Did Oslo Kowtow to Beijing?

A ChinaFile Conversation

In 2010, the Oslo-appointed Nobel Peace Prize committee bestowed the honor on imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. Furious with the selection of Liu, a human rights advocate, who is currently serving an 11-year prison sentence on spurious charges of “inciting subversion of state power,” Beijing let the relationship deteriorate and diplomatic relations mostly froze. Six years later, Oslo and Beijing announced on Monday that they would again normalize relations. Should Oslo have continued to defy Beijing? Or is China now such a major player globally that nations must maintain a relationship with Beijing, even when it comes with a high cost? —The Editors


It’s been a fascinating and unsettling process to watch Norway’s center-right government, which came to power in 2014, make reestablishing ties with China a priority. In May 2014, the country’s prime minister refused to meet with the Dalai Lama, who was visiting the country to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his own Nobel Peace Prize. “We need to focus on our relationship with China,” Norway’s Foreign Minister Børge Brende told reporters in April 2014. “Should the Norwegian government meet the Dalai Lama it could become difficult to normalize our relationship with China.” A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson approved of the decision, while the Shanghai-based news portal East Day headlined a story “The Norwegian Government Refuses to Meet with the Dalai Lama: Doesn’t Want to Make Enemies with Powerful China.” (I wrote about it here.)

And now, Beijing and Oslo have finally reached a new “understanding”: According to the joint statement released on December 19, Oslo said it was “fully conscious of the position and concerns of the Chinese side” and “fully respects China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, attaches high importance to China’s core interest and major concerns, will not support actions that undermine them, and will do its best to avoid any future damage to the bilateral relations.” China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi was blunter. “Norway deeply reflected upon the reasons why bilateral mutual trust was harmed, and had conscientious, solemn consultations with China about how to improve bilateral relations,” he said in a statement.

Two things make this story important. Norway’s population is small: 5.3 million, or less than half a percent of China’s. But it’s one of the world’s wealthiest and most stable democracies—it even enshrined human rights as one of the three basic principles in its constitution. When a country like Norway caves to Beijing, it sends a chilling message around the world. And second, with the looming presidency of Donald Trump, America may be losing (or have lost) its status as a beacon of freedom. While Trump seems to be making standing up to China a priority, the illiberal nature of his presidency won’t encourage other nations to take a stand on Chinese human rights. And Beijing’s growing power—and, subsequently, it’s growing international legitimacy—is raising the costs for other nations as well.

Yes, Oslo maintained its position for six years. That in itself is commendable. But we can expect other countries to yield like Oslo did—and for it to be, sadly, increasingly less newsworthy.

Did Oslo kowtow to Beijing?

Yes, indeed. The joint statement reflects an old fashioned case of officials of a smaller country coming to Beijing to pay tribute to the emperor, who, of course, has no tribute to offer himself. I suppose we cannot blame the Norwegian government too much, which is just up against the law of gravity in its relations with China. But we can make the observation that the Beijing regime is a bully who thinks it is fine to pick on some little guy pour encourager les autres. And that it is sad to see the officials of a country with just about the best welfare state anywhere having to pay tribute to China’s social system. And that it is sad to see the officials of a country whose international identity is to be a champion of human rights and democracy making no mention of its own core values.

Norway has not defied Beijing, but just been a victim of Beijing’s petty vengefulness. Both today’s and the previous government have been hard at work to get normal relations reestablished, and there has been no question that has been desired. Economically, Norway could well afford to stay out in the cold, but it is hard to see how a small country could by choice take on that role when all others are edging up to Beijing as tightly as they can. Norway has paid the price of visibly letting itself be humiliated, but they probably think that others will see that humiliation as enforced and unavoidable.

The Norwegian government has assiduously sought to normalize diplomatic relations with China for six years. Continuing to defy Beijing was never a preferred option. Norway had to reestablish diplomatic ties with the second most powerful country in the world. Was the price too high? No.

China’s original position in the weeks and months after the award was announced was to demand an apology from the Norwegian government. Norway never succumbed to such pressure. Gradually, the Chinese moved away from this position. Few know what the positions of the two governments were during “meticulous and numerous conversations” to bring relations back on track. In the end, the two countries normalized their diplomatic relations based on a joint statement. According to some observers, this statement was a sell-out and a capitulation by the Norwegian side and a kowtow to China by the Norwegian government. Apparently, paragraph three in the statement is most humiliating to Norway. At least three factors question such criticism.

First, what Norway agreed to in the joint statement is essentially what any country agrees to when it establishes diplomatic relations with China. Accordingly, Norway has since 1950, when it diplomatically recognized the People’s Republic of China, adhered to the principle of non-interference in China’s internal affairs; been committed to the One-China Policy; and respected China’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and core interests. Second, compared with the joint statements that France and Denmark agreed to in 2009, when they sought to reestablish diplomatic ties with China after relations had deteriorated, the so-called Norwegian kowtow seems softer. Third, without presenting a viable alternative that would have solved the diplomatic stalemate and changed the human rights situation in China for the better, criticizing the Norwegian government for finding a solution to this diplomatic freeze seems bizarre. One would assume that normalized diplomatic relations and engagement provide the Norwegian government with more opportunities, albeit very small, to enhance both Norway’s interests and address issues related to human rights and reforms in China.

The critics of the Norwegian government argue that Norway should never have wavered from a principled stand, even if this meant continued isolation and a diplomatic freeze. But why should Norway be at the front line in this struggle for six years? There have been limited reports of countries that have addressed this unprecedented diplomatic freeze in their high-level talks with the Chinese leadership. Few countries have pointed out to the Chinese government how unreasonable and unjust this diplomatic freeze was, strongly supported Norway’s diplomatic stand, and risked undermining their own bilateral relationship with the Chinese government. The Norwegian government may not have sought such support internationally, fearing that any international pressure might have undermined its bilateral negotiations. They probably made the right choice, and it is doubtful that any countries would have sacrificed their ties to China for Norway’s cause. Instead, the Norwegian government diligently and patiently negotiated alone with a stronger Chinese side and, in the end, skillfully enhanced Norway’s national interests and the prospect of engaging China.

While the announcement this week that China and Norway had resolved their six-year-long Nobel Peace Prize diplomatic dispute was unexpected, both governments noted that the agreement was the culmination of many meetings and “conversations” aimed at resolving the impasse to the satisfaction of the two parties. While Beijing has had recent disagreements with other European states, including Denmark and France, over issues relating to perceived slights to Chinese sovereignty, what made the Sino-Norwegian dispute unique was that the crux of the controversy touched upon the core interests of both parties, making a swift resolution that much more difficult.

In the case of China, the awarding of the Peace Prize was perceived as a direct challenge to the country’s autonomy and to the Chinese legal system, and for Norway the prestige of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, which remains a major part of that country’s history and culture, was in danger of being adversely affected. Oslo very much wished to move past the dispute, but without compromising what it saw as the independent status of the Committee.

For more than five years, direct government-to-government contacts were cut between Beijing and Oslo, (although there was much less of an effect on multilateral meetings, such as when Norway was accepted as a founding member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in 2015 without comment from the Chinese government). From an economic viewpoint, however, the situation was more complex, since in terms of raw numbers bilateral trade increased at a steady pace during the years of the impasse, and even periodic slowdowns of salmon exports to China did little to harm the industry, and were more of a nuisance than a hindrance.

However, as a result of the diplomatic freeze, bilateral free trade talks which began in 2008 fell into abeyance, and new joint business ventures became steadily more difficult to construct. This created problems for many Norwegian firms, especially those in sectors like energy, seafood, and shipping, which very much wanted to increase their presence in China’s growing markets. Moreover, with the Arctic region opening up to greater commerce, Beijing has been deepening its economic engagement of the far north, with talk of increased shipping through the Northern Sea Route between Asia and Europe and potential new oil and gas ventures. With this in mind, it is understandable that the Norwegian government was swift to confirm that FTA talks were being put back on track and that major industries welcomed the rapprochement as a chance to make up for lost opportunities since 2010.

The wording of the four-point agreement is broad and open to analysis, yet it can be construed that both governments had to give some negotiating ground for the settlement to be acceptable. In addition to reaffirming its support for the One-China policy (which had been the case since Sino-Norwegian relations began in 1954), the Norwegian government pledged that it would “do its best to avoid any future damage” to the relationship, with the possible implication being that Oslo recognizes its role in the original disagreement. As the document also states, the potential for future cooperation in areas in addition to trade has been greatly improved. The inference can be that although there may still be a difference in views about the original reason for the dispute, both governments have now seen the necessity of putting the affair behind them.

Perhaps this time around the chair won’t be empty.

On December 19, the Chinese and Norwegian governments made a surprise announcement that they will resume normal bilateral relations, marking the end of a six-year tantrum by China. The standoff began following the 2010 awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize—by a nongovernmental Norwegian group—to the imprisoned democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo, prompting China to suspend all high-level interactions with the Norwegian government.

Liu was sentenced to 11 years in prison in December 2009, on ludicrous charges of “inciting subversion.” Not content to persecute him, Chinese authorities have also assiduously clamped down on Liu’s family, friends, and supporters. As well as holding his wife, Liu Xia, under house arrest for years, many of the principal signatories and co-drafters of Charter 08—the pro-democracy manifesto Liu helped pen—have been under tight police surveillance, prevented from meeting one another or giving interviews to the media, and denied the right to travel abroad.

In December 2010, an extraordinary gathering of Chinese human rights and pro-democracy activists, and many of their supporters from around the world, descended on Oslo for the Peace Prize ceremony. It’s hard to say what was most memorable: the roar of telephoto lenses snapping pictures of the glinting medal? The Norwegian actor Liv Ullman calmly and movingly reading Liu’s famous essay, “I Have No Enemies”? No: it was the empty chair, the one in which Liu the laureate should have been seated.

Over the past six years, the Norwegian government and Liu Xiaobo have shared something in common: both know what it means to be the target of Beijing’s opprobrium and to pay a price for respecting the right to free speech, though for Liu the result has been devastating. In resuming trade talks, Norway should also resume pressing for better human rights in China; the situation has deteriorated significantly since President Xi Jinping assumed power in March 2013. It is disturbing that in their joint statement the Norwegian government said it will not “support actions that undermine [China’s core interests], and will do its best to avoid any future damage to bilateral relations.”

Oslo no doubt recognizes that being a credible defender of human rights can be complicated. But if Norway is serious about seeing the rights of China’s people improve, it should start by announcing that Liu Xiaobo is welcome in Norway to receive his Nobel Peace prize in person as a free man. No more empty chairs.

A version of this post was first published by Human Rights Watch.

Yes, it is amazing how the joint communique is one-sided: Norway appears as a guilty pupil acknowledging its mistake(s) to the Chinese teacher; there is no mention whatsoever of the sensibilities of the Norwegian people about the continuing imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo and China’s growing repression of human rights, the respect of Norway’s own “development path and social system,” the respect of its “core interests,” and all the obstacles China has put on the smooth development of bilateral relations.

That is why I think that democratic countries should do their utmost to avoid negotiating a joint statement every time they have a row with China; I would advise them to adopt, as China itself, a hardball strategy towards this country.

How to explain this sad but too common state of affairs: I would mention three major causes: 1) the growing asymmetry of most countries’ relations with China, 2) Norway’s economic interests; and 3) our Christian mindset to always find guiltiness in our behavior before criticizing the other side: China obviously does not share this religious/ideological barrier; it is keen to always appear as self-righteous, strong, and morally right, while the reality of the authoritarian and corrupt regime that presides upon the destiny of the Chinese society is far from the image that its Communist leaders try to project and that too many Westerner buy or partly buy without much doubt.

Norway should have put the blame on China for imprisoning Liu Xiaobo and in so doing deteriorating the bilateral relationship, proudly sided with the Nobel Prize Committee’s decision to give the prize to Liu, taken retaliatory measure for every sanction taken by China (by preventing China from sitting at the Arctic Council, banning Chinese products, etc.), and waited until the Chinese government changed its mind. Norway could also have asked Nordic countries, the E.U., and the West for some kind of solidarity, but I have doubts about the degree of solidarity with a country which is not even a full member of the E.U.

Nordic countries could have helped more.

I don’t think that the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.) would have cut diplomatic relations with Norway anyway (by the way, there was no need for “normalization” as the Chinese claim). Deep freeze or bad relations could have been bearable for Norway; it would have been an occasion of this courageous country (cf. its resistance against the Nazis) to show the way.

I am not saying that France or Denmark have been able to do better: we are all bad, only the U.S. is strong enough to ignore China’s request for a kowtow joint communiqué; but in criticizing such behaviors, in the longer run government may wake up and see better the sad reality of the Chinese regime and its international actions.

I think that it is time to realize that we cannot have “good” relations with the P.R.C. regime, only manageable working relations where we share common interests. We should be ready to take sanctions when need be instead of accepting that the Chinese government takes unilateral sanctions against us. The treatment reserved by China to Norway does not only concern Norway, it concerns and targets all democratic countries; as a result, we are all on the same boat and responsible.

When the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded in absentia to the jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo in 2010, the secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee noted, “China is becoming more important in international politics, and a dwindling number are willing to criticize the parts of the country’s policies that deserve criticism.”

The decision to award Liu has so far not been able to buck this trend. Open disapproval of China’s human rights record rather seems to become rarer and weaker. Few other states, long-term friends and allies included, have been willing to sacrifice ties with Beijing to stand by Norway’s side.

Many have interpreted China’s harsh reaction to Liu’s prize as a reflection of a new, more assertive Chinese foreign policy. However, it should not have come as a total surprise in light of Beijing’s past behavior. Already, China’s strong criticism to the Dalai Lama’s 1989 prize made Norwegians draw parallels to Hitler’s reaction when Carl von Ossietzky was awarded in 1935.

However, China in 1989 was a medium-sized economy subject to international sanctions after the Tiananmen crackdown. Today, the price for ruffling Beijing’s feathers has multiplied. Norway is a small European country with just over 5 million people that lacks the protective cushion of an E.U. membership. It is not only about missing opportunities for trade, tourism, and investments. Not being on speaking terms with one of the great powers makes all kinds of international cooperation difficult.

In the new joint statement from December 19, the Norwegian government makes clear that it “attaches high importance to China’s core interests and major concerns, will not support actions that undermine them, and will do its best to avoid any future damage to the bilateral relations.” What this means to Beijing should be fairly easy to make out: Do not meet or applaud any laureates, past and future, who are on the Communist Party’s blacklist.

The Nobel Committee, however, is not a government body. Although appointed by the Norwegian parliament, it formally handles its proceedings independently from state interference. We will thus know whether the Norwegian government is ready to fully accommodate Beijing’s concerns—to make a grand kowtow, so to speak—if the Nobel Committee one day decides to award another individual who the Communist Party considers an enemy of the state.

Maybe a bit of Norwegian—or rather, European—wood is needed here as well as trees. Yes, Norway’s diplomats held out for six years, to their credit, and avoided using the word “apologize.” And yes, they received precious little support from other governments. Nevertheless, their statement with China was a one-way deal: it contained only concessions and statements of admiration for China by Norway, with nothing in return.

And as a page in the history of unequal, forced concessions, it was technically more significant than even the French and Danish apologies to Beijing in 2009. Those were at least for something that those governments actually had done: they had dared to meet the Dalai Lama. The Norwegian government had done nothing. It had not decided the winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, and yet found itself genuflecting to China for a legal, well-regarded action done by others on its territory. It is thus implicitly apologizing for its citizens’ admiration of a man imprisoned for peacefully proposing improvements in his country’s form of governance. This is not a triumph for international standards or diplomacy.

But the larger picture is also clear: the problem was not made by Norway, which found itself with few options. Nor can one realistically expect China to turn down low-cost opportunities to exercise symbolic dominance when it is offered them by other governments. No: the root of the problem lies with the dysfunctional practices of current European diplomacy.

Put simply, once one European government made significant concessions in response to minor Chinese pressure, the currency of Sino-European relations began to slide in value and resilience. China had made little headway with symbolic demands of this kind during the many years that Europe as a group had called Beijing’s bluff on such tactics. That era ended in October 2008 when David Miliband, then the British Foreign Secretary, issued a statement declaring that the U.K. recognized Tibet as part of the People’s Republic of China. It was a major concession, because the British had not acknowledged China’s claim before (and Miliband went much further, rubbishing Britain’s former treaty relations with Tibet by dubbing them “outdated”). Yet the British obtained no concessions of any kind from China in return for its gifts, which were of immense importance to Beijing. The basic notion of a quid pro quo in major-power relations had seemingly evaporated overnight.

The French statement followed six months later, and Denmark’s came shortly after, both offering compliance in return for, basically, acceptance. Norway’s is no different, except that it nobly held out for much longer. None of this is going to change until major European governments work together to reset the worth and resilience of their diplomatic value (and values) with regard to China. And it is hard not to connect this to a wider pattern of diplomatic collapse in global relations with China, given the humiliating concessions that Mongolia was forced to give Beijing barely 24 hours after Oslo released its statement. If European nations do not want to find themselves yielding to future pressures of this kind, they will need to reconsider the need for a common front on key aspects of foreign policy within the European alliance.

Economic superpower China prioritizes “democratizing international relations,” an Orwellian phrase which the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.) uses to mean that the international community should treat authoritarian regimes such as the C.C.P.'s by paying no heed to the People's Republic of China's systemic violations of fundamental human rights. Such a C.C.P. policy is in direct conflict with the European international vision of a link among peace, prosperity, and promoting basic human rights.

Before judging Norway, I would want to know if the C.C.P. has pressured Norway to act badly while others in Europe do not. My guess is that Norway is not an immoral exception to the general rule.

I would also want to know how Europe is doing on maintaining its arms embargo toward China. Would I be wrong to find that ever more European countries find ways to make money from exporting to China weapons technology, referring to the shipments in some benign way such as dual use technology?

Where is Europe on the issue of caring about Asian maritime countries which are finding their futures being stolen while China turns maritime Asia into a Chinese lake?

I want to understand why, other than a recent headline event, Norway is the target of so much criticism. Where are the countries which are not surrendering to authoritarian C.C.P. ambitions?

Isn't the large question can the democracies and those threatened by the C.C.P.'s expansionist and hegemonic ambitions do anything about it? How should Germany, for example, be responding to the C.C.P. state threat to steal or buy high-tech which is, to Germans, a core of Germany's great international success?

Caring about the P.R.C. challenge to the kind of world that people who value human dignity should wish to promote indeed matters. This discussion of Norway is valuable because it can and should open a much wider and more central discussion about the consequences of the rise of an authoritarian and ambitious P.R.C. which is trying and succeeding in changing the world in a direction favorable to authoritarian purposes.

My concern is whether democracy, globally, is challenged as it has not been since the 1920s rise of fascism and Stalinism.