I’m flying from Amsterdam to Beijing. As I land there, I have a visa-free 72 hours to explore the city. I’m meeting my friend from Norway inside Beijing’s capacious terminal.
He is flying from Oslo to Beijing. But he needs an entry visa and all the hassle that goes with it.
We’re both Europeans, so what’s the difference? Why the discrimination? None really, except he’s from Norway.
As of January 2013 foreign visitors to Beijing will be allowed a 72-hour visa-free stay as long as they provide proof of onward travel elsewhere.
Good news for European Union visitors to the PRC’s capital, somewhat less so for Norwegians. They won’t benefit from the new visa dispensation at all. China has determined that citizens of any country adjudged to be “of low quality” or “badly behaved” are ineligible under the new visa rules.
Cue a smile, in this case mine, of utter disbelief. Not even Gogol, or writers of magical realism, could conjure up such a bizarre excuse to exclude the citizens of a peaceful-loving nation like Norway held in high-regard by most of the international community from a 72-hour visa-free stay. China is the notable exception.
China’s exclusion of Norwegians as “badly behaved” has nothing to do with the national tragedy that befell Norway last year when a lone political extremist launched a horrific killing spree and murdered 77 of his own countrymen.
But the way Norway dealt with the tragedy is instructive for China. In an open trial that tested Norway’s resolve to steer clear of moral outrage and vindictiveness, while its public remained dignified as it mourned the national tragedy (no mobs took to the streets screaming for vengeance), the trial followed a due process that was praised for its procedural integrity. The lone mass murderer was declared sane and sentenced– an easy kop out would have been to find him mad and not responsible for his own actions. The killer was locked away for at least 21 years as there is no death penalty in Norway’s justice system. A fair and open judicial process prevailed, and the rule of law triumphed, as it always should, under very tragic national circumstances.
So, no – the “low quality” and “bad behaviour” labels made in China aren’t appropriate in Norway’s case. Rather, the “bad behaviour” is a euphemism for a perceived political insult that has niggled China since 2010. That was when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese dissident, currently serving an 11 year jail term for demanding free speech and yes, the rule of law.
The fact that the Nobel Prize Committee is wholly independent of the Norwegian government, yet happens to locate itself in Oslo, seems entirely lost on Beijing. It’s a bit like the Man Booker literary prize. Located in London, the award has nothing to do with the British government and everything to do with authorial merit and independent judgement sans political influence, irrespective of whom the prize is awarded to. Look at Mo Yan (described as a ‘hallucinatory realist ‘writer). He recently won the Nobel Prize for Literature, awarded by a committee ensconced in Sweden. But then, he’s politically correct in Beijing’s view, refusing to endorse Liu Xiaobo’s position. Beijing has no trouble accepting prestigious international awards from any place as long as they’re in alignment with Party cadre thinking. Double standards operate.
In consequence of the perceived Liu Xiaobo insult – dramatised as ‘interference’ in China’s internal affairs – China has frozen its relations with Norway. It has taken upon itself to punish the small Nordic country – 0.3 percent of its size in population terms – in a manner reminiscent of ‘death by a thousand cuts’.
It began with the salmon freeze, where Norwegian exports of this sacred fish were allowed to rot as China’s import machine slowed down in response to the Liu Xiaobo Nobel award. Fish were delayed for weeks by China’s food safety inspectors on flimsy pretexts. This was quickly followed by an abrupt cancellation of a meeting between Norway’s Fisheries Minister and her Chinese counterpart. Norwegian musical groups were denied access to the country. Then a former Norwegian prime minister’s visa was denied as he tried to attend a World Council of Churches convocation in Nanjing. Next, the Chinese ambassador was recalled from Oslo, leaving only a charge d’affaires to deal with the Norwegian government. When China’s prime minister Wen Jiabao toured Scandinavia in mid-2012, he made a pointed detour of Norway. China banned its travel agents from marketing tourist trips to Norway. And now there is exclusion from the 72-hour non-visa policy. Another churlish snub.
The flea bite-sized insults being inflicted by China on Norway – an irritating nick here, another painful pin-prick there – are purposeful. The thousand cuts are designed to make Norway buckle.
Buckle to what? It is a question I’ve asked myself and tried to make sense of. To rescind the award to Liu Xiaobo, which China knows full well isn’t within the power of the Norwegian government? To apologise for something Norway has not done, and has no control over? For “bad behaviour” that is at best ill-defined and at worst an unknown? If none of these, then for what?
Perhaps China is playing a bigger game, a long-hand designed to isolate and distance Norway from the rest of the international community. Norway, after all, is not a part of the European Union even though it complies with EEA and EFTA trading rules, so China’s penchant for divide-and-rule diplomacy (see my blog post here) is a perfect play when it comes to dealing with Norway. Isolating Norway from the EU – with an implied threat that this is what happens when you offend China’s sensitivities – is perhaps punishment enough in China’s eyes: pour encourager les autres.
Nor is existing trade between the two countries of any real significance for either of them, so there’s not much to lose there either. Norway is resource-rich in oil and gas for many years to come. Its embarrassingly heavyweight sovereign wealth fund in relation to the country’s size can make or break global commercial deals. It really has no need of China, even though Norway’s diplomats are trying quietly to repair relations with a China that shows no interest in responding to their overtures.
But China, in the longer-term, does need Norway to help it access and gain a foothold in the Arctic region . Its seabed is believed to hide huge but as yet untapped oil, gas and mineral deposits. China has a voracious appetite for energy and commodities to feed its economic growth. It is even argued by the international economist Dambisa Moyo that China’s race for raw materials – described as their “global shopping spree” – will result in ‘commodity wars’ during the rest of the 21st century. As the Arctic sea ice rapidly melts due to global warming, getting at these mineral resources is becoming feasible and China has its sights set on accessing them.
China is actively wooing members of the Arctic Council, a powerful intergovernmental forum consisting of eight voting member states that have the responsibility for Arctic resource and environmental management. China wants permanent observer status on the Council which would give it unrestricted access to Council meetings, in other words, a say in policy issues and decision-making. Norway is one of the eight voting members and is, understandably, blocking China’s application. If China hopes that its unofficial policy of ‘death by a thousand cuts’ will change Norway’s attitude, then it really is living in a magical realist world of its own.
When I was in Oslo last August, most Norwegians I spoke to had nothing but good things to say about China, mostly the usual compliments related to its size, history and culture. There was a certain dignity and grace in what they said. They shrugged off suggestions that Norway was being punished by the deep diplomatic freeze which the Chinese had arbitrarily imposed on the economic and diplomatic relationship. Actually, since it didn’t impact them very much, they didn’t really care. Yet they still had kind words for a far-off country that was being less than kind to them in return.
China is a big boy now. In exercising its undoubted power, it behoves it to do so judiciously and gracefully using the art of diplomacy rather than petty punishments that aggravate the situation. What it lacks is an understanding of soft power: “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion… When our policies are seen as legitimate in the eyes of others, our soft power is enhanced”, writes Joseph Nye, the Harvard school professor who came up with the term. He says China has a distinct soft power deficit. It is one that is clear for all to see in the country’s passive-aggressive behaviour toward Norway.
Singling out a small nation for ‘special treatment’ smacks of the schoolyard bully boy picking on a pint-sized but resourceful innocent. Prolonging its punishment of Norway and the travel-loving Norwegians by excluding them from the 72-hour visa-free rule makes China look petty and spiteful in the eyes of the world. China isn’t doing itself any favours.
As a powerful nation justifiably proud of its venerable history and culture and with a role to play on the world stage, China has the capability to be much better than that. It needs to escape a magical realist world of its own making and engage constructively with other nations that can help it.[Photo credit: The main image of the Norwegian flag is by courtesy of KRN at http://krn-defouloir.blogspot.fr/2011/05/17-mai.html]