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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

China sends new ambassador to Oslo

After 19 months of a diplomatic stalemate between China and Norway, the Chinese government has sent a new ambassador to Oslo. Some observers view the move as a sign that diplomatic relations, frozen since the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to a Chinese dissident in 2010, may finally be starting to thaw.

The top personnel change at the Embassy of China in Oslo has occurred quietly and “in a very strange manner,” according to one top diplomatic source. China’s former ambassador to Norway, Tang Guoqiang, abruptly left his post earlier this year, reportedly without going through the customary formality of meeting Norway’s King Harald V in what the Norwegians call an avskjedsaudiens, a short and highly ceremonial farewell procedure held at the Royal Palace.

At 11am on Tuesday, however, King Harald was due to receive a new ambassador from China in the equally formal ceremony in which new envoys, often attired in morning dress, present their credentials to the monarch. Upon acceptance, they can then officially assume their duties as top representative for his or her country.

Special arrangements
The arrival of new Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jun is said to have occurred nearly as suddenly as the departure of Tang, reportedly necessitating special arrangements to squeeze Tuesday’s ceremony at the palace into King Harald’s schedule. Norwegian officials, though, were likely keen to accommodate their Chinese counterparts, welcoming any opportunity to ease relations after more than a year and a half of conflict.

The conflict began when the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to jailed Chinese dissident and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo. That angered and embarrassed the Chinese government, causing a loss of face that former ambassador Tang desperately tried to restore. While he complained in Oslo, Chinese officials in Beijing carried on what’s widely viewed as an official boycott of Norway, breaking off bilateral trade talks, refusing to arrange meetings between high-level Norwegian and Chinese leaders, rejecting visa applications for a wide range of Norwegians from journalists to professors and authors, and hindering business and trade with Norwegian companies. Imports of Norwegian salmon to China, for example, have fallen dramatically.

The Chinese made it clear they were holding out for an apology from the Norwegian government over the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu. While the Norwegian Nobel Committee is appointed by the Parliament under the terms of Alfred Nobel’s will, the Norwegian government itself has no involvement in decisions made by the committee over who actually wins the Peace Prize. So Norwegian government officials claimed they could make no apology.

Tang’s efforts on behalf of his government to secure an apology thus failed and the stalemate continued despite some conciliatory efforts by the Norwegians. They failed, too, and then Tang left Norway. Neither Tang nor other embassy staff gave much advance notice of his impending departure to ambassadorial colleagues either, and the embassy has offered no explanation.

Favourable move
Some had feared that China would leave the ambassador’s post empty in Oslo, in another snub to the Norwegian government. The arrival of a new ambassador is thus viewed favouably, and perhaps a sign of what one local diplomat called “a fresh start” for renewed diplomatic relations not only between Norway and China but between the Chinese Embassy and other embassies in Norway, which also have felt the strain since the Nobel Peace Prize was announced. The Chinese can regain their loss of face, perhaps, by literally sending a new face to Oslo.

Norwegian government officials, meanwhile, have also taken a variety of steps to mend relations. They haven’t been willing to reveal them all, but several top diplomats along with Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre have said the current freeze can’t continue.

Norwegian government officials, meanwhile, were noticeably absent from Sunday’s grand opening of a new exhibit at the Kistefos Museum in Jevnaker that features the art of another Chinese dissident, Ai Weiwei. Minister of Culture Anniken Huitfeldt had attended Kistefos’ opening last year, former environmental minister Erik Solheim had attended the year before and even Queen Sonja has formally opened an earlier exhibit at Kistefos. This was the first year there was no official representation at a Kistefos opening from the government, and speculation ran high that the content of the exhibit was the reason. By simply staying away, it was said, Norwegian officials could avoid further provocation and possibly nurture their attempts at reconciliation. Kistefos officials were merely told that none of those they’d “duly invited” were able to attend. (See video of our interview with Kistefos founder Christen Sveaas.)

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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