China critics slam the government

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Prime Minister Erna Solberg and her conservative government coalition remained under heavy criticism this week, for failing to support Chinese dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo’s desire to seek cancer treatment outside China. While they’re being accused of cowardice and hypocrisy for fear of provoking China, some Members of Parliament have formed a group to try to better understand China’s position, and were rewarded with dinner at the Chinese ambassador’s residence.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg met Chinese President Xi Jinping during what was supposed to be her triumphant official visit to China last spring. Instead it’s been overshadowed by heavy criticism at home in Norway over the Solberg government’s refusal to bring up the thorny issue of human rights and the situation for Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who now is terminally ill with liver cancer. At far right, China’s ambassador to Norway, Wang Min. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet/Espen Gullikstad

Recent editorials and commentaries in Norwegian newspapers have been relentless against the silence of Solberg and her ministers. Newspaper Aftenposten, Norway’s largest, added to the chorus of critics on Wednesday, suggesting that Solberg’s government has perhaps muzzled itself unnecessarily.

By opting against its usual advocacy of human rights, because of concerns that would damage its newly restored diplomatic relations with China, Aftenposten editorialized that the government has “put itself in a squeeze” and no one knows how long its refusal to criticize China will last.

Now Solberg’s government is essentially losing face within Norway, the paper pointed out, just two months ahead of the parliamentary election: “It shall hurt to hold idealistic goals (for human rights) high when they don’t cost anything, only to lower them when the price becomes clear,” Aftenposten editorialized. It added that while Norway is having no effect on China, “China has certainly managed to affect Norway.”

That’s what’s fueling the critics who believe Chinese leaders have forced Norway’s government leaders into subservience and silence on democracy and human rights, which Norway normally promotes at all opportunities. “When the (Norwegian) government’s great words about democracy and human rights are put to the test, they’re suddenly not worth anything,” claimed Petter Eide, a former leader of Amnesty International in Norway who now represents the Oslo chapter of the Socialist Left party (SV). He wrote in newspaper Dagsavisen on Wednesday that both Solberg and her foreign minister, Børge Brende, have “allowed the Chinese to dictate to them” about what they can and can’t say. At stake, Solberg apparently fears, is another diplomatic freeze that can cost Norway trade deals worth billions of Norwegian kroner.

“Norway obediently accepts to remain silent about how China imprisons a Peace Prize winner, executes and tortures thousands (of its own citizens) every year, and blocks its population from fundamental democracy and freedom of expression,” Eide wrote. He pointed to a pattern of Norway compromising its principles and foreign policy, for the sake of not offending countries like China or the US. He agreed with others who claim that Chinese leaders now view Norway as a “weak nation, a country for which they have no respect.”

Norwegian Foreign Minister Børge Brende met with China’s Prime Minister Li Keqiang in Beijing in December. It was here that the agreement between Norway and China was approved, and which is now causing so many problems for the Norwegian government.
PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet/Frode Overland Andersen

Thorbjørn Færøvik, a former Asian correspondent for Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) who has written several books about China, called the Solberg government’s silence “frightening,” since China is, in his opinion, “the largest and most frightening dictatorship in the world.” Færøvik, who long has been denied visas to China, told Dagsavisen that “much of what’s happening now is a direct consequence of the agreement Norway and China entered into in connection with normalization of relations between the two countries.” Norway must and shall have relations with China, Færøvik stressed, but the agreement is “very bad for Norway” and leaves Norway in a dilemma, “at least for a country that holds the human rights banner high.”

Professor Bernt Hagtvet at the University of Oslo went the farthest of the critics on Wednesday, comparing Liu to a “a cross beween (peaceful dissidents) Andrej Sakharov, Vaclav Havel and Gandhi” while describing Chinese rulers as “a cross between Hitler and Mussolini” who “cling to power with threats of violence and censorship” against their own people and “show no signs of introspection.”

Hagtvet, writing in newspaper Aftenposten, also drew parallels between Liu, who’s been transferred from a Chinese prison to a hospital after being diagnosed with terminal liver cancer, and another Nobel Peace Prize winner, Carl von Ossietzky, a German pacifist who was convicted of treason and spying in 1931 for revealing Adolph Hitler’s military build-up in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles. Ossietzky was also prevented from coming to Oslo to collect his Peace Prize, and ended up dying in a hospital “because Hitler was offended.” Hagtvet sees the same thing happening to Liu.

New ‘China Group’ formed
The outcry in Norway that has followed news of Liu’s terminal illness, and Norway’s refusal to publicly support calls by the US and EU for him to be allowed the treatment he seeks abroad, prompted a group of Members of Parliament who mostly support the government to form a “China Group” at the Parliament. The goal, MP Jørund Rytman, told Dagsavisen, is to “create increased understanding in Parliament about how China thinks.”

Rytman, who represents the conservative Progress Party that shares government power with Solberg’s Conservatives, also leads a similar group called “Israel’s Friends in the Parliament,” and sees “great potential in our renewed relations with China.” He described China as “a large economic power, and it’s in Norway’s interests both politically and economically to develop good cooperation with China.”

The MP from Buskerud in Norway envisions the new “China Group” as holding meetings with lectures on China and “mini-seminars.” Human rights is not on its agenda, but Rytman thinks it will be important not to “say no” to anyone wanting to speak on various issues. He told Dagsavisen he has “no objections in principle” to anyone wanting to talk about the human rights situation in China. One member, MP Geir Toskedal of the Christian Democrats, made it clear on Wednesday that he wants to address human rights. “It’s important to me that nothing is left out of the conversation,” Toskedal told Dagsavisen.

Dinner at the ambassador’s home
Rytman stressed that “there’s a lot of positive things happening in China that are undercommunicated.” He wants the group’s 14 members so far (eight from the Progress Party, and two each from the Conservatives, Labour and the Christian Democrats) to hear about how China’s growing economy and trade has lifted several hundred million Chinese out of poverty. “If you hang yourself up in human rights all the time, there won’t be time for anything else,” Rytman said.

His initiative led China’s ambassador to Norway, Wang Min, to visit the group at Parliament week before last. He then invited some of its members to dinner at the Chinese ambassador’s residence in Oslo on Monday evening. “So we’ve perhaps already become friends,” Rytman joked, while insisting that the group won’t be “cheerleaders” for China. Its stated purpose is to be “a forum for Members of Parliament with an interest in China,” where they can occasionally gather to discuss issues of concern “to our two countries.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund