Prime Minister Erna Solberg literally hit the road this weekend in her new campaign bus, but it wasn’t all glad-handing and smiles. Solberg was continually confronted over her refusal to comment on or criticize China’s treatment of its terminally ill Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, and whether his request for medical care in the US should be fulfilled. Even some of her own government partners say they’re “shocked” by Solberg’s silence, with one critic claiming it proves that China has “lost all respect for Norway.”
The strongest objections have arisen over how Solberg is staying mum on Liu even after Norway’s biggest and most important allies have urged Chinese officials to grant Liu’s request. Both the US and the EU have called on China’s rulers to let their ailing proponent of more democracy and human rights leave the country, along with his wife who’s been held in house arrest, and get the medical care he wants.
News broke last week that Liu, a jailed Chinese dissident who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 but has never been allowed to accept it, is suffering from liver cancer. He has been released from prison for treatment at a local hospital, but he reportedly has sought permission to travel to the US with his wife and her brother for alternative treatment. Chinese officials have so far refused.
US officials quickly asked China to finally let Liu move freely and let him choose his own doctors. On Friday the EU did the same, with its chief of foreign policy Federica Mogherini saying that the EU “expects” China to “immediately” grant Liu probation on humanitarian grounds, and let him receive the medical treatment he wants, either in China or abroad.
Clamming up on the campaign trail
Solberg’s government, which just recently ended a six-year diplomatic freeze with China after its leaders were angered and embarrassed by the Peace Prize announced in Oslo, has made no response. Norway’s foreign ministry has still only released a brief statement saying that it was “sad” Liu was ill with “incurable cancer,” and that “our thoughts go to him and his family.”
Beyond that, Solberg won’t comment or support her most important allies’ calls for his release on humanitarian grounds. Commentators have claimed Solberg is clearly afraid of provoking the Chinese once again, or that Chinese leaders will view any support for Liu as a violation of the agreement the Norwegian and Chinese governments struck last December that ended the diplomatic freeze. That agreement is currently opening up lucrative new opportunities for renewed trade with China, and the economic significance of that is viewed by Solberg’s government as being in Norway’s best interests.
Solberg was more than willing to chat with reporters about her government’s accomplishments and her meetings with voters during the weekend, but when asked about how China is treating its Peace Prize winner, she clammed up. She refused to comment, wouldn’t respond to her biggest allies’ calls for Liu’s release and passed the entire matter over to the foreign ministry. “It’s Utenriksdepartementet (the foreign ministry) that’s handling the issue,” Solberg told reporters on both Saturday and Sunday, even cutting off and walking away from an interview with Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK).
Foreign Minister Børge Brende, also from Solberg’s Conservative Party, is avoiding questions as well and has refused to comment himself on the dire situation for the Peace Prize winner. Brende, who’s otherwise quick to support most all initiatives put forth by the US and EU, also has refused to say whether he supports the demands they’ve made to Chinese leaders now.
The foreign ministry itself had nothing more to offer than its initial, neutral statement issued last week. The government minister who was among those nominating Liu for the Nobel Peace Prize back in 2010, Jan Tore Sanner, has also refused any comment since Liu’s illness became known.
Solberg has ‘painted herself into an embarrassing corner’
The Norwegian government’s reaction, or lack thereof, is deeply disturbing other Norwegian politicians, even some from the government’s own support parties. Ola Elvestuen of the Liberal Party told newspaper Aftenposten he was “shocked” by Solberg’s silence and that of her ministers. “I think the prime minister should be able to express two clear sentences on Liu Xiaobo and demand that both he and his wife be treated in accordance with fundamental human rights,” Elvestuen said. He added that he hoped Solberg’s silence wasn’t tied to Norway being made subservient to China in last December’s agreement, and that Solberg simply wants to avoid provoking China again.
Anniken Huitfeldt, a Member of Parliament for the opposition Labour Party who heads the Parliament’s committee on foreign relations and defense, has also called on Solberg to support the US’ and EU’s calls on behalf of Liu. Her party failed to melt the diplomatic freeze with China when it held power until 2013. She’s now citing “fundamental human rights” that China should respect.
Petter Eide of the Socialist Left party (SV) who formerly headed Amnesty International in Norway, went further. Amnesty has been critical all along of Norway’s recent diplomatic truce with China, claiming that China remains “one of the countries in the world that violates human rights most of all,” and that Norway “must dare to speak up when something is wrong.” Instead, he suggested to Aftenposten, “the prime minister has painted herself into an embarrassing corner, and this is just getting more and more embarrassing” for Norway.
“Why should China go in dialogue with Norway, when the government has signalled that it’s laid itself down completely flat and is letting China dictate?” Eide told Aftenposten. “The Norwegian policy has achieved one thing, and that’s that China has lost all respect for Norway.”
Chinese officials, meanwhile, have claimed that no other countries have a right to meddle or make “irresponsible comments” on China’s internal affairs. They have also long considered Liu to be a “criminal” whose prison term has not been completed. The Norwegian Nobel Committee, which operates independently of the government, has repeated, meanwhile, that Liu continues to have “a standing invitation to come to Oslo and receive our tribute.”