Remarks made by the Chinese ambassador to Norway at a meeting in Bergen have been reported by participants as some of the strongest since diplomatic tension between Norway and China set in, following the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. They suggest that the Chinese want an apology from the Norwegian government before key economic talks can be resumed.
Tang Guoqiang, China’s ambassador in Norway, criticized the decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo at a meeting in Bergen at the Confucius Institute, which aims to develop economic and cultural exchanges between the two countries. The meeting was designed to celebrate the fact that many Norwegian students are interested in studying in China and in Chinese.
Local politicians later reported the remarks, which are seen by many as some of the boldest criticisms yet given by Chinese authorities on the issue. Tang Guoqiang attacked the Nobel Prize Committee’s decision in a commentary in Views and News from Norway in November 2010, and boycotted the prize giving ceremony itself.
Ambassador Tang reportedly questioned Norway’s trustworthiness as a trade partner in his remarks, which have not been quoted verbatim. Before the announcement of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, Norway and China had been approaching the end of negotiations on a free trade agreement. The agreement has yet to be completed. Norway would be the first country in Europe to sign such a deal with the Chinese.
The ambassador apparently also criticized the fact that Norwegian industry ministry Trond Giske had not contacted the Chinese embassy, and that more generally the Norwegian government had not made any push towards discussing the matter with China. The fallout from the diplomatic situation is already believed to have affected Norwegian companies such as Det Norske Veritas (DNV), who only recently won permission to resume operations in China after their licenses had been revoked.
One local politician, Dan Femoen of the Conservative Party, told website bt.no that Tang had “said right out that he did not think the damage could be fixed before China received an apology from the Norwegian government.” Femoen added that “it was clear that this lay deep within him.”
Ambassador’s ‘personal frustration’
Bergen’s Mayor, Gunnar Bakke, described the ambassador’s statement as delivered in a “fitting way” but that it was clear that he spoke with “passion” and was “emotional.” Bakke said that the statements from the ambassador were “fine” in that he “tried to create understanding for how the authorities and people in China see the issue.” Tang apparently “asked those present to influence the government in order to normalize the relationship and said very clearly that Norway must take the initiative.” Bakke also stressed the importance of normalizing the relationship for the region of Vestlandet in which Bergen is situated, as business was “suffering” from the diplomatic stand-off. He felt the free trade agreement was particularly vital, and would have consequences “especially in the long term” if a deal could not be reached.
A representative of law firm Wikborg Rein, Lars Berge Andersen, who represents many Norwegian companies working in China, told newspaper Aftenposten that the ambassador is “personally indignant” about the Nobel Peace Prize decision, meaning that it is unclear “whether the remarks in Bergen represent the party line or are an expression of his personal frustration.” He added that “industry bears the brunt of the issue because neither the Norwegian government nor opposition know where to tread.” “I do not think the Chinese will do anything before a concrete initiative comes from Norwegian political sources,” he added.
Marit Warncke, CEO of Bergen’s business council, told Aftenposten that those present had “tried once again” to explain that the Nobel Prize Committee was not the same thing as the Norwegian government, but that the Chinese representatives “simply did not understand.” She feels that the ambassador’s comments “only confirm what we already know, namely that there is a total ice front between Norway and China at the official level.” Warncke called on Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg to make contact with China in an attempt to rescue the dialogue. “Norway has a long way to go when it comes to understand others’ cultures and reactions,” she added.
In contrast, Amnesty International Norway asked that the government hold firm against the ambassador’s attack. General secretary John Peder Egenæs told Aftenposten that “this shows very clearly that Chinese authorities do not just think they can get away with treating their citizens how they like. In addition, they also want to govern how the world reacts. ” He stated that “it is absolutely an international duty to criticize authorities that do this.” “It is very important that Norwegian authorities, both locally in Bergen and the government, stand firm and not ask for forgiveness for something that is our crystal clear right: to criticize Chinese breaches of human rights. We have nothing to apologize for,” Egenæs concluded.
The chair of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, former Norwegian Prime Minister Thorbjørn Jagland, just last week defended his and his colleagues’ decision in Aftenposten, telling the newspaper that “reports indicate that this prize is one of the most important things that has happened to make progress on human rights in China.”