Why is Oslo kowtowing to Beijing and stiff-arming the Dalai Lama?
“The arc of the moral universe is long,” Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “but it bends towards justice.” That was in 1967, however, when the pull of a shambolic China barely registered. Today, the wealthy and powerful country China has become now exerts a powerful force on the moral world. Beijing curtails international involvement in Syria, helps shore up North Korea’s brutal regime, and punishes those who criticize its own human rights violations. That arc still remains long — but now it bends toward accommodation.
The most worrying recent example of this trend is the Norwegian prime minister’s refusal to meet with the Dalai Lama, who is visiting Oslo on May 7-9, in part to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his Nobel Peace Prize. The Dalai Lama has visited Norway roughly a dozen times since receiving the prize in 1989 — but things are different now.
Norway’s relationship with China has been frozen since 2010 when the Norwegian Nobel Committee, an independent group of five judges appointed by the Norwegian parliament, gave the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. Liu had been sentenced in 2009 to 11 years in prison for subversion; probably for spearheading a drive for constitutional reform. By barring Liu and his family from attending, Beijing marked only the second time in history that a Nobel Peace Prize was awarded in absentia — the first being to a dissident in Nazi Germany. For a country trying to portray its rise as peaceful, it was an uncomfortable parallel. A furious Beijing blamed Oslo for the decision, and suspended trade and political links with Norway.
Now, Oslo hopes the decision to shun the Dalai Lama will help restore relations. “We need to focus on our relationship with China,” Norway’s Foreign Minister Borge Brende told reporters on April 23. “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.”
Beijing views the Dalai Lama as a meddlesome separatist trying to establish an independent Tibet. But he’s also a tool that China uses to incrementally assert control in international affairs. Beijing knows that as much as foreign leaders may praise the Dalai Lama from afar, actually “meeting the Dalai Lama is unimportant. No one is going to support him to set up an army and invade Tibet!” says Robert Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies program at Columbia University. “It tries to present these issues as if these are of great national significance — which they are not — as part of its normal strategy of negotiation, a form of over-statement to get the other party to back down,” says Barnett.
“Norway’s decision not to meet the Dalai Lama repeats the same mistake many others have made,” notes Sophie Richardson, China director of Human Rights Watch. “What other decisions will it cede to Beijing?”
So why did Norway — a stable, Western democracy with a population of only 5 million people which has long prided itself as a beacon of freedom — kowtow? Human rights is one of the three basic principles established in Norway’s constitution. And the country is so wealthy that it doesn’t need the economic benefits China offers: Its annual per capita income of $55,000 makes it one of the world’s richest nations, and it controls the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, which boasts a roughly $850 billion investment portfolio.
That’s not to say there isn’t a cost for failing to propitiate Beijing. In October 2010, two European scholars, Andreas Fuchs and Nils-Hendrik Klann, published a paper entitled “Paying a Visit: The Dalai Lama Effect on International Trade.” When a top leader, such as a prime minister or monarch, meets with the Dalai Lama, the authors found, that country’s exports to China will drop by at least 8.1 percent for roughly two years, and then return to normal.
Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that in 2001, the Dalai Lama met with 11 top leaders; in 2013, he only met with two. This trend of avoiding the Tibetan spiritual leader has been especially pronounced in northern Europe, especially among the British, French, and Danish, says Barnett. Relations between China and Britain froze after Prime Minister David Cameron met with the Dalai Lama in May 2012 — Cameron was forced to cancel a China trip in April 2013 after Chinese leaders made it clear they would not meet with him — he later said he did not plan to meet with the Dalai Lama again. “Norway seemed to have been the last holdout,” Barnett said.
For its part, Norway’s trade with China has suffered. “The market share for Norwegian salmon has gone down [in China] from 92 percent to 29 percent” since Liu’s prize, said Derek Anthony, the chairman of the Norwegian Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. Some aspects of business and trade have gone back to normal in the more than three years since the Nobel was awarded to the Chinese dissident, he said, but even so, the uncertainty still hurts. “The main issue is you never know if there will be some problems,” says Anthony, adding that occasionally some Norwegians “with key knowledge and expertise cannot get a visa to China.” Beijing excluded Norway from a visa-free travel program in 2013; the Financial Times quoted unnamed Chinese officials as saying Norway’s ostracization from the program comes because some countries had been “badly behaved.”
Whether one sees Oslo’s behavior as bad or brave, the new Norwegian government — which took power in October — has sought to mend relations. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson demanded “concrete” action, and, in a poetic flourish, added, “Whoever tied the ring around the tiger’s neck must untie it.” Refusing to meet with the Dalai Lama is an important step in that delicate untying.
Oslo has positioned its refusal to meet with the Dalai Lama as a necessary compromise, both for Norway’s international human rights work and for Norway itself. “For close to four y
ears there has been no contact on a political level between Norway and China,” State Secretary Bård Glad Pedersen wrote in an emailed statement to Foreign Policy. Calling China a “vital stakeholder and interlocutor in practically all major international challenges,” Pedersen stated that reestablishing a normal relationship with China was a priority. But, clearly, it’s impossible to be everyone’s friend.
The prime minister’s refusal to meet with a Nobel Peace Prize recipient is probably unprecedented, says Stein Ringen, a Norwegian sociologist. That poses a problem when Norwegian politicians want to be recognized as helping to bend the arc of history toward justice.
But moral compromise clearly does not bolster Norway’s status as a voice of global goodwill. Allowing Beijing to dictate whom Oslo can or cannot meet not only raises questions about Norway’s independence, but also its own principles, says Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China. The Dalai Lama’s chief representative in Europe, Thubten Samdup, reportedly told a Norwegian broadcaster that Oslo is “sending a chilling symbol to Tibetans in Tibet.”
The price China has already exacted from Norway over its Nobel Prize choices was high. But is the price of accommodation even higher?