The finance committee of the Norwegian Parliament (Stortinget) has decided to drop a planned trip to China, because it was unlikely any Chinese officials would meet with the group of lawmakers from Oslo. Chinese officials remain angry with Norway over last year’s awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to dissident Liu Xiaobo, and now Nobel officials worry about Liu’s safety.
The head of the parliament’s finance committee, Ulf Leirstein of the Progress Party, told news bureau NTB that he and his fellow committee members were advised by Norway’s Foreign Ministry that it was “most probable” that no one from the Chinese government would meet with them if they chose to travel.
“We don’t want to head off as tourists with taxpayers’ money,” Leirstein said, in explaining why they dropped plans for going to China. “Therefore we’ll travel to Vietnam instead.”
The change in plans marks the latest disruption of high-level government contact between Norway and China. Norwegian officials began being snubbed immediately after the Peace Prize to Liu was announced in early October. Relations between Norway and China have remained all but frozen since then, while the situation for human rights activists in China appears to have worsened.
Many activists and lawyers have disappeared in recent weeks, reports newspaper Aftenposten, with Chinese officials reportedly worried that the unrest in Northern Africa and the Middle East will inspire similar uprisings in China. Censorship is high, with Google reporting that Chinese authorities are even breaking into their citizens’ e-mail accounts. Another advocate of democracy in China, Liu Xianbin, was sentenced to 10 years in prison last week, and the exact whereabouts of the imprisoned Liu Xiaobo himself remain unclear.
That deeply worries the Norwegian Nobel Committee, which awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo for his own efforts to improve human rights and democracy in China. “We don’t know where he is, we don’t know anything about his situation,” Geir Lundestad, the secretary at the Nobel Institute in Oslo, told Aftenposten last week. “It’s disturbing.”
There’s been no information on Liu since his wife, Liu Xia, was allowed to visit him in a prison several hundred kilometers outside Beijing in October, just after the prize was announced. Nobel officials haven’t been able to confirm that he’s still being held in the same prison, and his wife has been held in house arrest since the visit in October. She managed to send a few sentences to a friend in late February, where she wrote: “I’m crying. No one can help me.”
Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre told Aftenposten that he was also worried about the fate of human rights lawyers he met in Beijing last year. “I’m sorry to see the tightening we have witnessed lately in China,” Støre told Aftenposten. “Norway puts priority on support for the defenders of human rights, and that applies also in China.” He added that his staff at the foreign ministry was following developments in China as closely as possible.
Støre said the “political dialogue” between Norway and China has declined in the aftermath of the Nobel Peace Prize “at the initiative of the Chinese,” despite Norwegian government claims that the Nobel Committee operates independently of Norwegian authorities.
“The picture is mixed, with limited contact in some areas and nearly normal contact and cooperation in other areas,” Støre told Aftenposten. “From the Norwegian side, we have stressed all along that we want broad cooperation with China, and we believe that’s in the interests of both countries.”
Officials at the Chinese embassy in Oslo failed to answer Aftenposten’s requests for comment.