The human rights organization Amnesty International is strongly criticizing Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s trip to Beijing next week, which aims to officially restore Norway’s diplomatic relations with China. Amnesty wants human rights to be on the agenda, claiming that its omission sends “a dangerous signal.”
Solberg’s upcoming trip was first announced last December, when China and Norway finally mended relations that China severed in 2010 after the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the annual Nobel Peace Prize to jailed Chinese dissident and human rights advocate Liu Xiaobo. That infuriated Chinese officials who blamed the Norwegian government for their embarrassment and claimed that the Norwegians were meddling in China’s internal affairs. High-level diplomatic relations were immediately frozen, Norwegian salmon was held up at the border and nothing changed when Solberg’s conservative government coalition took over for the former left-center coalition in 2013.
Her government immediately tried to continue efforts to mend relations but there was no breakthrough for three years, when the Chinese finally decided to bury the hatchet. Solberg’s office confirmed Friday that the prime minister will lead a Norwegian delegation on an official visit to China April 7-10. She’ll be accompanied by both Foreign Minister Børge Brende and Trade Minister Monica Mæland and what they call “the largest delegation of representatives from Norwegian business” that has ever taken part in a prime minister’s visit.
Not ‘natural’ to bring up human rights issues
In addition to their political meetings, a business seminar and lectures at Peking University in Beijing, Solberg’s delegation will also visit Shanghai and Hangzhou. Cooperation between China and Norway in business, trade, Arctic and environmental issues, research and education will be on the agenda.
Human rights issues will not, and that’s what bothers Amnesty International and others as well. Solberg had told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) earlier i the day on Friday that it “wasn’t natural” to start conversations with Chinese officials after more than six years of a diplomatic freeze by taking up “the most difficult” issues. She prefers to “build a bridge that means we in fact can have mechanisms so that we can take up questions like human rights.”
Asked whether either she or the other ministers will take up the situation for Liu Xiaobo, who remains jailed and have not been allowed to travel to Oslo to receive his Peace Prize, Solberg responded that “we will work, with this trip, to create confidence between our countries, to make sure we have a platform also to talk about the difficult issues, which that (Liu’s situation) is.”
‘Have allowed ourselves to be scared’
Gerald Kador Folkvord, a political adviser at Amnesty International Norge, was far from satisfied. “It’s very strange that a Norwegian prime minister believes human rights are only one of many themes, and that it’s not on the list,” Folkvord told NRK. “It’s the foundation for everything. When you discuss business, you must also talk about the people who’ll be doing the work, and their rights.”
Folkvord claimed it was “much too thin” for Solberg to say that the issue wasn’t being brought up on the trip. He equated it to her saying “we have allowed ourselves to be scared (by the Chinese) and learned our lesson. We’re giving up. That sends a dangerous signal.”
Folkvord believes Chinese authorities will view the Norwegians as capitulating, and added that “if Norway thinks that human rights will get in the way of business interests, then we’ve taken a long step backwards.” It’s widely believed that the human rights situation in China has deteriorated in recent years, with NRK reporting that increasing numbers of human rights attorneys are being arrested along with their clients. The Communist Party in China is viewed as all-powerful, and its leader won’t tolerate criticism or opposition.
Cecilie Figenschou Bakke, who specializes in Chinese issues at the Norwegian Center for Human Rights in Oslo, thinks Norway should have an ambition of resuming the human rights dialogue it had with China up to 2010. She noted, though, that “criticizing China from the outside, or only taking up human rights problems in political conversations, is not enough. In order to promote changes in the human rights situation, the work has to done in China.” She stressed that it’s important to cooperate with Chinese authorities, academics, lawyers and organizations.
‘Imporant to normalize relations first’
Hans Jørgen Gåsemyr, a senior researcher at the Norwegian foreign policy institute NUPI who specializes on China, believes that limiting the discussion about Norway and China to be about possibilities for Norwegian business and human rights is one-sided. “It’s important that we have a normal and vigorous political relation to one of the world’s most important countries,” Gåsemyr told NRK. China agrees with Norway on many issues regarding the environment, international health, international conflicts, energy policies and not least free trade. The latter, a free trade agreement between Norway and China, is among the issues to be taken up again after the six-year freeze.
A spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affair, Lu Kang, said in Beijing on Friday that Norway first must build up China’s confidence before conversations on such issues as human rights can be discussed. Lu noted, though, that Norway was “one of the first countries that recognized the establishment of the Peoples Republic of China, and that provides “a solid foundation for cooperation.”
He added that China “is not opposed to a human rights dialogue based on mutual confidence. But we are opponents of human rights being used to meddle in other countries’ affairs.”