Just before flying off to Brazil this week, Trade Minister Trond Giske addressed a seminar in Oslo on Hong Kong as a bridge to China, and managed to entirely avoid the issue of Norway’s tense relations with the Chinese following last fall’s Nobel Peace Prize controversy. Nor did any other speakers bring up the sensitive issue, perhaps hoping that ignoring the problem will make it go away.
Tuesday’s seminar, organized by the Norway-Hong Kong Chamber of Commerce, is an annual affair held in conjunction with Chinese New Year celebrations. There’s been little reason, however, for Norwegian officials to celebrate recently over their relations with their Chinese counterparts. China remains officially very angry with Norway after the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded last year’s Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiabao and relations have been frozen for months. As newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported late last month, political contact between Norway and China has been broken, a free trade agreement is on ice, and Norway’s Foreign Ministry sees no immediate signs that the frozen Norwegian-Chinese relations will thaw any time soon.
The Norwegian government’s strategy now reportedly involves a conscious effort to avoid taking any initiatives towards the Chinese, so they won’t be able to reject them. Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg told DN that no one knows how long the impasse will last. “The business and foreign ministries are working constantly so that we can have normal relations with China once again,” Stoltenberg told DN. “We believe that the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize shouldn’t damage the bilateral relations between Norway and China. We have expressed that several times to the Chinese authorities. They have another view on the matter and have cancelled meetings and arrangements.”
There reportedly were a few last-minute attendees from the Chinese Embassy in Oslo at Tuesday’s seminar, which ironically was held at the very hotel where the Nobel Peace Prize banquet is held every year. They kept a low profile, though, and the glaring absence of the consequences of the Peace Prize on the speakers’ agendas was in itself noteworthy.
Giske, for example, spoke enthusiastically about how “we’re hopping in the right direction,” a reference to the New Chinese Year of the Rabbit. He noted that Hong Kong represents a part of Asia that “Norway is most comfortable with,” and claimed he has “more optimism for the New Year.”
Noting that both Norway and Hong Kong were only “bruised” by the global financial crisis, he vowed that “we will work further to improve conditions for Norwegian businesses to move east.” He made a few passing references to the free trade agreement, indicating he hasn’t given up on it, and claimed that “Hong Kong and Norway have a lot to gain by a closer cooperation,” and that Hong Kong is “an important economic gateway to mainland China.” But he avoided any mention of the tense relations with China since the Peace Prize was announced.
Agnes Allcock, director general of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in London, stressed the “one country, two systems” theme in her remarks and claimed that “freedom of speech and human rights are very important to us in Hong Kong.” It was Liu Xiabao’s fight against the lack of freedom of speech and human rights in China that won him the Nobel Peace Prize.
“We pride ourselves on our openness,” Allcock claimed, stressing another aspect of Hong Kong that differs from mainland China. And she hailed Hong Kong as not only having the most free economy in the world but also an unfettered media that supposedly guarantees a “free flow” of information, a stark contrast to the routine censorship prevalent in China.
There has, of course, been plenty of business between Norway and China both during and since the Nobel Peace Prize conflict broke out. China has all but blocked imports of Norwegian salmon, after imposing strict new veterinary controls, but imports of Norwegian white fish, herring and mackerel have jumped, because they serve China’s interests. The Chinese anger at Norway thus seems very selective, according to DN: No restrictions on trade or investment that can benefit China, such as a Chinese industrial giant’s acquisition of metals firm Elkem last month, but plenty of restrictions at the political level. More acquisitions are likely, predict several economists and analysts, if they benefit China.
Another speaker at Tuesday’s seminar, Terje Tollefsen of Norwegian fertilizer and chemical company Yara, said Yara was in the process of moving its Chinese headquarters from Hong Kong to Shanghai, to be closer to its agricultural markets in China and leave behind Hong Kong’s high costs and pollution. Tollefsen also avoided any mention of Peace Prize fallout, hailing Hong Kong as a bridge to China and confident that Yara’s business in China would continue to grow.
Pavilion sold ‘quietly’
Erik Bruce, chief analyst at Nordea Markets, focused his talk on the Chinese economy, now ranked as the second biggest in the world but “far from free and open.” Only one speaker, Arild Blixrud, who was in charge of Norway’s popular pavilion at EXPO 2010 in Shanghai, touched on any effects of the Nobel Peace Prize. Blixrud said Norway’s pavilion has now been sold to “private Chinese investors” who intend to move it to the inland city of Chongqing as part of the country’s “Go West” program.
“The Peace Prize means that we must go carefully and quietly forward” with the deal, though, according to Blixrud’s overhead visual aids. He didn’t mention the Peace Prize itself.
Meanwhile, another major deal involving Norwegian state oil company Statoil, may be falling victim to the Peace Prize fallout. Last August, before the prize was awarded to Liu, Statoil announced it would have a shale gas agreement by the end of 2010. No agreement materialized, and newspaper Aftenposten reported last month that prospects seem dim. A deal to sell part of Statoil’s share of an oil field off Brazil to Sinochem of China also was delayed. Asked whether Statoil was being “punished” because of the Peace Prize, Bård Glad Pedersen of Statoil said the company operates in a branch known for a long-term view, “and we have no foundation to speculate on such consequences.”