China lets the politicians squirm

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NEWS ANALYSIS: Chinese officials who’ve been angry with Norway since a Nobel Peace Prize humiliated them in Oslo in 2010 have been able to enjoy some revenge this week, watching Norway’s government politicians squirm. They shouldn’t confuse the Norwegian politicians’ controversial willingness to appease them, though, with any real respect or support among Norwegians in general. According to public opinion polls, many Norwegians now see China as a bully that’s backed their government into a corner.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg during parliamentary question time last year. On Wednesday she was asked if she'd drop controversial data storage legislation, after the EU directive the rules were based on was ruled invalid by the European Court of Justice on Tuesday. Solberg refused to scrap the laws, saying it was yet to be seen if the consequences of the judgment had an impact on the Norwegian legislation. PHOTO: Terje Heiestad/Stortinget

Prime Minister Erna Solberg has faced tough questioning in Parliament and public opposition to her decision to snub the Dalai Lama next month in the hopes of appeasing China. PHOTO: Terje Heiestad/Stortinget

Norway’s government leaders have had a rough week back at work after the Easter holidays. They faced massive grassroots opposition, also from within their own parties, on two major issues of principle. Overwhelmed by public condemnation, they backed off Friday from one of them: Their highly controversial proposal to make changes in the abortion law, mostly to appease one of their support parties in Parliament, the Christian Democrats.

They did not back down, but rather bent over, on the other issue of principle that left many Norwegians wondering whether their government has any sense of principle at all. Refusing to listen to the will of their own people, or remain true to their earlier exhortations about human rights, the Norwegian government remained intent on appeasing the Chinese by refusing to meet the Dalai Lama, the winner of yet another Nobel Peace Prize that has irritated and embarrassed Beijing.

The new president of the Norwegian Parliament, Olemic Thommessen, is also a Freemason, and that's suddenly raised some concern. PHOTO: Høyre

So has Olemic Thommessen, president of the Norwegian Parliament, who was the first to declare he would not meet the Dalai Lama to avoid igniting more anger from China. PHOTO: Høyre

The public response in Norway has been swift and unforgiving: Norwegians are calling their government cowards and hypocrites. A public opinion poll early in the week showed that fully 60 percent of those questioned felt it was wrong for the president of Norway’s Parliament to refuse to meet the Dalai Lama when he comes to Norway to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his Peace Prize from May 7-9. On Friday, Prime Minister Erna Solberg and Foreign Minister Børge Brende, both of whom have warmly supported the Dalai Lama in the past, finally confirmed that they wouldn’t extend the Dalai Lama the courtesy of a meeting either, nor would any other member of their government. That set off another wave of criticism, along with a new public opinion poll conducted for newspaper Dagbladet showing that fully 43 percent of Norwegians think their government has handled the Dalai Lama visit poorly. Only 17 percent supported the government’s response to the upcoming visit.

In short, the Norwegian government has found itself extremely out of step with their fellow Norwegians, and even defying them. Neither Solberg nor Brende were wavering, though. Asked on state broadcaster NRK’s nightly national newscast  Dagsrevy Friday whether they would change their minds like they did on the abortion issue, given the public opposition they face, Solberg said “no, the invitation (to meet the Dalai Lama) had already been turned down.”

Børge Brende

Foreign Minister Børge Brende, who once led the Parliament’s Tibet Committee and championed human rights, is also being harshly criticized for his decision to snub the Dalai Lama as well. Pleasing China suddenly is much more important.  PHOTO: Høyre

Political commentators have been ranting and raving all week against Solberg and her government, and also against the strangely quiet Labour Party in opposition, which until recently was in the same position Solberg’s Conservative Party is now. In a rare show of silent support, Labour officials refused to criticize the government or even comment on its difficult decision to favour the hope of better relations with China over their commitment to human rights and earlier support for the Dalai Lama. That disappointed many voters on both sides of the political spectrum.

Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) equated Norway’s government to victims of a bullying China, and noted that if only Norway was a member of the EU, it wouldn’t have the isolation that allows China to bully it. China didn’t like German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s and British Prime Minister David Cameron’s decisions to meet with Dalai Lama either, but hasn’t been able to punish Germany and the UK like it’s trying to punish Norway. Nor is Norway near as important economically for China, though.

Newspaper Aftenposten, meanwhile, has been relentless in its criticism of the Norwegian government over its treatment of the Dalai Lama. It was among the first to brand Solberg & Co as “cowardly” and chide their lack of principle on the issue. Aftenposten noted, though, that Solberg isn’t the first Norwegian prime minister to refuse to meet Dalai Lama: Labour Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland wouldn’t either way back in 1988 before he even won the Peace Prize.

There remains no guarantee that China will reward the political risk the Norwegian government is taking on the domestic front to make amends, and the Chinese may well continue to let Solberg and her fellow ministers squirm and fry in their own fat. Several observers, viewing the Norwegian government’s attempt to placate China as a sign of weakness, have noted that traditional Chinese culture does not reward weakness.

Perhaps the Chinese, however, will see the willingness of the Norwegian government politicians to defy the will of their own people as a strength, not a weakness, and more in line with how they often treat their own people in China. This fall was supposed to mark the 60th anniversary (important in many Asian cultures) of diplomatic relations between China and Norway and perhaps the Chinese will allow a small party after all. In their heart of hearts, though, both sides must realize it would be a hollow celebration.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund