained and then released, Mr. Humphrey after nearly two years.
This image from Chinese TV shows Peter Dahlin, the Swedish co-founder of a nonprofit in China, confessing to political crimes that his advocates say was coerced. PHOTO: CCTV VIA AP VIDEO
Mr. Dahlin’s disappearance in early January and subsequent reappearance on television two weeks later has stoked anxiety among other foreigners working on Chinese civil society issues, including in areas previously seen as less sensitive, such as anti-discrimination.
“This is a red alert. It’s super red,” said one former country director of a foreign nonprofit in China.
The portrayal of Mr. Dahlin as an instrument of hostile foreign forces comes amid a resurgence in Maoist ideological rhetoric and heightened concern in China over the influence of foreign ideas.
Much of Beijing’s attention has focused on the influence of foreign civic groups, which Beijing fears could be trying to foment unrest of the sort that toppled regimes in the former Soviet Union and more recently in the Middle East. Foreign media coverage, textbooks and scholarship have also come under attack in state media.
Jeffrey Wasserstrom, an expert in modern Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine, said the treatment of Mr. Dahlin illustrates the growing difficulty of determining where Beijing’s political red lines are—and the harsher punishments meted out for crossing them.
“There are many cases where things that seemed relatively unproblematic to do a few years ago or even 12 months ago have gotten people into trouble,” he said. “The system has always been far from purely rational and predictable, but now it is even more so.”
One key source of concern in Mr. Dahlin’s case, some foreigners say, is state media’s depiction of reports he wrote on China’s human-rights situation as being a part of his criminal activity. CCTV said reports Mr. Dahlin sent to foreign groups were based on data he collected online and hadn’t personally witnessed, raising questions over their accuracy.
Legal experts say these were likely standard memos that are required by nearly all major nonprofit donors.
“They make it seem like it’s some sinister foreign intelligence report when in fact it’s the most natural of observations about how money is being spent to improve human rights in China.” said Jerome Cohen, a veteran China legal scholar at New York University.
The segment also showed an interview with a member of China Urgent Action Working Group identified only by his surname, Wang, who said Mr. Dahlin twisted or fabricated facts in the reports. “In fact, the aim was to create a disturbance, to wait for the right moment to try to subvert our nation’s sovereignty and the leadership of the party,” the man said. Chinese activists identified the man as Wang Qiushi, a human-rights lawyer who was detained by police this month.
The criminalizing of negative reports about China could potentially curb the activities of not just activists, but academics, analysts, journalists and others involved in collecting and publishing information about China, legal experts said.
“One could well imagine that reports regarding health or other subjects like that which might be considered injurious, given the very broad definition China has of its national security, could also be subject to prosecution,” said Lester Ross, a lawyer with many years’ experience working in China.
Some in China have advocated using the country’s criminal laws to more aggressively counter international criticism of the country. In December, a website belonging to the Communist Youth League quoted legal scholar Zhu Wei arguing that a German citizen who had compared Mao Zedong to Hitler in a controversial YouTube video could be punished under Chinese law—even though he lives abroad.
Mr. Wasserstrom said a rising tide of official criticism might make it riskier to conduct some research in China and lead to self-censorship by younger scholars eager to maintain research access in the country.