After more than a week of self-imposed silence, both Prime Minister Erna Solberg and one of her government ministers have at least tried to explain why they won’t comment on the situation for Chinese dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. Critics have claimed they’ve painted themselves into “an embarrassing corner,” that’s causing major problems just two months before the parliamentary election.
Solberg has faced the harshest criticism, for allegedly not daring to confront China on human rights issues for fear of another diplomatic freeze. She claims it’s in Norway’s best interests, however, to avoid damaging the relations between Norway and China that have just been renewed.
“We have had a difficult relation to China for six years,” Solberg, weary of the outcry over her silence on Liu, told reporters earlier this week after a campaign event in Drammen. She was referring to how China broke off diplomatic relations with Norway in 2010, after the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu. Chinese rulers view Liu as a criminal and were highly offended that he should win what’s considered the world’s most prestigious prize, for his efforts to promote democracy and human rights in China. Both would challenge Chinese rulers’ power.
“We have worked hard to rebuild a good and confident relation that also would allow us to take up difficult issues in the future,” Solberg continued. She noted, however, that “it’s still a fragile cooperation.” She doesn’t want to damage it.
She also said that “as far as I can see, no other countries’ prime minister or foreign minister has taken up this question (of whether Liu, who’s been diagnosed as terminally ill, should be allowed to seek treatment outside China).” Both the US and EU have called on China, however, to allow Liu to travel abroad for the treatment he wants. “We have therefore chosen to let the spokesman for the Foreign Ministry handle this,” Solberg said.
She also questioned how the opposition Labour Party, among her critics, has called on her government to back the EU’s call. “Labour should think about how it’s important for a country like Norway to have a government that’s on speaking terms with the world’s largest country, when we take up issues like the climate, international trade and other things.”
Solberg also stressed that a “process” for how to tackle “demanding issues” has been established. “We have procedures for how these questions can be taken up, in an organized and structured manner,” Solberg said.
Her comments did not quiet the critics who continue to assail her government. On Wednesday morning, Solberg’s government minister Jan Tore Sanner, also tried to explain his silence on NRK’s popular morning debate program Politisk kvarter. It was Sanner who was among those nominating Liu for the Peace Prize in 2010, when he was a Member of Parliament for Solberg’s Conservative Party.
“There’s a difference between being a Member of Parliament and being a government minister,” Sanner said. “Now I’m a government minister and represent the government, which has decided that this issue will be handled by the foreign ministry.”
Asked whether he missed not being able to express his opinion, he wouldn’t answer, simply repeating how his role has changed since the days when he actively supported Liu Xiaobo for trying to urge Chinese rules to allow some democracy and adhere to the international human rights declaration it had signed.
Foreign Minister Børge Brende, out traveling as usual, has avoided all questions on Liu’s situation. That has sparked criticism as well, and accusations that Brende is deviating from established Norwegian foreign policy.
“You don’t hear Børge Brende saying very often any longer that Norwegian foreign policy is firm,” Christian Tybring-Gjedde, a Member of Parliament for the Progress Party, told newspaper Aftenposten on Wednesday. “That’s good.”
Tybring-Gjedde, whose party shares government power with Solberg’s, Sanner’s and Brende’s Conservative Party, otherwise defended the government’s position on China at present and claimed it reflects “that the world is changing.” He sees the US sliding away from Europe, “therefore it’s unprofessional to sour relations with two other large powers that are important for us, Russia and China,” he said. He wants to also improve relations with Russia, and urges easing sanctions against Norway’s neighbour in the far north.
Tybring-Gjedde denied his party was willing to “tone down” Norway’s promotion of human rights. Rather, he told Aftenposten, the party was just being “realistic” in a new era. He thinks Brende and the government is also, to a higher degree than in the past, “putting Norway’s interests first,” and “that’s what the government is doing when they don’t want to talk about Liu Xiaobo.” He was referring to how neither Solberg nor Brende want to jeopardize renewed trade deals with China that can generate billions of kroner in revenues for the Norwegian economy.