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Malin Oud – human rights activist in Stockholm

Malin Oud is the Director of the China Program at the Raoul Wallenberg Institute for Human Rights in Stockholm.

Thirty years have passed since Malin Oud first backpacked to China at the age of 18. Most of her friends were going to India at the time. “But I always had to do things differently than the others,” Oud says with a smile.

On the Trans-Siberian Railway, the Swede embarks on a seven-month adventure trip to a country that, despite its slow opening since the 1980s, is still far from being open to Western mass tourism. “There were large parts of the country that you were not allowed to visit as a tourist, you slept in the corresponding hotels that were designated for tourists and paid with the tourist currency,” Oud recounts.

Personal stories about the Cultural Revolution

At the time, however, she knew hardly anything about China’s history – only that the young Chinese democracy movement had been violently suppressed in the heart of Beijing on Tiananmen Square just three years earlier. Only gradually, for example, through her studies at Yunnan University in Kunming, does she learn about China’s changing development over the past hundred years. It is the personal stories that her Chinese lecturers tell, for example about the time of the Cultural Revolution, that arouse Oud’s interest in the complicated subject of human rights in China.

Meanwhile, Oud heads the Stockholm office of the Raoul Wallenberg Institute for Human Rights (RWI) and serves as Director of the institute’s China program. In the early 2000s, she also built up and established a branch office in Beijing. She lived in Beijing for nine years. “This period was particularly interesting. At the beginning, China joined the World Trade Organization, and at the end, it hosted the Summer Olympics,” Oud says.

It’s also a good time for institutions like RWI, which wants to try building bridges between China and the West through partner programs with Chinese universities. “There was a relative openness and interest among the Chinese at that time to learn more about other countries and also about international human rights,” Oud says. However, the issue was sensitive even during that period.

Separation of politics and business not possible

In recent years, however, the room for this kind of cooperation in China has been shrinking, Oud says. The beginning was marked by “Document No. 9,” which was issued internally in the Party even before Xi Jinping took office. Since then, discussions about alternative government systems or independent journalism have been banned.

In response, the West has developed a strategy that separates politics from economics. Not a good idea, Oud said. “We can’t discuss human rights with China on Monday, and on Tuesday it’s business as usual.” It is important to Oud that the conflict between the West and China is not a clash between societies, but a competition of political systems.

In China, she met many people who also long for more freedom. “But change has to come from within. We can’t rely on sanctions or force respect for human rights on China,” says Oud. Face-to-face cooperation between Chinese and Western colleagues is likely to be a crucial building block, Oud is certain. David Renke

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