The Chinese government kept Norwegian officials in suspense, but have finally followed through on a promised invitation to King Harald and Queen Sonja. The royals will leave next week for a week-long state visit, their first to China in 21 years.
It confirms how a diplomatic freeze between Norway and China has thawed, even though uncertainty still exists on both sides. State visits are normally planned long in advance. In this case, the Chinese didn’t confirm any dates until just this week, according to trade minister Torbjørn Røe Isaksen.
He’ll be accompanying the royals along with Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide and state secretaries from Norway’s ministries for oil and energy, climate and environment, education and health. A record-large delegation of 310 representatives from business, culture, sports, research and higher education will also be along for the trip, with the monarch acting as a door-opener for companies hoping to export their products to China.
“This is kind of like a sales tour,” Torger Reve, a professor at the Norwegian Business School BI, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “What’s good about traveling with the king is that he opens doors at high levels.”
Isaksen dodged direct questions about whether Norwegian officials will bring up the thorny issue of human rights abuses in China while speaking with Chinese officials. “I’m traveling in my capacity as business and trade minister,” Isaksen insisted defensively under questioning live on NRK’s nightly national newscast Dagsrevyen Thursday evening, deferring to the foreign minister. He indicated that human rights would not be on his agenda, nor all the recent reports of abductions and mass internment of China’s Uighur minority in the western part of the country, allegedly for “re-education.” Isaksen was leaving that up to Eriksen to address.
Prime Minister Erna Solberg was harshly criticized in Norway last year when she and her ministers also failed to bring up human rights during their first trip to China since diplomatic relations were restored. They’d been frozen for six years after the Norwegian Nobel Committee had awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese human rights advocate Liu Xiaobo. The Chinese were furious, claiming Liu had threatened the stability of China, where the authoritarian communist party rules supreme, and cracks down on opposition. The Chinese blamed the Norwegian government for their international loss of face, even though the Nobel Committee acts indepently.
Solberg was thus reluctant to stir up more hard feelings, and Norway, generally viewed as a champion of human rights, has refrained from attacking China’s record, at least for now. Amnesty International, which agrees the state visit is important, continues to urge that diffcult issues also be addressed.
“Norway is being tested on the agreement it entered into with China, and whether it means we should bow our heads on human rights issues,” John Peder Egenæs, secretary general of Amnesy Norge, told NRK. “Now it’s important to show that we also care about the Chinese people. If not, we become a nation that’s only out to make money.”
The state visit will begin in Dunhuang in Gansu province and move on to Beijing and a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The visit will end in Shanghai. The business portions of the program will take place in Beijing and Shanghai.