Prime Minister Erna Solberg was under attack again on Friday by human rights activists who think she has betrayed her own government’s human rights policy. The latest criticism comes after the death on Thursday of China’s jailed human rights promoter Liu Xiaobo, who didn’t get the support from Norway that many feel was warranted in his final days.
Solberg is currently on summer holiday abroad, and her office said she was not available to answer questions on the criticism.
She did issue a statement of condolence late Thursday, after news broke of the death of the Nobel Peace Prize winner whose prize set off a six-year diplomatic freeze between Norway and China. In her statement Solberg noted that she had received the news of Liu’s death “with great sorrow” and that Liu had been “a central voice for human rights and China’s ongoing development” for several decades.
That far from satisfied critics of China’s authoritarian regime that had jailed Liu for “inciting subversion” because of his promotion of democracy and human rights. Solberg had also earlier refused to comment on his terminal illness, leaving it to the foreign ministry to merely state that Norway viewed Liu’s illness as “sad.” It was clear to most that Solberg didn’t want to jeopardize her government’s recent reconciliation with China that finally ended the diplomatic freeze, by commenting on Liu or how he was being treated. Now neither the foreign ministry nor Foreign Minister Børge Brende is making any comment at all on Liu’s death.
And that fired up the critics again on Friday. “The Solberg Government had a government declaration they took over with that claimed the government would hold the human rights banner high,” Thorbjørn Færøvik, an author who’s followed China closely for years, told newspaper Dagsavisen on Friday. “And then they fail the first and greatest test of that. It’s sad.”
China has bound Norway ‘by the hands and feet’
Færøvik has long criticized the agreement reached between China and Norway last December that ended their diplomatic freeze. “It strikes back like a boomerang, and is a bad deal that binds Norway by the hands and feet and offers little room for negotiation with China,” he said. “That’s why the government has been so silent. It shows that China already has an unfortunate grip on Norway.”
William Nygaard, chairman of the Norsk PEN organization that promotes freedom of expression, told news bureau NTB on Friday that he “sees a pattern” in how the Norwegian government reacts when confronted by larger countries. “They wouldn’t meet the Dalai Lama when he visited Norway in 2014, for fear of the consequences (with China),” Nygaard recalled. “We’ve also seen anxiety for political distress with the US in the Snowden case. These kinds of priorities (by the government) set freedom of expression and lives in danger.” Nygaard called Solberg’s handling of the Liu case “embarrassing.”
Commentator Jan Arild Snoen accused Solberg of “choosing salmon sales (to China)” over Liu. “Don’t forgive them,” he wrote on social media, which was peppered with other criticical comments: “What a pitiful prime minister we have,” wrote Hanne Grotjord, a former journalist and wife of former Labour Party Prime Minister Thorbjørn Jagland, current head of the Council of Europe who led the Norwegian Nobel Committee when it awarded the Peace Prize to Liu.
The harshest criticism came on Friday from Petter Eide, former secretary general of Amnesty International in Norway and now a candidate for Parliament for the Socialist Left party (SV). He went so far as to say on national radio that he thinks it was “audacious” of Solberg to say she reacted with “great sorrow” to Liu’s death. “She’s reacting most probably completely opposite. She’s reacting with relief.” He suggested that the death of Liu removes another thorny issue for the Norwegian government, like whether he should have been invited to Norway at the risk of angering China once again.
Eide’s criticism sparked reaction from Solberg’s state secretary Ingvild Stub: “We shall have respect for various opinions in politics, and there’s generally lots of room in the Norwegian political debate. Eide’s claim that the prime minister shall have felt relief over a death is as sad as it is unreasonable, but can likely be tied to it being an election year this year.”
Government ‘had little alternative’
Solberg did get support from Henning Kristoffersen, an author and social anthropologist who once led the Nordic Center at Fudan University in Shanghai and has advised the large classification firm DNV GL on doing business in China. Kristoffersen, who was a critic of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu, wrote in newspaper Aftenposten on Friday that Solberg couldn’t express support for Liu or Liu’s release since her government wants “a functioning bilateral relation” with China.
While Liu was viewed in western nations as a moderate, non-violent human rights champion, Kristoffersen argues that the authorities in Beijing viewed him as dangerous and a threat to China’s stability. He was thus convicted of inciting an undermining of the state’s power and that’s a crime in China. In China, the communist party leaders see themselves as the only ones capable of keeping China stable enough to “continue its economic and social progress, and develop in a peaceful manner.” Liu’s ideas of democracy and human rights would lead to division and unrest, they believed, in additon to threatening their power. Chinese authorities, meanwhile, were rejecting all criticism on Friday of their treatment of Liu before his death, claiming once again it was an internal matter that should not be criticized by other countries.
The Norwegian government’s silence on Liu during the past several weeks since his illness became known “was completely necessary to maintain the bilateral relation to China,” Kristoffersen wrote. Beijing requires respect from all countries for its core interests, and its regime is as its core.
“Our current government got Norway out of an historically difficult conflict, and we’re becoming steadily wiser about where Beijing draws the line,” Kristoffersen wrote. “Where Norway’s line goes will be up to the next government to decide. The debate over Norway’s relations with China won’t stop with Liu Xiaobo’s death.”