A Chinese Catchphrase in Sweden
China’s language about the building of a “community of destiny” hasn’t gained much ground in Sweden. But it will have to compete for space with the Swedish-Finnish brotherhood.
Ever since the notion of a “community of common destiny for mankind,” or renlei mingyun gongtongti (人类命运共同体), began slowly making the rounds in Chinese policy statements in 2014 and 2015, Sweden’s Embassy in Beijing has opted for the official English-language translations offered by the China’s foreign ministry and other authorities. But in the spring of 2015, a political officer (PO) at the embassy took a crack at translating the concept into Swedish. The result was mänsklighetens ödesgemenskap, literally “mankind’s community of destiny” or “the common destiny of mankind.” The embassy used the term for the first time in an internal newsletter in May 2015.
The translator’s objective was to be as true to the Chinese term as possible, hence the inclusion of both mänsklighet for “mankind” (人类), öde for “destiny”(命运) and gemenskap for “community” (共同体).
A few months later, the Chinese authorities chose to modify the official English translation of the phrase, replacing the rather inexorable sense implied in “destiny” with the more indefinite term “future.” And so Xi Jinping, the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, spoke in his first policy address at the United Nations of a “community of shared future for mankind.” Given that the original Chinese phrase remained focused on “destiny,” or mingyun, rather than the future (weilai), the Swedish embassy decided not to budge on its chosen translation.
Despite the insistence of China’s official People’s Daily newspaper that this foreign policy concept is “growing more influential by the day,” the Chinese notion of a “community of common destiny” remains more or less unknown in Sweden. The Swedish translation mänsklighetens ödesgemenskap (“mankind’s community of destiny”) has yet to appear in Swedish media reports. A search for the phrase in Mediearkivet, the Nordic region’s largest media archive, fails to turn up a single result.
But the phrase is not entirely alien either — although the reasons why may not necessarily work in China’s favor.
Despite the insistence of China’s official People’s Daily newspaper that this foreign policy concept is “growing more influential by the day,” the Chinese notion of a “community of common destiny” remains more or less unknown in Sweden.
The second half of the Swedish phrase, “community of destiny” (ödesgemenskap), returns nearly 600 hits in the media archive. These refer not to the Chinese Communist Party’s foreign policy concept, but rather to the close relationship between Sweden and Finland. This “common destiny” is all about the historic connection the Nordic neighbors have vis-à-vis Russia, not least in terms of being brothers in arms facing up against the common threat of a great power to the east.
Swedish history professor Kristian Gerner of Lund University noted in 2004 that “the Finnish-Swedish community of destiny” has been widely used also in the 21st century, but mainly by Finnish scholars and policymakers. It has rarely appeared in contemporary Swedish discourse.
Few Swedes are likely aware of the fact that the notion of a broader Nordic “community of destiny” in fact forms part of a racial theory that developed in Germany during the first decades of the 1900s. According to this idea, “peoples of Nordic race” (“nordrassische Völker”) were bound together in a “community of destiny.” In the 1930s, this notion was picked up and developed further by Nazi racial theorists including Heinrich Himmler, Hitler’s minister for the interior, and Nazi Party ideologue Alfred Rosenberg.
Ödesgemenskap as a Swedish Priority
More recently, ödesgemenskap has played a prominent role in the Statement of Foreign Policy of 2015 by the Swedish Social Democrat Party-led Government. As Foreign Minister Margot Wallström read the statement in the Riksdag, Sweden’s national legislature, she asserted that, “We share a common destiny, and we do so at a time of greater insecurity.” While the wording “common destiny” appeared in the official English translation of the government’s statement, the language Wallström actually used was ödesgemenskap, or “community of destiny.”
After outlining the government’s main policy priorities, including global challenges such as poverty, climate change and terrorism, the foreign minister underlined that Sweden’s foreign and security policy should be “guided by the necessity of common security and the realization that we share a common destiny (ödesgemenskap); where my destiny is your destiny, and the destiny of others is our own.”
Using ödesgemenskap in this context, Wallström seemed to decouple the term from its more traditional connotations, notably Sweden’s historically close relations with Finland, let alone Nazi racial theories. It now referred instead to the imperative of joint efforts to tackle global challenges. In this sense, the Foreign Minister had unwittingly moved closer to Xi Jinping’s line of thought — though this was almost certainly not her intention. This nuance, moreover, went entirely unnoticed by Swedish observers, who in general lack knowledge of the rhetoric of the Chinese Communist Party.
The person who had inspired Wallström’s usage of ödesgemenskap was, however, not Xi Jinping but a Swede and a fellow Social Democrat, namely late Prime Minister Olof Palme. Speaking at a February 2016 memorial for Palme — who was assassinated in central Stockholm in 1986, a crime still unsolved — Sweden’s current Prime Minister, Stefan Löfven, noted that his predecessor “often spoke of the modern world’s ‘common destiny’.” Löfven interpreted the concept as “global developments that are often beyond national control,” such as “climate change, war, terrorism and persecution,” and “the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War.”
Palme’s rhetoric also seems to have inspired the language in the 1990 Social Democrat Party manifesto, which reads that, “On the threshold of the 21st century, all of mankind has been joined together in a community of destiny.” The manifesto stresses that “all countries and peoples of the world” have become dependent on each other for their survival and development: “In no way can the future of Swedish society, our own possibilities to live and develop, be realized in isolation from the outside world. Mankind’s common matters of destiny are also ours.”
As a footnote, it is perhaps worth mentioning that Sweden’s far-right party, the Sweden Democrats, have also mentioned the term ödesgemenskap, or “common destiny,” as something of a synonym for the idea of Swedish-ness and a shared Swedish identity.
Also on the fringes, the Schiller Institute, the right-wing political think tank established in Wiesbaden, Germany, by Helga Zepp-LaRouche, the wife of the late American millionaire and “cult figure” Lyndon LaRouche, has actively worked in Sweden to promote Chinese policies such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Gui Congyou (桂从友), China’s ambassador to Sweden, addressed an event in Stockholm in May 2018 hosted by the institute, which was called “The Significance of China’s Belt and Road Initiative for World Economic Development.”
The Schiller Institute has introduced several of its own variations of China’s renlei mingyun gongtongti, including “ett nytt paradigm för mänskligheten” (a new paradigm for mankind) and “gemenskap för mänsklighetens gemensamma framtid” (community for the common future of mankind).
Given the link between the Swedish notion of a “community of destiny” and the late Prime Minister Olof Palme, it might also be noted that Palme had been subjected to poisonous attacks by LaRouche publications in Sweden and the United States before his assassination — and the European Workers’ Party (EAP), a right-wing Swedish political party affiliated to LaRouche, was briefly investigated in 1986 for possible involvement in Palme’s death. LaRouche’s vehement denials of any involvement are archived on the Schiller Institute website.
As the concept of a “community of destiny” is already part of the Swedish vocabulary, it might not seem a huge step for Sweden to adopt the Chinese “community of common destiny for mankind” as proposed by Xi Jinping. After all, Swedish observers might simply interpret the term as pointing to the need to create a community to jointly tackle global challenges and threats to the subsistence of humanity, such as those outlined by Minister Wallström in 2015.
However, Swedish policymakers and journalists have become far more conscious in recent years of the pitfalls of adopting Beijing’s rhetoric on global matters. This is particularly true in light of bilateral relations with China in 2018, which soured considerably. Critical debate in Sweden about China’s global objectives and priorities has taken off.
A spate of incidents in recent years shaped Swedish concerns about China, the most alarming being the disappearance of Swedish publisher Gui Minhai in October 2015, his apparent forced confession on Chinese state television in January 2016, and his detention without a trial in China since. Swedish parliamentarians have criticized the Chinese government for issues ranging from the detention of members of the Uighur minority in “indoctrination camps” to China’s industrial espionage and forced technology transfer.
Meanwhile, the Chinese embassy in Sweden has issued dozens of statements since June 2018 criticizing Swedish media for their China coverage.