As China rises to No 1, the West sings a different tune on human rights
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, a wealthy and powerful country China now exerts a potent force on the moral world. Beijing curtails international involvement in Syria, helps shore up North Korea’s brutal regime and punishes those who criticise 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 this week, 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 Norway’s 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 normalise 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, head of Modern Tibetan Studies 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 that has long prided itself as a beacon of freedom – kow-tow? 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 (Bt1.8 million) 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 per cent 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, particularly 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 per cent to 29 per cent” 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 programme in 2013; the Financial Times quoted unnamed Chinese officials as saying Norway’s ostracisation from the programme comes because some countries had been “badly behaved”.
Whether one sees Oslo’s behaviour 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.
The price China has already exacted from Norway over its Nobel Prize choices was high. But is the price of accommodation even higher?
Stone Fish is an associate editor at Foreign Policy and formerly a Beijing correspondent for Newsweek.