The Chinese organizers of a major business conference with Norway’s national employer’s organization NHO cancelled it at the last minute last week. The cancellation was blamed on “the political situation between Norway and China,” according to NHO, making it the latest example of China’s ongoing retaliation for being angered and humiliated by the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo four years ago.
Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported that the conference, in which more than 20 Norwegian businesses were participating, was supposed to take place this week in Chonqing. It had been arranged by NHO and the China Enterprise Confederation in China, and would have been the largest and most important business conference between Norwegian and Chinese participants since the controversial Peace Prize was announced in October 2010.
Since then, China has frozen diplomatic relations with Norway, blaming the Norwegian government for the Peace Prize even though the government has nothing to do with the choices of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. Committee members are appointed by the Norwegian Parliament, in accordance with the will of benefactor Alfred Nobel, but the committee itself operates independently of the Norwegian government.
China continues to insist on an apology of some sort from Norway, leading the former left-center government to actually consider approving a secret document containing concessions to the Chinese in 2013. Former Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg of the Labour Party refused in the end to do so, reported DN, but the consideration itself indicates the depth of the dilemma over the diplomatic freeze with China. Several politicians from other parties claimed on Wednesday that they were “shocked” and “disturbed” that Stoltenberg’s foreign minister at the time, Espen Barth Eide, would even propose concessions like those included in the document that the Chinese reportedly wanted.
Both Stoltenberg’s government and the new conservative government that replaced it last year are under pressure from Norway’s business community to normalize relations with China, not least from NHO. While some business leaders have been accused of demanding that Norway appease the Chinese, others insist that normalization must only occur with Norway’s democratic and human rights principles intact. Sturla Henriksen of the Norwegian Shipowners’ Association, for example, told DN that normalization is important “but not at any price. It must occur without compromising out national integrity and political ideals.”
Brende keeping mum
Foreign Minister Børge Brende, who had close ties with top Chinese officials as a director of the World Economic Forum, made normalization a priority when he was appointed to his post last year. He has since hit the proverbial brick wall as well, though, with no visible progress in whatever negotiations he and his staff may be having with their Chinese counterparts. Neither Brende nor any other Norwegian officials will specify what the ministry is now doing to achieve normalization. “This work won’t be well-served if I comment on our evaluations or offer more detailed information,” Brende told DN this week.
Concessions seem out of the question, since Brende’s Conservative Party not only has dismissed them before but also played a role in the nomination of Liu back in 2010. An attempt by Brende and other members of the conservative government to cheer up the Chinese by refusing to meet the Dalai Lama in Oslo last spring had no effect, and only subjected the government to massive public criticism in Norway.
With the situation over China deadlocked, Norway has opted to leave its long-serving ambassador to China, Svein Sæther, in place in Beijing. Sæther has served in his post since 2007, long before the Peace Prize conflict arose and far longer than ambassadors usually serve. Since China would need to approve a new ambassador, Sæther reportedly remains in place to ensure that Norway doesn’t end up without an ambassador in China. A foreign ministry spokesman declined comment.