This grey summer, we’ve lost something of ourselves. We are frightened into silence.

It happened when Norway met a dying Peace Prize laureate with fearful silence.

Paying respect to late Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo outside Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway, July 2017; photo: Audun Braastad

by Harald Stanghelle, published in the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten as “Denne grå sommeren har vi mistet noe av oss selv. Vi er skremt til taushet” on 18 August 2017

During Arendal week, it came up again, just what [Norway’s Prime Minister] Erna Solberg didn’t want to talk about.

During a press conference at Restaurant Blom on the east side of Pollen, [Norway’s biggest business newspaper] Dagens Næringsliv asked how Solberg thought it looked that she had made herself available to the press outside of the Prime Minister’s residence when her favorite musician Prince had died the previous summer while remaining quite inaccessible when the world was made a Peace Prize laureate poorer by Liu Xiaobo’s death.

I think going on holiday is a human right even for Norwegian politicians,” was Erna Solberg’s defense of her silence. A human right, perhaps, but what about the human rights China denied Liu Xiaobo on his death bed? the Prime Minister was pressed.

Norwegian PM Erna Solberg trying her best not to mention Liu Xiaobo, Norway, August 2017; photo: Lars Eivind Bones

A foolish dignity

The best that can be said about Erna Solberg’s answer is that it possessed a foolish dignity. The Prime Minister very painstakingly avoided mentioning Liu Xiaobo by name. He has become a non-person for the Norwegian government. Like the evil prince Voldemort in Harry Potter, the dead democracy fighter has become “He-whose-name-cannot-be-said”.

Beneath the silence lay a deep anxiety: Something unpleasant could happen if Liu Xiaobo and the struggle for human rights is addressed. Therefore, all official mouths remain closed out of fear of upsetting the Asian giant.

Can’t you stop whining about this? Haven’t we already gone over that? is what you hear on Twitter.

No, unfortunately not. Not because there’s any point in enjoying the momentary discomfort brought on by the Norwegian silence over Liu Xiaobo. But because it has so dramatically changed Norway’s stance on human rights. And it has changed Erna Solberg.

Operation U-turn

…because it was precisely opposition leader Erna Solberg who demanded that Norway become “fireworks” in the struggle for human rights. And it was the same Solberg and her party colleagues who rightly criticized the red-green government [which preceded Solberg’s] for going all too quiet on China.

“Human rights have an unfortunate tendency to lose out to business interests. We see that clearly in regard to both nations’ and companies’ positions on human rights abuses in China,” wrote Erna Solberg in her defining book People, not billionaires from 2011. It was her Conservative Party’s deputy leader, Jan Tore Sanner, who recommended Liu Xiaobo for the Peace Prize.

Now this policy has taken a u-turn.

Norway should not speak loudly about human rights abuses, at any rate not in China.

We can no longer play the role of the bad conscience of powerful authoritarian regimes. And we have given up supporting individual dissidents who are persecuted.

Erna Solberg’s colorful fireworks have been put out. Or more like effectively squelched by an insistent Chinese whisper.

Don’t point the finger of blame

In Arendal this week, the leader of the Conservative Party [Solberg] hailed her party’s years-long tradition of loud and active support for persecuted democracy fighters, while at the same time defending the new policy as “more effective than the finger of blame”.

This is an epochal change for a nation which has in the past had a high profile standing up for a persecuted Sakharov, an imprisoned Mandela, a pressured Walesa, and a gagged Aung San Suu Kyi. With our finger of blame raised, we’ve irritated regimes that denied their opponents the most basic rights.

And happily, such international pressure has occasionally succeeded.

If we take the Prime Minister’s message seriously, that time is over.

Identity on the line

Some will be relieved. It is indeed not always that we Norwegians understand the difference between teaching and preaching. And we’re not exactly at our most sympathetic when it sounds as if we are speaking as the self-appointed moral superpower.

But in spite of all that:

The world will be a little poorer and a little more dangerous when Norway no longer is among the nations that give the persecuted a voice.

And it does something to us as well. Our self-image is changed, and we can’t entirely recognize ourselves. Our identity is up for grabs. We’ve lost something of ourselves by being put through the Chinese grinder.

A foreign policy collision

Of course, this is not the first time ideals collide with the realities of foreign policy. It is only utopian idealists and one-eyed activists who can’t see these competing interests. At any rate, these are in the genes of all who elegantly move through the world of diplomacy.

It was apparent to all that the China accord [Foreign Minister] Børge Brende and Erna Solberg proudly made public before Christmas would come at a cost. But it was presented as a victory for common sense and good interest politics. That’s how it looked too.

And so it went when Aftenposten asked the Prime Minister about Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo.

The trick lies in how the accord is put into practice. Now we know more about that. For on a scale between everything and nothing, the Solberg government has chosen the latter. That is, nothing. And so, this summer’s ringing silence on Liu Xiaobo.

We have swallowed an increasingly self-confident China’s bait hook, line and sinker.

Norway as a stranger

For Norway, this is a path full of risks. It means that the rest of the world doesn’t recognize us anymore either. It is used to a Norway that has often worked to put inconvenient democratic development and difficult human rights on the international agenda. We don’t do that anymore.

Up against the powerful Middle Kingdom, we have run to the doghouse with our tail between our legs. We’ve let ourselves be frightened into self-effacing silence.

It’s a dubious face to show an increasingly brutal world. In full knowledge and with a free will, we paint a picture of ourselves as a nation that can be pressured. In the long term, this could cost us dearly in the game of Realpolitik, even in a time when the value of human rights’ stock has declined in the world’s political market.

No secret

Even the sharpest critic of awarding the Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, Henning Kristoffersen, thinks we hurt ourselves with the Norwegian silence. He calls the Solberg government’s position irresolute, especially “given that this government has held up human rights as one of its core interests.” This is not lost on the Chinese, Kristoffersen notes. While we must perhaps be willing to sacrifice some of our pride to appease the rulers in Beijing, “it is neither in Norway’s nor Beijing’s interest that it cost us our identity,” the China enthusiast wrote here in Aftenposten right after Liu Xiaobo’s death.

«I love China»

And so we’ve come to this. Through our humiliating submissiveness to China, we’ve deprived ourselves of the right to speak out with authority against human rights abuses and violations other places.

That’s made Norway into a stranger to the world around us. And a stranger to ourselves.

As a paradoxical exclamation point, the most crystal clear message on China ever from a Norwegian government minister came when Per Sandberg climbed onto an outdoor stage in Beijing one day in May. Bubbling with enthusiasm at meeting his new friends, the Minister of Fisheries sang out the tune of our time:

“I love China!”