‘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.

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.”