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Norway tones down its China criticism to boost business

Seafood producers cheer as ties restored, but the deal could hurt Oslo's image

On the seventh anniversary of his sentencing on Christmas Day, Hong Kong activists demand the release of Liu Xiaobo and other Chinese dissidents. Liu is the only Nobel Peace Prize winner currently behind bars. (Photo by Kenji Kawase)

HONG KONG Christmas came early this year for the business community in Norway. On Dec. 19, Foreign Minister Borge Brende made an unannounced visit to Beijing for a firm handshake with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, to mark a surprise rapprochement between the two countries.

"I am pleased that we can announce the full normalization of our political and diplomatic relations with China here in Beijing today," said Brende. He added that the "situation since 2010 has been challenging," referring to the bilateral relationship virtually being cut off by Beijing after the Nobel Committee in Oslo that year awarded its peace prize to Liu Xiaobo, a dissident imprisoned for speaking out for democracy and human rights. Although the committee is independent from the Norwegian government, China took exception to the award. The chilling of relations spilled over into economic ties.

Taking their cue from Prime Minister Erna Solberg's remarks on normalization to Norway's parliament, shares of salmon producers jumped on the Oslo bourse on Dec. 19.

Marine Harvest, one of the largest seafood processors in the world and a local market blue chip, rose 2.6% to 157.0 Norwegian krone at one point, hitting a 13-year high. Competitor Leroy Seafood Group gained more than 1%, while smaller peer Grieg Seafood jumped almost 3%, compared with a slight fall in the benchmark index.

Beijing's fury over the prize hurt Norway's salmon business. According to government data, total exports of whole salmon fell from over 1 million kilograms in December 2010 to around 315,000kg in January 2011 and 75,000kg in February.

China's state-owned Xinhua News Agency on Dec. 23 quoted Leroy Seafood Group CEO Henning Beltestad as saying, "We have not been able to export any fresh salmon [to China] since 2010, so [normalization] is very positive and good news for us."

TRADE-OFFS The benefits are expected to go beyond salmon. Solberg spoke of opening up "great opportunities for Norwegian industry" and vowed to "immediately resume work on a bilateral free trade agreement," talks on which have been stalled since 2010.

The rapprochement comes at a cost to Oslo in terms of its reputation as human rights defender and promoter of democratic values -- a role it has claimed and nurtured for decades.

The joint statement with Beijing acknowledged the deterioration in the bilateral relationship to be based solely on "the Nobel Peace Prize award and events connected to the prize." It added that the "Norwegian side is fully conscious of the position and concerns of the Chinese side, and has worked actively to bring the bilateral relations back to the right track."

It also stated that Oslo "fully respects China's development path and social system," and praised the "historic and unparalleled development that has taken place" in China. Norway went further, reiterating "its commitment to the one-China policy."

There was no mention of human rights and democratic principles, which, according to Oslo's official government website, are "at the heart of Norwegian foreign policy." Wang said on Dec. 19 that the Norwegian side went through "profound self-examination on the cause of ruining mutual trust," according to his ministry's website.

"This is disappointing," said Lee Cheuk-yan, a veteran human rights activist in Hong Kong. "Other countries did not speak up for Norway and finally what happened was Norway, in a way ... surrendered to the Chinese bully." Speaking to the Nikkei Asian Review on Dec. 25, Lee called Norway's move "a very bad signal to other countries which uphold human rights because whoever is speaking out for human rights will be ... punished by China."

Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch, finds it "disturbing" that Norway said it "will not support actions that undermine [China's core interests], and will do its best to avoid any future damage to the bilateral relations" in the joint statement.

In an online statement released on Dec. 20, she urged the Norwegian government to not only resume talks on trade, but said it "should also resume pressing for better human rights in China; the situation has deteriorated significantly since President Xi Jinping assumed power in March 2013."

Read more online.

Christmas a reminder of imprisoned Chinese Nobel laureate

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