UPDATED: “It’s clear China has manipulated us,” declared a Member of Parliament to Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Tuesday afternoon. MP Petter Eide was responding to NRK’s report about how the Chinese Embassy in Oslo managed to prevent Amnesty International from mounting a protest when China’s third most-powerful man visits the Norwegian Parliament on Wednesday.
Eide was calling on Parliament administrators to reverse their decision to reject Amnesty’s application to demonstrate against human rights abuses in China on Wednesday. The administrators had already granted the plaza in front of the Parliament to an unknown pro-China group instead. Amnesty blames it all on “a tactic to keep demonstrators away” when China’s Li Zhanshu otherwise gets controversial red carpet treatment from Norwegian officials.
Li’s visit, which coincides with Norway’s Constitution Day celebrations on the 17th of May, wasn’t made public until just last week. Amnesty’s Norwegian chapter immediately applied to the police and parliamentary officials to hold a demonstration against China’s ongoing record of human rights violations.
“We applied to demonstrate (just outside the Parliament) as soon as the visit was made publicly known,” John Peder Egenæs, secretary general of Amnesty Norge, told NRK. “But the area was already taken, long before Norwegian authorities even let the visit be known.”
Instead of having to face Norwegian demonstrators concerned over ongoing human rights abuses in China, Li will now be met by a little-known group calling itself the “Norway-Wenzhou Chamber of Commerce” that instead will be celebrating 65 years of diplomatic relations between Norway and China. The group had applied for and won permission on April 23 to gather in front of Parliament, more than two weeks before the visit by the Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress in Beijing was announced.
Tipped by the Chinese Embassy
“We had received a message from the embassy that something was going on,” Vegard Moltubakk, the man who applied to assemble outside Parliament on behalf of the China-friendly group, told NRK. Moltubakk himself works for a company owned by a Norwegian-Chinese businessman who’s keen on maintaining friendly ties to China, according to NRK.
Moltubakk thus revealed that the embassy had tipped him and the group, either about Li’s visit itself or simply that May 15th would be a fine occasion to “demonstrate” about positive ties between Norway and China. “We want to mark the 65 years of diplomatic relations between Norway and China, nothing else,” Moltubakk told NRK.
Egenæs is convinced that Moltubakk and the group have either been used as pawns by Chinese officials or that the group knowingly wanted to thwart Amnesty Norge’s effort to once again draw attention to what it considers a lack of human rights in China.
“We know that the Chinese don’t want to have demonstrations along the routes they take when they’re out visiting,” Egenæs said “This falls into a pattern we’ve seen earlier. The Chinese want to avoid (having to face) loud protesters.”
Alleged Chinese maneuver ‘stinks’
MP Eide, a former head of Amnesty himself, agrees and won support on Tuesday from the Liberal Party as well, even though it’s part of the government coalition led by the Conservatives that will be hosting Li in Norway. MP Abid Raja was huddling in a meeting late Tuesday afternoon to reverse the decision and allow Amnesty to demonstrate after all when Li arrives at Parliament, instead of being relegated to another location several hundred meters away. Eide claimed the alleged maneuver by the Chinese Embassy “stinks,” while MP Ketil Kjenseth of the Liberal Party told NRK that his party colleague Raja was working to reverse it.
“There’s no tradition in to hide aweay demonstrators in Norway,” said Kjenseth, who also leads the Norwegian Parliament’s committee in favour of independence for Tibet.
Li’s visit is the first by a high-ranking Chinese official since China broke off diplomatic relations with Norway in 2010. Chinese leaders were furious that the Norwegian Nobel Committee had awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident and human rights advocate Liu Xiabao, who was in prison at the time and has since died. Even though the Norwegian government has no say in how the Nobel Committee selects Peace Prize winners, Chinese officals blamed Norway for its international humiliation and cut off most all contact until December 2016, when the two sides reconciled in a deal that’s still disputed in Norway. Norwegian government officials visited Beijing the next spring and both King Harald and Queen Sonja made a state visit last year. Li’s visit now is viewed as part of the protocol that follows.
Parliament’s leader denies unfairness
Norwegian officials, meanwhile, continue to be criticized for caving in to the Chinese and backing down on Norway’s own human rights and democratic principles, in order not to further offend the Chinese. The Parliament’s administrative director, Marianne Andreassen, defended the decision that granted permission to the China-friendly group instead of Amnesty.
“What’s fair is that the Parliament doesn’t meddle in who seeks permission to use Eidsvolls Plass (the plaza outside the Parliament routinely used for demonstrations);” Andreassen told NRK. “There’s full opportunity to use the plaza and openness about how the system functions, and it’s first-come, first-served.”
Confronted with the fact that the China-friendly group was tipped in advance, arguably encouraged to apply to assemble and thus received an unfair advantage, Andreassen replied that “we won’t get into how the various parties were informed. We just know that we received an application and handled it how we handle all others in this open system that we have, which is on a first-come first-served basis.”
Amnesty can argue that in this case, the “system” wasn’t open at all. The Norwegian-Chinese businessman who’s behind the “Norway-Wenzhou Chamber of Commerce,” meanwhile, denied in a text message to NRK that his organization cooperated with China’s embassy.
Asked why there’s no trace of the organization in any Norwegian register, businessman Yun Lin Zhan wrote that it’s only registered in China and has yet to get an office in Norway, but allegedly has 100 members. Yun Lin Zhan, who owns retail stores in both Oslo and Bergen that cater to Chinese tourists, cooperates closely with China’s state tourist bureau. He claimed, however, that his organization has no connection with Chinese authorities.
During his visit, China’s third most-powerful man behind the president and prime minister will have a audience at the Royal Palace and “conversations” with Prime Minister Erna Solberg. Li’s visit will conclude with 17th of May celebrations in Stavanger, where local politicians have strongly criticized that one of the leaders of China’s communist party will visit the city on Norway’s national day that celebrates Norway’s constitution and democracy.
“Dictators from China are not welcome to Stavanger,” Mats Danielsen of the Progress Party told newspaper Stavanger Aftenblad last week. The Progress Party shares government power with Solberg’s Conservatives and both the Christian Democrats and Liberal parties, which also have been critical of China’s lack of human rights and democracy.