China meets some new opposition

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NEWS ANALYSIS: Nine years after the Norwegian Nobel Committee infuriated Chinese officials by awarding the Peace Prize to jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiabao, the conciliatory tone that other Norwegian officials felt forced to adopt may finally get tougher. Telia Norge’s decision this week to dump Huawei as a supplier for the mobile operator’s 5G network has the support of the Norwegian government, and may cheer critics who think the government has been too soft on China for far too long.

Norwegian government minister Nikolai Astrup (left) was literally on hand when Telia Norge announced it would develop its 5G network with Ericsson of Sweden, not Huawei of China. At right, Telia Norge’s CEO Abraham Foss and Jenny Lindqvist, head of Northern and Central European operations for Ericsson. PHOTO: Telia Norge

The Norwegian government minister in charge of digitalization, Nikolai Astrup, was on hand and smiling when Telia announced that it would modernize and develop its national 5G coverage in cooperation with Ericsson of Sweden, not Huawei of China. Telia is also scrapping all base stations supplied by Huawei during a trial period, meaning its new 5G network will be “in Swedish hands.”

That’s clearly a disappointment for China and a victory for Norway’s biggest ally, the US, which has urged an international boycott of Huawei as a 5G supplier because of security concerns that also Norway’s own police intelligence unit PST has voiced. While Huawei and Chinese authorities firmly defend themselves, US authorities have pressured its allies not to let Huawei deliver critical infrastructure for fear it will open up customers to Chinese espionage.

Astrup insisted Norway is not imposing any boycott of Huawei, claiming Norwegian authorities don’t meddle in individual Norwegian companies and their decisions. He and his government colleagues merely have “a good dialogue” with the companies, he told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), “and then they must make their own security evaluatons.”

Telenor up next
The minister was nonetheless on hand and smiling when the chief executive of Telia Norge and Ericsson executive Jenny Lindqvist announced plans for national 5G coverage by 2023. It will have a major impact on the ongoing digitalizaton of Norwegian society that Astrup is promoting. Telia’s press release doesn’t even mention Huawei, but Astrup insisted no individual companies had been blocked. Telia Norge’s Abraham Foss claimed Telia had not felt any official pressure: “I want to stress that we’re the ones who have chosen the supplier. An important decision like that is based on many elements that we have laid out.”

Norway’s dominant Telenor, in which the Norwegian stake still holds a 54 percent stake, will choose its 5G supplier later this fall. DN reported that it’s currently testing equipment both from Ericsson and Huawei in Norway and the Finnish Nokia’s 5G products in Denmark. Many technology experts have warned Telenor against choosing Huawei for fear its equipment could ultimately give Chinese authorities access to communications it shouldn’t have.

Diplomatic relations between China and Norway went into a deep freeze after the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to human rights champion Liu Xiaobo in 2010. Norwegian government officials have seemed too willing to placate Chinese officials after relations were finally restored but may start to speak up. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Norwegian government officials, meanwhile, have been careful about airing concerns over China’s own use of technology to conduct massive surveillance of its own citizens. Its facial recognition cameras and systems for evaluating citizens’ behaviour using a points system has ushered in a “Big Brother” society long feared by any champion of personal privacy and human rights. Norwegian media outlets have written volumes about the invasion into personal lives, while local officials are mostly mum. The media also wrote lots about the concerns around Huawei, not least last spring when international controversy flew.

Ever since the six-year diplomatic freeze that ensued after the Nobel Peace Prize announcement in 2010, Norwegian government officials have noticeably avoided direct criticism of China. It seemed more important to reestablish relations and be able to sell more Norwegian salmon to China than to risk offending Chinese leaders in Beijing who can’t and won’t tolerate challenges to their authority. Human rights organizations have regularly criticized Norway for being too soft on China, while Norwegian commentators like Harald Stanghelle have repeatedly chided the government for not actively taking up thorny issues like China’s persecution of its Uighur minority, its lawyers and activists who dare to demand better rights, and its religious minorities.

How times change
Norway was also “alarmingly silent,” wrote Stanghelle in newspaper Aftenposten last June, regarding the 30th anniversary of the uprising and subsequent massacre at Tiananmen Square. Norwegian officials prefer to refer to China as “one of our most important trading partners,” and tried to overlook criticism of China when one of its high-ranking officials visited Norway in May. Only two Members of Parliament, Guri Melby of the Liberal Party and Petter Eide of the Socialist Left party, managed to express some opposition by wearing T-shirts expressing “Freedom” in Chinese, only to feel threatened by Chinese security guards at their own Parliament in Oslo.

“The contrast is great to the time the Conservatives’ deputy leader, Jan Tore Sanner, proudly nominated Liu Xiaobo for the Nobel Peace Prize, and when Erna Solberg, before she became prime minister, demanded that Norway be like “fireworks” in the campaign for human rights. She wrote as late as 2011 that human rights “have a sad tendency to lose out to business interests. We see that clearly in nations’ and companies’ attitudes towards hman rights violations in China.”

Prime Minister Erna Solberg hosted a visit to Norway by top Chinese official Li Zhanshu in May. PHOTO: StortingetPHOTO: Stortinget

She’s lately been among those doing everything she blamed others for, and perhaps unconsciously demonstrating that the price Norway is paying for selling its salmon or other Norwegian goods and services to China is very high in moral terms. There’s lately been little if any official comment on the demonstrations in Hong Kong, even though Hong Kong supporters in Norway recently took out full-page ads in Norwegian newspapers protesting how the Chinese Communist Party was tearing Hong Kong apart and betraying promises of self-governance.

Janne Haaland Matlary, a professor at the University of Oslo who’s long been politically involved, noted wryly in August that “no one with power in Norway criticizes China any longer, even though China violates fundamental human rights. We allow it, because we want exports to China and so does the EU. Only the US is criticizing China.”

When directly challenged by Stanghelle in yet another commentary last summer, Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide responded that “China is well aware of our views on human rights in China.” She claimed her ministry and other government officials have “expressed our concern” over the human rights situaton in China, and that it directly “took up the situation” for the Uighurs in Xinjiang in its meetings with Li Zhanshu in Norway in May. Human rights were also a topic of discussion both before and after last year’s state visit to China and Norway recently was among countries writing a letter to the UN’s human rights council in Geneva about Xinjiang.  The situation in Hong Kong is “also worrisome,” Søreide wrote, adding that the people of Hong Kong “have shown important democratic engagement.”

It’s just that the diplomatic efforts Søreide refers to remain so low key that most Norwegians aren’t aware of them, and Norway appears reluctant to complain too loudly to Beijing. That’s why Telia Norge’s rejection of China’s Huawei made headlines this week, as one of the first signs that Norway won’t always give China and Chinese companies what they want. Nobel Peace Prize experts believed it was still too much to hope for, however, that the Norwegian Nobel Committee would dare to recognize the demonstrators in Hong Kong this year, after all the fall-out over Liu Xiaobo. At least Chinese officials hadn’t yet sent in troops.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund