China denies visa to former premier

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Kjell Magne Bondevik, warmly welcomed to Beijing when he was Norway’s prime minister in 2002, has now become the latest Norwegian to be denied a visa to China. Bondevik, an ordained pastor in Norway’s state church, was supposed to have led a meeting at a seminar of the World Council of Churches in Nanjing this week.

Former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik wasn't able to travel to China this week to lead a seminar for the World Council of Churches, because Chinese authorities refused to issue him a visa. PHOTO: Sjømannskirken

“They’ll certainly manage to hold the meeting without me, but I would have gladly been there,” Bondevik told newspaper Aftenposten on Tuesday. The former Norwegian premier from the Christian Democrats party said he can only believe that the visa denial is linked to China’s anger over the decision by the Norwegian Nobel Committee to award the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo two years ago.

Bondevik told Aftenposten that he, like so many other Norwegians who have been denied visas to China since the award was announced in October 2010, was not given any reason for the visa denial. He said he was merely told that staff at the Chinese Embassy in Oslo were not given the necessary authorization from authorities in Beijing to issue him a visa.

“So the ambassador in Oslo can’t be blamed for this,” Bondevik told Aftenposten. “As I see it, it’s part of a strategy by the authorities. I had nothing to do with the awarding of the Peace Prize, but they have perhaps read that I was positive about it.”

The arrival of a new Chinese ambassador in Oslo last month, Zhao Jun, had been viewed by several diplomats in Norway as a sign that the diplomatic freeze between China and Norway may be starting to thaw. The denial of a visa to Bondevik is thus another setback. Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre told Aftenposten that as far as he knows, it’s the first time that a former Norwegian prime minister has been denied a visa to China.

Støre noted that the Chinese authorities refusal to issue a visa to Bondevik was “part of a pattern” and that Norwegian officials couldn’t understand what can be achieved by limiting the possibilities for people to meet.

Bondevk, who now runs a peace center in Oslo and promotes human rights, said he can’t understand the Chinese motivations either. “I don’t know what they hope to achieve by denying me a visa,” Bondevik told Aftenposten. “It’s also unfortunate for China’s reputation. They can’t ignore the fact that I have been in China as prime minister and met at the highest level. I think this will attract attention also outside of Norway.”

Officials at the Chinese Embassy in Oslo did not respond to requests for comment.

Opposition leaders in the Norwegian Parliament seem as exasperated as Støre and the rest of the Norwegian government. “It’s sad that the Chinese sanctions against Norway are continuing,” Peter Gitmark of the Conservative Party told Aftenposten.

The World Council of Churches meeting Bondevik had planned to attend marks the first time that the council was holding a meeting in China. According to the Episcopal Digital Network, it was organized by the WCC Commission of the Churches on International Affairs and hosted by the China Christian Council (CCC). With 23 million members, the CCC is the largest member constituency of the WCC in Asia.

The WCC’s “main deliberatins” were to take place in Nanjing, including a seminar entitled “Understanding China” that would explore “diverse perspectives on market reforms and development in socialist systems, poverty eradication and environmental sustainability, China’s religions and religious policies and churches in China.”

The secretary general of the WCC, Olav Fykse Tveit, is also a Norwegian and planned to attend the meetings. It reportedly would be his first visit to China since taking office at the WCC in January 2010.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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