NEWS ANALYSIS: It’s been two days since news broke that China’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, dissident Liu Xiaobo, had finally been released from prison, but only because he’s terminally ill and needed hospitalization. Since then, not even the current Norwegian government minister Jan Tore Sanner who’d nominated Liu for the prize has commented on Liu’s situation, seriously compromising Norway’s otherwise much-daunted commitment to human rights.
“It’s not surprising, but disappointing,” Gerald Folkvord of the human rights advocacy organization Amnesty Norge told newspaper Aftenposten on Wednesday. “They (Norway’s government leaders) could well have displayed a bit more courage.”
Amnesty International in Norway has called on Norwegian leaders to demand that Liu and his wife, who’s been held in house arrest, at least get their freedom back during the time they have left together. Neither the Norwegian government nor leaders of the opposition in Parliament are responding.
Minister Sanner, who was deputy leader of Norway’s Conservative Party in opposition when he nominated Liu for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, used to be among the most outspoken critics of China’s human rights record. As Aftenposten recalled on Wednesday, Sanner stressed how important it would be for Liu to win the Nobel Peace Prize, for his efforts to urge democracy and freedom of expression in China. Instead Liu was already languishing in a Chinese prison because China’s authoritarian rulers clearly felt a need to silence him and punish him.
When Liu actually won the Nobel Peace Prize for 2010, Sanner was among the first to congratulate him and praise the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s decision. At that time, Chinese dissidents in Norway were invited to Høyres hus (the Conservative Party’s headquarters) during Peace Prize Week festivities. Sanner held a speech in their honour, claiming that Liu’s “personal courage and life-long battle for individuals’ rights when up against a powerful state apparatus placed him in a proud line of human rights champions.” Sanner also told Norwegian Broadcating (NRK) seven years ago that Liu’s Peace Prize, which he hasn’t been allowed to accept, “was a signal to us that we can’t turn a deaf ear when China violates human rights.”
Today that’s exactly what Sanner and all his fellow government ministers are doing. Aftenposten reported that the communications department in Sanner’s ministry said he didn’t want to comment either on Liu’s release or illness. Prime Minister Erna Solberg, current leader of the Conservative Party, was also avoiding comment, with her office failing to respond to requests for her reaction.
Sanner’s ministry referred inquiries to the foreign ministry, where its top politician Børge Brende, also from the Conservatives, was said to be unavailable for comment because he’s out traveling. Brende has spent the vast majority of his time traveling as foreign minister, though, and that hasn’t hindered earlier comments on news that crops up, especially after two days.
Brende and Solberg, like Sanner, were also once critical of China’s dismal human rights record. This week the only comment that came from the government was via Brende’s often hard-pressed ministry spokesman, Frode O Andersen, who sent the following brief written statement to news bureau NTB on Monday: “The news that Liu Xiaobo has been admitted to hospital with incurable cancer is sad. Our thoughts go to him and his family.” There was no elaboration.
Liu was only released from prison because he’s terminally ill with liver cancer. He’s receiving treatment at a local hospital in Shenyang but Chinese authorities reportedly are still restricting his movements, and his wife Liu Xia remains under house arrest. Scholars who closely follow developments (or the lack thereof) in China contend that Liu’s release does not signal any easing of restrictions on freedom of expression or respect for human rights.
Yet Sanner, Solberg, Brende, their fellow government ministers and even leaders of the opposition Labour Party are staying mum. They’re all acutely aware of how Chinese authorities reacted with fury over the Nobel Peace Prize and immediately severed all diplomatic and many business relations with Norway. Chinese leaders consider Liu a “criminal” who should never have received such an international honour.
Labour held government power at the time and tried in vain to mend ties with China, pointing out that the government has no say in who wins the Peace Prize. That’s up to the Norwegian Nobel Committee, not the state, but it took the Chinese a long time to accept that.
Repairing and renewing relations was Brende’s top priority when he took over as foreign minister after the Conservatives won election in 2013. He ended up getting distracted by many other issues, not least regarding Russia and the Middle East, but kept working on the Chinese challenge as the diplomatic freeze continued.
It suddenly melted in December, ironically enough, following the arrival of a new Chinese ambassador in Norway who had been China’s ambassador to the UN and is highly respected among western diplomats. The two sides finally struck an agreement without either losing much face and almost overnight, China and Norway were friends again. Prospects for a boom in business with China replaced the gloom over former freeze.
News of Liu’s terminal illness comes just two months after Solberg and Brende triumphantly returned to Beijing, met top leaders and struck all kinds of new trade and cooperation deals. Prospects are enormous for Norwegian fish and seafood sales to China. Neither human rights nor the status of Liu Xiaobo were on Solberg’s and Brende’s agenda. Neither Solberg nor Brende (nor Sanner, who wasn’t along on the trip) want to jeopardize the progress they’ve made in renewing ties at the highest levels of government, by irritating the Chinese again over their lack of democratic principles.
‘Money talks, principles walk’
So the Norwegian leaders clearly have muzzled themselves. “Money talks, principle walk,” goes the old saying. That’s what Norway is increasingly accused of on the environmental front, as it preaches climate concerns while rapidly expanding its oil industry in the Arctic. Now there’s so much money and trade at stake with China that human rights aren’t up for discussion with Chinese leaders either. Both of Norway’s last two governments since the Peace Prize to Liu was announced have also spent great energy distancing themselves from the Norwegian Nobel Committee that awards the Peace Prizes. Politicians have mostly stopped commenting on Peace Prize winners and they can rightly claim they have nothing to do with what the committee might do now that Liu is no longer in prison.
Demands are being made, including in the US, that Liu be allowed full freedom of movement. Calls have gone out that Nobel Committee members should head for his bedside and finally award him his prize. Olav Njølstad, director of the Nobel Institute in Oslo and secretary to the committee, noted that the Peace Prize has never been awarded outside of Oslo, as determined under the terms of benefactor Alfred Nobel’s will. The committee waited many years, for example, to award their prize to former Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, who only came to Oslo after being released from house arrest and no longer fearing she’d be barred from returning to Burma/Myanmar.
‘Relieved by Liu’s illness’
Harald Bøckman, a longtime China scholar at the University of Oslo who now does research at the London School of Economics, told Aftenposten that he thinks Chinese leaders are now heaving a sigh of relief that Liu is terminally ill. “The fact he’s sick is his own fault, that’s unfortunately Chinese logic when there’s a need to avoid responsibility,” said Bøckman, who’s been barred from visiting China himself since 2008. “They managed to isolate him so well for so many years, so this won’t have any internal political consequences.”
Norwegian political commentator Harald Stanghelle worried in Aftenposten on Tuesday that Liu’s unsuccessful efforts to usher in democratic reforms in China should have consequences in Norway, and continue to plague Norwegians and Norwegian leaders: “Has it really come to a point that no one dares any longer to champion dissidents’ causes, for fear of being excluded from China’s party?” Stanghelle wrote.
John Peder Egenæs, secretary general of Amnesty International in Norway, went further. He wrote this week on Amnesty’s own website that if the government’s evaluation is that Norwegian economic interests get in the way of asking China to do the right thing for Liu Xiaobo and his family, he’s inclined to agree with another Chinese dissident, Hu Jia. Hu told Norwegian reporters earlier this spring that Solberg can end up acting more like a fishmonger than prime minister.