UPDATED: Prime Minister Erna Solberg landed in Beijing on Friday and launched what some were calling her government’s ambitious four-day “fishing trip” to China. Backed by fellow ministers and a delegation of more than 200 Norwegian business leaders, they all hope to hook lots of new trade deals and even discuss human rights issues, just not right now.
That’s promising for all the Norwegian seafood producers who want to sell billions of kroner worth of Norwegian salmon to Chinese, for example. Human rights advocates, meanwhile, have been worried that Solberg did not have their cause on her agenda in Beijing. “Norway must not sweep human rights under the carpet” read the headline on a commentary in Oslo newspaper Dagsavisen Friday morning, signed by Amnesty International Norge, The Norwegian Helsinki committee, The Norwegian Tibet Committee, Norsk PEN and the Norwegian Bar Association’s Human Rights Commission. They repeated earlier criticism that Solberg and her ministers had chosen not to bring up human rights concerns during this weekend’s meetings with Chinese officials. “It’s good for Norway,” they agreed, that lots of resources are being used on renewing business and trade ties with China, “but that must not occur at the expense of human rights.”
Earlier this week, a Chinese human rights activist and friend of still-jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo told both Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) and newspaper Aftenposten that Solberg will be sending the wrong signal to Chinese leaders if she doesn’t confront them with human rights abuses in China. “That will indicate that Norway, like many other western countries, now gradually accepts how the Chinese Communist Party draws its red line,” activist Hu Jia told Aftenposten. “It’s a great disappointment for us who fight for fairness, democracy and freedom in China, and it must also be for Norwegian voters who chose Erna Solberg as their country’s leader.” Hu told NRK that the Norwegian government’s apparent priority on salmon sales over human rights will portray Solberg herself as a “spineless fish” in the eyes of Chinese leaders.
‘Feel no pressure’
Solberg dismissed such criticism, also after landing in China on Friday, and claimed she didn’t feel pressured by it. She told NRK that she thinks most Norwegians will understand why human rights are not on the agenda during the first official talks between Norway and China after a six-year freeze. Her top priority now is simply to restore mutual confidence and high-level diplomatic relations.
Top Chinese politicians severed all official ties with their Norwegian counterparts after feeling shamed and angered by the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to the jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo in 2010. It was one of Solberg’s own ministers, Jan Tore Sanner, who had nominated Liu for the prize when her Conservative Party was still in opposition, and Chinese officials did not allow Liu to travel to Oslo to receive his prize. When Solberg’s Conservatives won government power after parliamentary elections in 2013, her new coalition government inherited the consequences of China’s diplomatic freeze. Solberg’s new foreign minister, Børge Brende, immediately set about trying to mend relations. It took him three more years before the ice was broken in December 2016, paving the way for this weekend’s official visit to China.
Sanner is not part of Solberg’s delegation but Brende certainly is, along with Trade Minister Monica Mæland who arrived in Beijing on Thursday. Together they all have a packed agenda that will involve side trips to Shanghai and Hangzhou before Solberg meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping himself back in Beijing on Monday.
After her meeting with Prime Minister Li Keqiang on Friday afternoon, Solberg could announce that they agreed on “a mechanism that can allow for discussion of all issues of common interest, including human rights.” The so-called “mechanism” involves consultations at a political level between China’s and Norway’s foreign ministries. The consultations will be held once a year.
Liu Weimin, who handles EU issues at China’s foreign ministry, told reporters on Friday that even though Solberg had earlier refused to put human rights on her agenda for this week’s meetings, there was no reason to wait. “We have an open approach to human rights dialogue,” Liu said. “We actually have such dialogue with several EU countries.” He stressed, however, that “there are so many other areas where we are now expanding our cooperation.”
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The Norwegian prime minister spent Friday in meetings with Chinese Premier Li and Zhang Dejiang, chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. They are considered the second- and third-ranking leaders of China after President Xi.
Solberg will also be taking part in a major conference for Norwegian and Chinese business leaders that involves nearly all the captains of Norwegian industry, business and labour. They include the head of Norway’s national employers’ organization NHO Kristin Skogen Lund, the head of Norway’s largest trade union federation LO Gerd Kristiansen and the chief executive of Norway’s largest and arguably most important company, Statoil. More than 200 business leaders have made the trip to Beijing.
Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported on Friday that the Norwegians’ visit, with all its meetings, was at least partially brought together by Chinese businessman and adviser Victor Gao. He’s also a high-profile commentator in China who reportedly contacted the inner circles of Chinese politics and finally broke through what even he called “the longest and most complicated” diplomatic freeze Chinese “we have seen” in modern times. “The situation was completely locked, there was no exchange of information at the highest political levels,” Gao told DN. He took the initiative in 2015 to secure Norway an invitation to participate and become a founder of the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. That gave Norwegian foreign ministry officials access to and contact with China’s finance ministry, which in turned showed “that it was possible to talk together, against all the odds,” Gao said.
Norway’s foreign ministry didn’t want to comment on Gao’s role in the process, saying that “normalization of diplomatic and political ties between Norway and China are a result of delicate diplomatic work through various channels during the past few years.” Norwegian officials also note that it was “important for both sides to generate understanding for their positions, look at the situation from each other’s perspective and secure the necessary anchors to move forward.”
Others have suggested that freezing Norway out of official relations was also becoming a burden for China, which needs to maintain trade and ties with other western countries to prop up its own huge economy. Snubbing such a small but wealthy and internationally active country like Norway for so long was not popular among China’s other trade partners. “Much of the problem here was that China backed itself into a corner,” Torbjørn Færøvik, who has written several books on China, told news bureau NTB. “They were very concerned with saving face. They thought Norway would bend in the storm and kneel to China, but that didn’t happen.” He also has been urging Norway to take up human rights issues again.
Solberg and her government, which is up for re-election in September, first aim to get the two countries’ relations back on track. Solberg promised that human rights in China, which many claim have deteriorated greatly under President Xi, would now also be addressed, at a later date.