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.