“I love China!” exclaimed Norway’s fisheries minister Per Sandberg after landing in Beijing this week. He’s leading a large delegation of Norwegian seafood exporters who see enormous potential in the Chinese market, and are overlooking human rights issues after a six-year diplomatic freeze finally thawed this winter.
China may love Norway too, as long as the Norwegians don’t bring up the thorny subject of ongoing human rights abuses in the country. Relations between Norway and China froze when the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to jailed human rights advocate Liu Xiabao in 2010. Today, Liu remains in jail with his wife under house arrest. Chinese leaders have proven their point that they don’t take kindly to other countries meddling in their internal affairs, or criticizing how voices of opposition to China’s political elite are stifled.
Sandberg didn’t want to talk about human rights in China when interviewed by Nowegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Monday, or answer any questions about whether Norway should ignore its principles in the hopes of doing more business. That’s not the government’s “focus” in China right now, Sandberg said. “This time it’s all about fish,” he told newspaper Aftenposten.
Sandberg is accompanied by the largest seafood delegation Norway has ever mounted, with more than 100 representatives of Norwegian seafood producers and fisheries management. All the large salmon producers and fish farms are in Beijing with Sandberg as door-opener, along with king crab exporters and producers of other specialities like sea urchins and scallops. Several officials from Norway’s food safety authority Mattilsynet are also along on the trip, plus representatives from herring producers and trawlers.
Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported that they’ve been meeting with 250 representatives from Chinese fish distribution firms, processors and government authorities. Norway aims to resume its role as the biggest sole provider of salmon to China, where the market is enormous but authorities imposed import restrictions against Norwegian salmon. They’re now likely to be lifted, after Prime Minister Erna Solberg and top Chinese leaders resolved their differences and resumed diplomatic relations.
Solberg, her foreign minister Børge Brende and business and trade minister Monica Mæland all visited China last month, paving the way for Sandberg’s visit this week and that of Culture Minister Linda Hofstad Helleland. She’ll be meeting her Chinese counterpart later this week.
Helleland will be under much more pressure to take up China’s alleged violations of human rights. Newspaper Dagsavisen reported Tuesday that Norsk PEN and other advocacy groups in Norway are demanding that Helleland question the Chinese about the situation for jailed authors, artists and journalists in China.
“We believe that she, as Norway’s minister of culture, is obligated to do this,” Hege Newth Nouri, secretary general of Norsk PEN, told Dagsavisen. “When she meets China’s minster of culture, she must bring up the violations of human rights, freedom of expression and freedom of the press.”
Norsk PEN has outlined its demands in a letter to Helleland, with copies sent to the Chinese Embassy in Oslo and the Norwegian Embassy in Beijing. Norsk PEN believes it’s extremely important for Chinese authorities to get the clear message from their international trading partners that China is expected to respect human rights in line with international law. Instead, Norsk PEN noted in its letter, Chinese dissidents, authors, journalists, publishers and bloggers are subject to “torture, seizure, forced confessions and long prison terms,” with more than 40 people currently in custody simply because they exercised their right to freedom of expression.
“The situation in China is depressing,” Nouri told Dagsavisen. “Nothing is better after Liu Xiabao won the Peace Prize. On the contrary, it’s gone from bad to worse.” Only Turkey, after its own authoritarian president’s crackdown, has more authors and journalists in prison than China, Nouri said.
Norwegian ‘drawfs’ can be useful
Harald Bøckman, a China scholar and researcher now tied to the London School of Economics, said that Helleland should be concrete in bringing specific cases “to show that she’s well aware” of them instead of just making general statements. “Journalists and media folks are absolutely the worst off,” Bøckman, who’s been denied visas to China himself after years of traveling freely in the country, told Dagsavisen.
Bøckman believes that China restored ties with Norway because it can use Norway’s help in advance of hosting the Winter Olympics in Beijing in 2022. As culture minister, Helleland is also responsible for sports in Norway. “It’s completely clear that the Winter Olympics is an important reason for the normalization,” he said. “Norway has a lot of valuable knowledge and experience in organizing winter sporting events that the Chinese need.” He said it also would have been embarrassing for China if these “small dwarfs (as China once referred to Norwegians) came over from a country China had no contact with, and won a bunch of gold medals.”
It’s the potential for doing business, though, that ranks highest among both the Chinese and the Norwegians. The latter think demand for salmon and other seafood from Norway can generate exports 20 times as large as current levels. Hogne Tyssøy, portfolio manager for the seafood fund Holberg Triton, is among those in Beijing with Minister Sandberg this week and thinks business will develop quickly. He told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) that new price records are fully possible, and that salmon sales can double many times over.
Chinese investors are also “hungry” for Norwegian companies, reported DN. One Norwegian deal-maker has assembled nearly NOK 2 billion of commitments from Chinese keen to buy businesses in Norway and other Nordic countries. Chinese investors have already bought into or taken over Norway’s Opera Software, Voss drinking water, shipbuilder Brødrene Aa and Elkem. Oslo law firms are also reporting strong interest from Chinese buyers. “Without going into detail, we’ve been contacted by 11 to 12 interested companies,” Tormod Ludvik Nilsen of Oslo-based law firm Wikborg Rein told DN. “We think there will be strong activity within acquisitions.”
Among Chinese companies clearly interested in Norway is entrepreneur Jack Ma’s online trading firm Alibaba. Alibaba was among those meeting with Norway’s seafood delegation, and selling cartons of fresh Norwegian seafood to consumers. Ma also met with Solberg when she was in China in April, and the two sit on the UN’s panel for sustainable climate goals. They vowed to continue the climate campaign even if US President Donald Trump dumps the US’ commitments under the UN climate pact struck in Paris.
So if human rights are slow to get on the Norwegians’ agenda, they can at least tackle climate issues with the Chinese. Solberg has claimed human rights will be taken up again, in time.
“I have the view in principle that we should have freedom of expression,” Solberg told Aftenposten during her visit to China last month. “But I think our job on behalf of Norway right now is to find a format where what we say will have some effect,” Solberg added. “Now we are in a phase where we can talk together, politically.” By the time King Harald V makes a planned state visit to China in the fall of 2018, the Norwegians may have advanced to the next phase.