Liu Xiaobo and Normalised Norway

Norway’s ‘normalised’ relations with China, under which it has promised it “will not support actions that undermine” “China’s core interests and major concerns,” have been tested after the Chinese government revealed Liu Xiaobo 刘晓波 was terminally ill. The administration of prime minister Erna Solberg refused to discuss his imprisonment, calls for him and his wife Liu Xia 刘霞 to be allowed to travel abroad, and his death. The experiment has been successful: Norway has proved exceptionally easy to influence through sanctions, at essentially no cost to the Chinese government, setting the stage for further enforcement of Chinese policy in the larger region.

A holiday from human rights

The government only commented on Liu’s illness through a foreign ministry spokesperson, who found the news about Liu’s diagnosis “sad.” He had earlier explained why Norway declined to raise Liu’s case during Solberg’s Beijing visit last April using a no-sex-on-the-first-date line of argument: “This first visit [was] not the right time to go into the full breadth of all issues.” After Liu’s death, the only official statement, attributed to Solberg, called him “a central voice for human rights and China’s further development,” and stated her “thoughts” are with his family. Minutes before the press release was posted, Aftenposten was told Solberg was “on holiday” and wouldn’t answer questions on the matter.

In 2009, while in opposition, Solberg had hoped Norway would be like “fireworks” in the UN Human Rights Council, as opposed to the government of the time, under which Norway had “chosen to tone down criticism” of the human rights situation in other countries. Questioned by the press over how those remarks squared with her silence on Liu, she said she still thought Norway should be pyrotechnical about human rights, although in ways “that are functional, and do something meaningful.” Although she sees “no contradiction” between her earlier statements and her actions as prime minister, her silence on China’s human rights situation could be called a rather extreme form of ‘toning down criticism’ and her Norwegian “fireworks” a bit of a damp squib.

To assess the effects of China’s ‘normalisation’ of Norwegian government policy and discourse, it’s important to determine if the politicians in power at the time find human rights unimportant out of a sincere ideological conviction, or have just taken a holiday from the issue. Solberg is on the record as approving the Nobel to Liu and “the link between respect for human rights and peace,” but past remarks by Jan Tore Sanner, current minister of local government and modernisation in Solberg’s administration, provide a clearer answer. Sanner was among those who nominated Liu for the peace prize. He rejoiced when “[his] man” won: “we cannot turn a deaf ear when China violates human rights,” which are a “universal”, not just Western, value. In early 2011, he met with Chinese dissidents, including Yang Jianli 杨建利. Later that year, he attacked the government’s silence on Liu: one shouldn’t only defend human rights “when it costs nothing.” Relations with regimes like China’s “must be combined with a clear line on human rights issues.” Norway “must demand Liu Xiaobo’s freedom” and “lead international pressure to improve the human rights situation in China.” In 2012, he lit “a candle” for the imprisoned Nobel laureate.

In 2013, he became a minister. His outspokenness about China ceased abruptly. He refused to talk about Liu during his illness, despite headlines recalling his earlier stance. When he died, his ministry informed that he was “on holiday.” Sanner’s earlier advocacy for Liu makes it hard to imagine that he sincerely sympathises with China’s authoritarian regime. Sanner and Solberg’s Conservative party (Høyre) is a centre-right, pro-market, pro-European force, a poor ideological match for the PRC. Under Normalisation, voices clearly unaligned with Chinese policies have gone silent. Statements of ‘sadness’ over Liu’s illness and death are consistent with the PRC’s official line, only mildly challenged in the ‘central voice’ press release.

Back to 1938

Norwegian media has been filled with criticism of the administration’s silence. Politicians from across the political spectrum expressed disappointment, with Petter Eide of the Socialist Left Party (SV) calling the administration “useful idiots” who will “do exactly what China wants.” Solberg, he speculated, must have felt “relieved” when Liu died. Jan Arild Snoen, a journalist with centre-right sympathies, regretted the government’s choice of “fish over human rights.” Torbjørn Færøvik, a writer and frequent commentator on China, warns that Norway “is influenced by China, not the other way round.” Sofie Høgestøl from the University of Oslo’s human rights centre writes that “Liu’s case shows that Norway’s normalisation agreement with China deserves greater public debate.” Several newspapers published editorials attacking Solberg over Liu.

Several commentators have compared Liu’s case to that of Carl von Ossietzky, the only other Nobel peace prize winner prevented from collecting the award. The similarities are obvious: both Nazi Germany and the PRC treated their laureates as traitors, lobbied against the prize, saw the Nobel as an affront, reacted with sanctions (symbolic in the German case, compared to the PRC’s unofficial salmon boycott). In each case, the Norwegian government distanced itself from the Nobel committee’s decision. Just like Liu, Ossietzky was prevented from travelling to receive the prize and died of tuberculosis in 1938. Both cases prompted the creation of alternative prizes. Hitler’s, called Deutscher Nationalpreis für Kunst und Wissenschaft, was awarded to, among others, Alfred Rosenberg. A Chinese anti-Nobel, the Confucius Peace Prize (孔子和平奖), never received such high-level government endorsement, and proved unpopular even among its laureates, who have included Vladimir Putin, Fidel Castro and Robert Mugabe. While Nazi Germany only applied symbolic sanctions on Norway, the PRC imposed an unofficial boycott on Norwegian salmon. A Dagbladet editorial in early July feared “the biggest scandal in the history of the Nobel prize” was about to “repeat itself” as Solberg “wash[ed] her hands” over Liu’s case.

Criticism also came from abroad. Beijing-based dissident Hu Jia 胡佳 told Aftenposten he found it “unbelievable” that PM Solberg “has been elected by the people in a democratic country, the country where the Nobel peace prize is awarded.” When she visited China in April, she “behaved like just a salmon seller” without saying a word on on human rights or Liu. Yang Jianli, whom Sanner and his party had once hosted in Oslo, called the government’s silence “a shame”: Norway lacks “a moral compass.” Norway’s commitment to global human rights has lost credibility.

Your ichthyology determines your ideology

Solberg plainly admitted the government fears angering the PRC government by speaking up: “important global processes” mean Norway “must have a relationship with China,” which is why their “viewpoints on the Xiaobo [sic] issue [Xiaobo-saken]” were only conveyed through a spokesperson. Solberg’s apparent unawareness that Xiaobo is Liu’s given name provides a first glimpse of the level of expertise on ‘global processes’ at the top of Norwegian decision-making.

Norway’s choice of ‘salmon over human rights‘ isn’t simply a pragmatic decision to prioritise the economy over principles or soft power. It displays of a level of understanding of the relevant variables entirely consistent with the global know-how evidenced in Solberg’s familiarity with Chinese personal names. As I discussed in an earlier piece, Chinese sanctions had a negligible effect on Norway’s economy. The Chinese boycott over Liu’s prize left the bulk of bilateral trade intact, and indeed Norwegian exports to China increased faster than to the rest of the world during the six-year freeze. The one significant industry hit by the sanctions was salmon farming, and only in terms of missed opportunities. The sector continued to grow despite the unofficial China import ban, and, according to research that accounted for various sanction-avoidance strategies besides official trade statistics, the true volume of salmon exports to China likely grew even under the boycott.

It’s hard to find an example of such a successful use of sanctions as the salmon boycott. At virtually no cost to China, an undeclared, partial import ban aimed at a rich country over which it had minimal economic leverage achieved the silence of a Conservative government that includes an erstwhile outspoken PRC critic. In a previous piece for CPI Analysis, I compared Norway’s ‘normalisation’ to Mongolia’s response to a similar Chinese tantrum, over the Dalai Lama’s latest visit. Mongolia, a less prosperous country whose economy is heavily dependent on China, placated Beijing’s wrath with a vague statement to domestic media. The argument that Norway had no choice but to yield to Chinese pressure overlooks the extent to which Chinese Arctic interests need Norwegian cooperation. No Norwegian attempts to resist, denounce or reciprocate the boycott were made known. One is left wondering what sort of expertise on China is available to Norwegian officials. This contrasts with comparatively savvier approaches to relations with, e.g., the EU or Russia. If the Norwegian government cares so much about interactions with China, they could benefit from learning to negotiate with its authorities from a more adult position than fearfully humouring the PRC’s whim, in exchange for the promise of an eventual permission to sell fish. This also holds for those among the opposition who stand a chance of forming the next government. Post-Solberg, today’s fierce China critics might just get normalised upon elevation to the cabinet, becoming the next Jan Tore Sanners.

Beyond Liu’s case, what Norway has ‘normalised’ is the use of economic sanctions as a tool of Chinese foreign policy in the region. PRC policies on free speech seem to apply in the Norwegian cabinet when it comes to Liu Xiaobo. The question now is which Nordic institution will be the next to offend the Chinese government the way the Nobel committee did, triggering a round of sanctions to normalise another country.

‘normalised’ Norway and Liu Xiaobo

An extended version of this piece, with an excursus on Anti-Nobel prizes, has been published on CPI: Analysis.

[UPDATE (Jul 14). After Liu’s death, the only public statement from the Norwegian government, attributed to PM Solberg, called him “a central voice for human rights and China’s further development,” sending Solberg’s “thoughts” to his family. Minutes before the press release was posted, Aftenposten was told Solberg was “on holiday” and wouldn’t answer questions on the matter.

Also “on holiday”: Jan Tore Sanner, who was among those who nominated Liu for the Nobel prize in 2010. Sanner remained an outspoken supporter of Liu’s plight until 2012. Since becoming a minister in the Solberg administration, he has refused to discuss Liu’s imprisonment, illness or death.]

The Norwegian government is keeping silent on the fate of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo 刘晓波 and has declined to endorse calls for him to be allowed to be treated abroad. PM Erna Solberg and foreign minister Børge Brende refused to comment, and plainly admitting their fear of angering the PRC government by speaking up: in Solberg’s words, “large, important global processes” mean Norway “must have a relationship with China”; therefore, her government “expressed their viewpoint on the Xiaobo [sic] issue [Xiaobo-saken] through the foreign ministry’s spokesperson.” Solberg’s awareness of ‘global processes’ apparently doesn’t extend so far as figuring out the Chinese naming order.

The FM spokesperson’s comment Solberg was referring to said news about Liu’s diagnosis are “sad,” and offered their “thoughts” for him and his family.

This has earned the Solberg government criticism from different quarters. Politicians across the political spectrum aired their disappointment. Petter Eide of the leftist SV called the administration “useful idiots” who will “do exactly what China wants,” supporting “the infringement on Xiaobo’s rights.” (Eide also appears to lack knowledge of East Asian naming practices, although, as a former Amnesty International worker, he has a slightly higher probability than Solberg of being on given-name terms with Liu.) Torbjørn Færøvik, a writer and frequent commentator on China, warns that Norway “is influenced by China, not the other way round.” Sofie Høgestøl from the University of Oslo’s human rights centre writes that “Liu’s case shows that Norway’s normalisation agreement with China deserves greater public debate.” A Nationen editorial called for Norway to “stand up for Liu Xiaobo.”

(There are also less critical voices. Some of these are likely to be found among the newly formed multiparty ‘Group of China Friends’ in the Norwegian parliament. Its chairman, Jørund Rytman, said at a recent meeting with the Chinese ambassador that the Group would like to “strengthen exchanges with the National People’s Congress“. At least that’s according to the embassy’s Chinese-language account of the meeting. Rytman’s party’s website didn’t say anything about the NPC.)

Aftenposten talked to friends of Liu, who also had a few things to say about Norway’s silence. An unnamed Liu friend says they are “very disappointed” in the Norwegian government. Hu Jia 胡佳 finds it “unbelievable” that PM Solberg “has been elected by the people in a democratic country, the country where the Nobel peace prize is awarded.” When she visited China in April, she “behaved like just a salmon seller” without saying a word on on human rights or Liu. He questions what salmon exports mean next to “what Norway is really known for, and what gives it international influence, namely the defence of democracy and human rights.”

The only response from the Normalised Norwegian government came again from a foreign ministry spokesperson, who offered a no-sex-on-the-first-date reasoning: “This first visit [was] not the right time to go into the full breadth of all issues. This applies to human rights, but also other issues that require us to establish a systematic political dialogue.” (Norway had diplomatic relations with China before its own (modern) independence in 1905. It established relations with the PRC in 1954.)

Norway’s choice of ‘salmon over human rights‘ isn’t simply a pragmatic decision to prioritise the economy over principles or soft power. It displays of a level of understanding of the relevant variables entirely consistent with the global know-how evidenced in Solberg’s surname gaffe. As I discussed in an earlier piece, the economic pressure Chinese sanctions applied on Norway was actually negligible. The Chinese boycott over Liu’s prize left the bulk of bilateral trade intact, and indeed Norwegian exports to China increased faster than to the rest of the world during the six-year freeze. The one significant industry hit by the sanctions was indeed salmon farming, but it was only affected in terms of ‘missed opportunities’. The sector continued to grow despite the unofficial China export ban, and, according to research that accounts for various sanction-avoidance strategies besides official trade statistics, the true volume of salmon exports to China likely grew even under the boycott. Mongolia, a less prosperous country with an economy highly dependent on China, was able to manage a comparable China tantrum without yielding as much. The argument that Norway has no choice but to abandon any pretence of global human rights advocacy because of the economic stakes suggests that the administration has no access to, or inclination to heed, expertise on China of the kind that manages to figure out naming conventions.

Beyond Liu’s case, what Norway has ‘normalised’ is economic sanctions as a tool of Chinese foreign policy in the region, effectively allowing the extraterritorial enforcement of PRC policies on free speech, and depriving Norway’s commitment to global human rights of any semblance of credibility.

New piece: Norway, Mongolia and ‘normalising’ Chinese sanctions

A lot has been written about Norway’s normalisation of relations with China after six years of boycott. Most of what I read boils down to either ‘it’s good for seafood’ or ‘it’s a national humiliation’. I thought it could be interesting to assess how much the agreement is worth to China as foreign policy ‘goods’, rather than how much of a win (or loss) it is to Norway. China spent an amount of effort on enacting (more or less covert) diplomatic and trade sanctions against Norway, and after a few years won a sort of (non-)apology from Norway, together with, more importantly, the ‘normalisation’ of covert sanctions as a tool for extraterritorial enforcement of its policies on dissent. I’d say the existence of those two quantities is clear to everyone involved, as is the fact that they add up to a net policy win for China, but the question is how big a win it was. So one thing I set out to do was clarifying the nature and ‘cost’ of the Chinese sanctions against Norway. It turns out the sanctions were very shallow, with hardly any significant effect on China-Norway trade, let alone on the Norwegian economy. If you look at the numbers, rather than basing your analysis on literary criticism of the Beijing joint statement, you’ll see that the ‘normalisation’ agreement indeed handed China a considerable victory.

I guess you could say that such is the nature of relations between countries the size of those two, and that such an assymetric end result can’t beused to judge the expertise of the Norwegian diplomats and policy makers involved. I’m not going to discuss their policy-fu, although word has it that the Norwegian ambassador in Beijing, Svein Ole Sæther, did work on his tennis skills during his long tenure. (As of press time, it’s not clear to me if he learnt Chinese; at any rate, as any fule no, 闲中好,尽日松为侣。) But one way to approach the issue of whether this big victory for China was the only possible result is to look at another example of Chinese sanction policy: Mongolia after the last Dalai Lama visit. Now Mongolia is very different from Norway in many ways, especially vis-à-vis China, but it’s probably the best approximation to the Norwegian case. China sanctioned both countries for (how to put this) allowing non-state local entities (the Nobel committee and Buddhist clergy) to interact with individuals the Party-state dislikes (Liu Xiaobo and the Dalai Lama). In both cases China threw a diplomatic tantrum, and applied sort-of-covert economic sanctions. In both cases the boycott ended with deniably contrite statements of ‘acknowledgment’ of China’s ‘core interest’. And those statements, remarkably enough, came out within days of each other, for reasons that probably involve larger geopolitics than the relations with these two countries. So I think the comparison is warranted.

Now to do that comparison you need to do the same thing as in the Norwegian case: look at what the sanction policy against Mongolia looked like, and what China got in return. Here it’s easy to see that sanctions against Mongolia were potentially crippling, what in turns also means they were somewhat risky for China (you don’t normally want to destroy an economy that overwhelmingly depends on you). That part is uncontroversial. On the other hand, the ‘win’ for China has been reported as Mongolia ‘banning’ future Dalai Lama visits, which indeed would be a big concession were it true. Only it isn’t. In fashionable parlance, it’s ‘fake news’, or maybe guidance of public opinion, which I think can be traced back to a specific Xinhua story. To put it briefly, the Mongolians stated their non-apology through Mongolian media, then Chinese media spun it out of control. To understand how big the Mongolian concession actually was, you need to go to Mongolian-language sources and that’s another thing I did.

The details of the analysis of the less known among these quantities (the costs and ‘wins’ for China, Norway and Mongolia) are in my latest piece for the CPI Analysis blog, reposted by The News Lens with slightly modified spelling (and the Chinese bits in traditional characters). Next week I’ll post an extended version on this blog, including the numbers I used to measure the impact of sanctions on Norway, and more details from the work of Chen and Garcia, the authors of what I think is the best analysis of the salmon boycott.

Tempus fugit: Jahresrückblick 2015

Here’s a quick overview of what I’ve been up to in the last twelve months.

Greenland

Largely unnoticed by English and Danish-language media, Greenlandic officials visited China during 2015 to discuss not just mining, but also infrastructure projects. Greenland’s coalition agreed soon afterwards on plans to renew existing airports and build new ones, as well as a container port in Nuuk and new hydro-power plants.

Meanwhile, two mining projects which China Nonferrous (中色) has signed (no-strings-attached) agreements to develop and buy into are moving towards getting production permits: GME’s rare earth and uranium Kvanefjeld deposit and Ironbark’s Zn+Pb project at Citronen fjord. If they do go ahead and Nonfezza does get involved, China’s SOE would become (by far) the largest actor in Greenland mining, but it’s too early to toast to that yet (think ore prices, domestic opposition in the case of the uranium project).

For background on Chinese interest in Greenland’s ores, there’s my post from March for the CPI blog. A new post there gave an update as of December, including the remark that the Citronen fjord project could make China Nonferrous (and of course Ironbark) not just the world’s northernmost miner, but their (largely foreign, quite likely Chinese) staff the inhabitants of the northernmost human settlement on dry land at 83°N.

2015 started with news of General Nice (俊安集团) acquiring production rights for the once promising Isua iron ore project. I wrote a long read on that company’s rather peculiar history, including plenty of data you won’t find elsewhere (at least in a Western language). Later updates on General Nice are also worth a look if you follow what is still Greenland’s only Chinese production permit holder.

Russia

Russia’s recent ‘pivot’ perhaps could be more adequately described as ‘away from the West’ than ‘to Asia’; admittedly increased cooperation with China in some domains has been overspun, especially by Russian and Chinese state media, to make up for the fact that trade between the two countries, and crucially between Russia and Heilongjiang, has actually gone down rather drastically. But the fact that Russia, and especially the Far East, needs Chinese investment more than ever before, means potential Chinese investors are being offered better conditions by the Russians (and sometimes, indeed, accepting them).

The Sakha Republic (Yakutia), specifically, has been quite active in trying to attract Chinese investment, for projects such as, first of all, the bridge over the Lena in Yakutsk, but also others like the Tirekhtyakh Тирехтях lead mine at 69°N, to mention one nobody else seems to have reported in English. For more, go check my posts on Yakutia.

Meanwhile in Vladivostok, or actually near it, Russia’s largest casino had its grand opening. As it was to be expected, most customers were from Mainland China even before they started advertising there at all.

Iceland

Other than their projects in Greenland, China Nonferrous also have plans to build an aluminium smelter in Iceland. Their agreement is all non-binding and the plans didn’t look that serious at first, but (again unbeknownst to Western-language media) meetings in China in the last few months suggests they are planning to go ahead with the thing.

In July, car maker Geely 吉利 (Volvo’s parent) agreed to buy a stake in Carbon Recycling International, a methanol fuel producer.

Construction of the joint Chinese Icelandic aurora observatory is, to put it mildly, delayed, but it has finally started and should be working next autumn.

CNOOC (中海油) and local partner Eykon Energy have started exploring for oil in the Icelandic sector of the Jan Mayen area (Drekasvæði).

Ragnar Baldursson, Iceland’s representative at the Wuzhen internet conference last month, had the honour to become the only Western official to be quoted by Chinese media at the event. His comments (actually quite noncommittal) were spun as “high praise” for Xi Jinping’s ‘cyber sovereignty’, freedom-and-order speech.

Norway

The Hålogaland bridge in northern Norway is already being built. The contractor for the steelwork is SRBG (四川路桥), a Sichuan SOE that won that tender in rather peculiar ways. Peculiar enough, in fact, that two people ended up in jail in Germany as a result. My modest investigation on the case is still the only English source of information on what’s the first Chinese transport infrastructure project in the Arctic.

Huang Nubo 黄奴般, poet, mountaineer, tycoon, has given up on buying land in Iceland for now. Plans to buy a plot in Norway are stalled as well, allegedly for political reasons.

Chinese media

Spurred by an article on Icelandic media (viz. Stundin) on China Radio International’s outlet targeting that country, I did some research on the state broadcaster’s ambitious network of ‘borrowed boats’, radio stations and news sites in several languages that help disseminate the views of the Chinese state while staying discreet about their status as part of the state media system. An July article of mine for the CPI blog focused on GBTimes, the arm of that network covering includes Northern Europe.

A Reuters report on CRI’s network came out in November. It had more of a US focus, but it did discuss GBTimes as well. I wrote an update a few days after that, including, as is my wont, some previously unpublished information e.g. on CRI’s affiliate in Mongolia.

A couple of weeks ago, CRI got a new partner, this time in Siberia. That partner also has an interesting background, in particular as a defence contractor.

Languages

All this reporting wouldn’t be possible without (often rather unrewarding) work on original-language sources, in English and Chinese of course, but also in Russian, Korean, Danish, Icelandic, Norwegian, Mongolian and a few others. Those specifically interested in the linguistic angle might like my recent guest post on the names of the Lena river on Language Log; more than my post, I recommend the comments, where you’ll find remarks by experts in Tungusic and Yukaghir.

Hålogaland: the first Chinese-built bridge in the Arctic

After winning a tender in ways unorthodox enough to land two engineers in jail, a Sichuan SOE has become the first Chinese company to be involved in a major transport infrastructure project in the Arctic region. A rather peculiar kind of partnership with a German bridge-builder helped a company whose previous activities abroad were concentrated in Eritrea to be chosen over established Western competitors to build the steelwork for large bridge in northern Norway. The fact that the project, started in late 2013, has gone unimpeded despite the freeze in Chinese-Norwegian relations after Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel provides an interesting data point to understand what exactly falls under the boycott.

An unprecedented success

In October 2013, Sichuan Road and Bridge Group (SRBG, 四川路桥), owned by the provincial government, won the tender to build the steelwork of the Hålogaland bridge near Narvik, some 200 km inside the Arctic circle. Over 1500 m long, the suspension bridge will be the second longest of its kind in the country and will shorten the travelling distance northwards from Narvik by 18 km. It was the first time a Chinese contractor was awarded such a project in the West, and SRBG’s first-ever contract in Europe.

SRBG has completed a number of technically impressive projects in China, such as the suspension bridge with the second longest mainspan in the world, the Xihoumen 西堠门 that links Zhoushan 舟山 to the mainland. In contrast to the multiple collapses of often just-built bridges that have made news in China in recent years, SRBG has a comparatively clean record. Serious damages to SRBG bridges have been blamed on exceptional natural conditions, such as the 2009 collapse of the Chediguan 彻底关 bridge SRBG was chosen to rebuild after the Wenchuan earthquake. (The new collapse was personally explained by company chairman Sun Yun 孙云 as due to the unforeseeable impact of an “enormous rock”.) But a company partially established by SRBG, Sichuan Chuanjiao Road and Bridge (四川川交路桥有限责任公司), has a decidedly less stellar record: the partial collapse in 2013 of the third Tuojiang 沱江 bridge Chuanjiao was building in Ziyang, eastern Sichuan caused five deaths. At the time, the chairman of Chuanjiao was Huang Jinping 黄金平, also a vice-general manager at SRBG. Huang would eventually fall victim to an investigation for “serious violations of discipline”, usually a euphemism for corruption.

Impressive though SRBG past achievements in bridge building already were, the Norwegian tender was an unprecedented success. Although the company’s activities abroad began as far back to 1979, their major operations so far have been in Cambodia, Yemen, Tanzania, Micronesia, and most saliently Eritrea, where SRBG have even diversified into gold mining. Winning contracts in at least some of those locations, Eritrea in particular, surely involves more government-to-government contacts to a greater degree than technically outcompeting other bidders. SRBG’s Hålogaland contract, the second cheapest contender for which was MT Høygaard, looked like the first such infrastructure project awarded to a Chinese company in Scandinavia.

An unorthodox partnership

The thing is, SRBG weren’t competing on their own. As I, and seemingly nobody else in a Western language, reported in 2013, SRBG won the tender in partnership with DSD Brückenbau, part of a German group with a long experience in steel construction in Europe, the Middle East and China. The exact nature of the partnership remained elusive: while Chinese reports mentioned SRBG had sought DSD’s help to enter the European market, the contract was formally awarded to a joint venture of SRBG with a little-known Serbian company that shared an address with a DSD subsidiary. The German connection was still obvious: the contract was officially signed on SRBG’s side by He Saizhong 何赛中, a senior engineer with a decades-long career in the German bridge-builder, not known to work for the Sichuan SOE.

The truth would emerge a year later, during a trial conducted in Saarbrücken, Germany. He Saizhong, the DSD engineer, and Frank Minas, a colleague, were accused of defrauding their employer by preparing the Hålogaland bid at DSD, only to eventually present it as their own. As I have learnt from Helmut Jakob, a journalist who covered the trial for local media, the two first convinced the company to act as a subcontractor, managing the project through a Serbian company they were connected to. In the end, DSD was completely left out of the project when the project management was taken over by a company led by the wives of the two engineers. He Saizhong and his colleague were found guilty of ‘breach of trust’ (Untreue) and sentenced to four years’ imprisonment. The Chinese company has not itself been accused of fraud.

Although He Saizhong’s central role in the project should have made it clear to everyone from the beginning that the well-known German company was in some way behind SRBG’s bid, the Norwegian public roads authority (Statens vegvesen) have denied they were misled by the way the offer was presented. Einar Karlsen, a project manager for the project, told me in March that, although DSD had been originally mentioned as a possible subcontractor, the German company “was not important” in the evaluation of the bid. It is possible that the evaluation was only based SRBG’s past merits, but the fact that the offer was prepared at DSD by a DSD team, together with reports that SRBG had sought to partner with the German company, make it safe to conclude that SRBG did indeed benefit from the unorthodox way the offer was prepared. A source suggests it was He Saizhong who facilitated the Sichuan company’s partipation in the project.

An unimpeded deal

Construction is going ahead, seemingly unhindered by the German trial and the imprisonment of the contractor’s “representative”, and is expected to finish in 2017. Norwegian reporting on the bridge, an important project for the region, appears to have made no mention of the trial in Germany before an article published in a local newspaper last September (paywalled).

The defrauded German company and the now imprisoned He Saizhong are not the first to be sacrificed for Sichuan Road and Bridge to win contracts. In 2008, a manager with SRBG had admitted to bribing an official to earn the company the contract for the Xinlongmen 新龙门 bridge near Chongqing.

The fact that SRBG’s participation in a major project in Norway was not blocked by Chinese authorities is a telling detail about the unofficial boycott imposed on Norway after the award of the Peace Nobel prize to Liu Xiaobo in 2010. This could be the result of a publicity calculation. Most known aspects of the boycott can be interpreted as ways of showing the Norwegian public they were being punished: it became harder for Norwegians to get Chinese visas, salmon shipments were rejected; real-estate tycoon Huang Nubo 黄怒波 could not buy a 100 hectare plot in the north of the country until relations get better. Not letting SRBG bid to build their bridge would have simply meant a European competitor would build it.

Russian Arctic event kicks off today

The long-awaited patriotic Arctic event organised by a Russian NGO with strong state backing I wrote about recently (‘coming to a Pole near you‘) begins today with a ceremony in Moscow, but with a few changes. What was originally planned to be an expedition to the North Pole has been downscaled to a series of events in Svalbard, both in the Russian settlement of Barentsburg and in Longyearbyen.

The most visible aspect of the event, the unfurling of a 1000 m2 Russian flag and 250 m2 flags of Russian regions, towns and “socially responsible companies” will still take place, although in Svalbard and not at the Barneo polar station as previously announced. This, as well as the expected presence at the event of representatives of Norway and Russia-friendly countries like Cyprus and Serbia, somehow dilutes the patriotic overtones and moves the focus away from what had been described as an assertion of sovereignty.

The event is part of the celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, which Norway’s PM Erna Solberg, along with other Western leaders, will be boycotting over the Ukraine crisis. Ironically enough, not only will enormous flags of Crimea and Sebastopol be prominently displayed in Svalbard, but one of the organisators of the event is Sergey Mironov, a politician under Western (and Norwegian) sanctions, which he has said he’s “happy” to be under. Mr Mironov doesn’t seem to be flying to Svalbard, but he is supposed to be taking part in today’s ceremony on Poklonnaya Hill in Moscow.

The organisators have photoshopped a gorgeous picture of what the enormous flags will look like when laid on the snow in Svalbard. The work is a bit short of perfect: the Russian flag in the picture looks the same size as the regional flags, while it’s supposed to be four times bigger; and all the flags lie in a perfectly horizontal plane, so that rather than lie on the terrain they seem to be floating above ground, like a band of over-starched flying carpets.

The expedition leaves Moscow tomorrow and the events in Svalbard will take place during the weekend.

For some background on the organisation behind the event and its patriotic overtones, check my previous post on the project.