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.

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bad news in China for ‘Norway’s Ikea’: Listeria found in salmon, partial import ban

These aren’t the best days for Norwegian salmon in China. Just when it became known that China plans to block imports from three Norwegian counties on health grounds, Listeria was found in Norwegian salmon in Sichuan and Hong Kong.

First, news came from Norway’s food safety authority (Mattilsynet) that China would start forbidding importing salmon from the Norwegian counties of Nordland, Troms and Sør-Trøndelag, due to fears of ISA (infectious salmon anaemia) contagion to local fish farms. The Norwegians contend that such fears are unfounded: to begin with, there’s no way fish from Norway can pass the ISA virus to their Chinese brethren, since they arrive to China dead and frozen and are sold to humans. And the Chinese claim seems to be that Norway doesn’t comply with OIE (World Organisation for Animal Health) standards, while the Norwegians assert they do and say they have provided documents to the Chinese authorities to back up that claim. According to an official from the Norwegian food authority who talked to Aftenposten, the Chinese have their own risk assessment report, which the Norwegians haven’t been able to see while having trouble “getting in contact” with their Chinese counterparts.

Chinese authorities had already found ISA in Norwegian salmon imports in Shenzhen in May last year and ordered the destruction of 13 tonnes of it. Other (other than ISA) tainted Norwegian salmon had been found and destroyed earlier that yea and in 2013.

News of the new import ban has made it back to Chinese news sites, including for example on a Ministry of Commerce domain, but still sourcing the story to the Norwegian food authority and largely with the same content (minus the Norwegian claim that they do comply with international standards), without an official confirmation from the relevant Chinese authority.

The ISA virus poses no risk to humans.

Meanwhile, Listeria has been found in Norwegian salmon imported by a Sichuan trading company, leading to the destruction of 6.5 tonnes. Norwegian salmon processed in Hong Kong was also found to be tainted and recalled, according to the local Centre for Food Safety. There’s no indication of any connection between the Listeria incidents and the ISA issue, and at least in the Hong Kong case independent authorities are involved.

These bad news come around the time when Norwegian PM Erna Solberg has emphasised the importance of salmon for the Norwegian economy (‘Salmon is Norway’s Ikea‘, a motto duly quoted by the Chinese Ministry of Commerce). Li Yong 李勇, head of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and the first Chinese politician (he’s a former vice minister) to reach the top of such an organisation, was in Bergen earlier this month at t

he North Atlantic Seafood Forum, where he reportedly said he thinks Norwegian salmon exports are bound to increase in the long term, “also in China” (Sysla).

It’s hard to say if the ISA-related ban has anything to do with China’s protracted retaliation for the award of the Nobel peace prize to dissident Liu Xiaobo 刘晓波 in 2010. I suppose the key is whether the Norwegian food authority statement that they do satisfy international requirements on ISA prevention is indeed true, i.e. whether the Chinese ban is actually justified.

Imports of Norwegian salmon were hit hard by the Nobel punishment (I’ve discussed some exchanges between the two countries that were affected by the crisis, and others that weren’t, towards the end of an article from 2013), so it wouldn’t be surprising for them to continue to be used as a diplomatic tool.

Relations remain at a low level. Last January, news emerged that Huang Nubo‘s purchase of land in Norway has been stalled until relations between the two countries are in order. In February, Chinese diplomats forecast “a negative impact” in relations with Norway after Norwegian authorities expelled a Chinese PhD student accused of spying. The Global Times (环球时报), a state-owned nationalistic tabloid, blamed the Norwegian government for a new freeze in bilateral ties, and quoted Cui Hongjian 崔洪建 from the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS, 中国国际问题研究所), a government-affiliated think tank: “The Norwegian government either wants to develop communication and good trade relations with China, or it will be shouting slogans about so-called human rights and democracy. They need to make up their minds.”

Chinese plans for an Arctic research base in Canada?

PRIC (Polar Research Institute of China) director Yang Huigen 杨惠根, channelled by the Globe and Mail, says China might be interested in building a research station in northern Canada. According to other sources quoted by the newspaper, Tuktoyaktuk, a hamlet in the Northwest Territories, a couple hundred kilometres from the Alaskan border, seems to be a location under consideration because of the region’s oil hydrocarbon potential. Channelled by the Global Times, he denies clearly airing such an intention.

Arctic research cooperation between China and Canada was the topic of an event held last week at the Canadian embassy in Beijing. Chinese media reporting on the event (‘Canada welcomes Chinese participation in Arctic cooperation‘) summarises scientific exchanges between the two countries in that domain but makes no mention of plans for a new base. The event was attended by the Canadian ambassador, Guy Saint-Jacques (赵朴), as well as by David Hik, a University of Alberta biologist who sits at the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) and the Canadian Polar Commission. Mr Hik also visited the PRIC in Shanghai, where he talked about the Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS), expected to open in 2017 in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. Addressing a public that included Arctic scientists and the freshly appointed Canadian general consul in Shanghai, Claude Demers (邓凯), Hik also referred to climate change, fisheries and clean energy among potential areas for future scientific cooperation between the two countries.

The Globe and Mail quotes Hik as being rather sceptical towards the idea of a Chinese NWT station. Rather than a separate base, a Chinese station would be “co-located directly within the Canadian research facilities”.

China has a research base in the Arctic, the Yellow River Station (黄河站) in Svalbard. There is also the Chinese-Icelandic aurora observatory in Kárhóll, near Akureyri. The observatory has been the object of some mild controversy in the past and perhaps something similar could be expected if plans for a base in Canada take a more concrete form.

We can already imagine what such a controversy could look like. Robert Huebert, a University of Calgary academic with a focus on Arctic security, questioned the wisdom of providing “a state that is that authoritarian” with the ability to “observe within the North”. These remarks, included in the Globe and Mail article, quickly made their way to the Global Times (环球时报), a state-owned nationalist tabloid, where they mutated into an article that refers to Canadian media fears that China ‘covets’ their territory. That’s what the title says; the article body eventually makes clear we’re talking about ‘coveting Canadian soil’ just to plant a research station on it. The article opens with a translation of Huebert’s comments, which is largely word-for-word except that the word ‘authoritarian’ (state) is replaced with its near-synonym ‘such’ (a country).

The Global Times asked Yang if he had talked about plans for a research base in Canada. Yang denied he explicitly referred to such plans.

I’ve written in the past about media debate over various Chinese projects in the Arctic, including nonexistent ones, such as poet-tycoon Huang Nubo’s alleged plans to buy Austre Adventfjord, a large coal-rich property in Svalbard. The Global Times is a reliable echo chamber for talk of various ‘fears’ in the Western press, and for their deconstruction. I’ve had occasion to discuss the paper’s style and editorial habits in a previous post.

Huang Nubo’s purchase stalled until things get better beween Norway and China

Ola O.K. Giæver jr., the Norwegian pilot and businessman who closed a deal last May to sell 100 hectares of land in Lyngen, northern Norway, to Huang Nubo 黄怒波, tells local news site nord24 that the sale is not over. He doesn’t go into much detail about the reasons, but he makes clear this is none of Huang’s fault: “I only know that the Chinese aren’t making any investments until relations between Norway and China are in order.”

Sichuan Road & Bridge official arrested on corruption charges

Sun Zhong 孙忠, deputy GM and Party secretary at a Sichuan Road and Bridge Group (SRBG, 四川路桥) branch, has been arrested on suspicion of “accepting bribes”, the People’s Procuratorate of Sichuan Province (四川省人民检察院) informed yesterday. As I reported a fortnight ago, Mr Sun had been placed under investigation by Party organs and handed over to the court system after being found to have committed “serious discipline violations”, a standard euphemism for what the Procuratorate has now officially translated as corruption. Another former company official, Huang Jinping 黄金平, was likewise found to ‘seriously violate discipline’ in September.

The Sichuan procuratorate announced Mr Sun’s arrest and those of a few local officials in quick succession, without specifying if they are part of one corruption probe or rather coincidentally took place within a few days. The most prominent person arrested in the last couple of days has been former Chengdu assistant mayor Chen Zhengming 陈争鸣. Mr Chen had long served under disgraced Sichuan deputy party secretary Li Chuncheng 李春城 and his fall has been linked to Li’s. Li Chuncheng was seen as an ally of former security czar and Party bigwig Zhou Yongkang 周永康.

Sichuan Road and Bridge is building the steelwork for Hålogaland bridge in Norway, a major achievement for the company and the first such project with Chinese participation inside the Arctic circle. That tender was the object of a court case in Germany that ended with two four-year jail sentences, as I recounted a couple of weeks ago.

this just in: another Sichuan Road & Bridge official under investigation

Sun Zhong 孙忠, the Party secretary at a Sichuan Road and Bridge Group (SRBG, 四川路桥), has been found to have committed “serious discipline violations”, usually a euphemism for corruption, and handed over to judicial authorities, Chinese media report. Party secretary Sun is the second victim of such investigations at the Sichuan government-owned company: Huang Jinping 黄金平, a former vice-general manager, met the same fate last September.

Sichuan Road and Bridge was awarded last year a contract to build steel structures for Hålogaland bridge in northern Norway, the company’s first project in a developed country and the first such contract for a Chinese company inside the Arctic circle. The offer that won the Hålogaland tender for SRBG, in tandem with a little-known Serbian partner, has also been the object of court proceedings, this time in Germany: a state-level court in Saarbrücken has recently found He Saizhong, a Chinese engineer, and his colleague Frank Minas guilty of defrauding their employer, DSD Brückenbau, by bidding for the Norwegian contract and then relegating DSD, who funded the bid, to the role of a subcontractor.

Eritrean mining official visits Sichuan Road & Bridge

Alem Kibreab, an high-ranking official from Eritrea’s Ministry of Mines and Energy, paid Sichuan Road and Bridge Group a visit last month. SRBG, though primarily builders of roads and bridges, as their name suggests, also have an interest in mining, specifically in Eritrea, a country where they have been active for quite a few years now.

A year ago, they signed an agreement to look for gold and other metals, and now they are talking about a second exploration project with copper as the main ore. SRBG’s is not the first Chinese mining venture in Eritrea: SFECO‘s gold project is much better known.

This blog doesn’t quite have an Eritrean focus. I often talk about SRBG because, in their capacity as bridge builders, they are building the steelwork for Hålogaland bridge in Norway, the first work of Arctic transportation infrastructure with Chinese involvement that I’m aware of.