China Tells Norway What to Do

See accompanying story: Southeast Asia's nerves over China

The announcement Monday by the head of the Nobel Institute that China is warning against awarding the Peace Prize to a Chinese dissident is the latest manifestation of a growing nationalism on China's part and an apparent belief that its economic might gives it the right to tell the rest of the world what to do.

While no nation likes to be embarrassed by the bestowal of such a prestigious award to someone being kept in that country's jail cell, few if any have the inclination or clout to bring economic threats to bear on another country, especially when the award is by an independent committee with no ties to the government.

Nobel Institute Director Geir Lundestad told the Norwegian news agency Norsk Telegrambyrå (NTB) that China's Deputy Foreign Minister Fu Ying met Lundestad in Oslo this summer to deliver the message. Separately, a Hong Kong visitor who met Norwegian officials earlier this year told Asia Sentinel that "the government folks there said they were under tremendous pressure from the Communists not to give the Peace Prize as long ago as last November. It is an outrageous example of Beijing interfering in the internal affairs of small countries."

Lundestad described China's threat against Norway after former Czech President Vaclav Havel and two fellow former Czech dissidents, Dana Nemcova and Vaclav Maly, called in an op-ed article in the New York Times for the Nobel committee to award the prize to Liu Xiaobo, a key drafter of the so-called Charter 08 manifesto calling for constitutional government in China as well as respect for human rights and other democratic reforms. The document was published to mark the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was ultimately signed by more than 10,000 people.

As the three pointed out, "the response of the Chinese government to the Charter 08 document was swift and brutal. Dozens if not hundreds of signatories were called in for questioning. A handful of perceived ringleaders were detained. Professional promotions were held up, research grants denied and applications to travel abroad rejected. Newspapers and publishing houses were ordered to blacklist anyone who had signed Charter 08."

Liu was arrested and held for more than a year being put on trial for subversion and, in December 2009, was sentenced to 11 years in prison. He had already spent five years in prison for his support of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, which were ended brutally by Chinese tanks.

Havel is the former president of the Czech Republic. Dana Nemcova is a leading Czech human rights advocate. Vaclav Maly is the bishop of Prague. All three signed the original Charter 77 calling on the Czech Communist Party to respect human rights, which was considered a major blow against the Communist domination of Eastern Europe and, although they went to jail, eventually a wave of similar democratic reforms swept Eastern Europe in 1989.

It isn't the first time the Chinese have warned the Norwegians, although the Nobel committee is independent and has no relationship with the Norwegian government. In June, media reported, He Guoqiang, a member of the Chinese Communist Party's politburo standing committee, also raised the issue of the Nobel Committee and its work during a visit to Norway, Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store was quoted in media reports at the time.

Lundestad said he was told that naming Liu "would pull the wrong strings in relations between Norway and China, it would be seen as an unfriendly act," China has "come with warnings before, but they have no influence on the committee's work." At least two other dissidents, AIDS activist Hu Jia and human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, are believed to be among the nominees. The prize is scheduled to be awarded on Oct. 8.

As Reuters pointed out in a dispatch from Oslo, China and Norway are now engaged in talks over a bilateral trade deal in which energy-rich Norway is keen to export its offshore exploration knowhow to China, with Norway's national oil and gas champion Statoil announcing last month that it aimed to look for shale gas in China.

The demand that the Nobel Committee drop consideration of Liu for the Peace Prize is hardly the first time China has threatened other countries with retaliation for similar perceived slights. The Chinese repeatedly told the United States it could not allow Taiwanese government leaders to visit the US.

In 1995, when the US invited Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to pay a private visit as an "alumnus" who had studied in the US at Cornell University, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement expressing "great indignation and raising strong protest" on a move that "infringed upon China's sovereignty and interest, and obstruct the great cause of China's peaceful reunification. US Ambassador Stapleton Roy was summoned to the ministry to answer for the visit.

Visits by the Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhism's highest religious leader, have been met with similar bluster despite the fact that China has usually allowed, sometimes with great fanfare, many opponents of US foreign policy to visit in Beijing.

With the continuing claim to hegemony over the entire South China Sea as well as the rocket-rattling against Japan in the last two weeks over some island specks known by the Chinese known as the Diaoyus and the Senkakus by the Japanese, China's Asian neighbors are becoming increasingly alarmed although their collective military might, compared to China's, gives them few options. After the Japanese arrested the captain of a fishing boat who was accused of deliberately colliding with two Japanese coast guard ships near the Diaoyus, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said Beijing had suspended high-level contacts with Japan and postponed talks on increasing flights between the two countries. Eventually, the Japanese caved in and sent the ship captain back.

In recent weeks, as the South China Morning Post has noted, former Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa was dispatched to warn US Admiral Robert F. Willard, the commander of the US Pacific Command and the highest ranking US officer in Asia, against further maneuvers by US carriers in the Yellow Sea. In April, as Asia Sentinel reported on Sept 21, the Chinese squeezed a 10-vessel fleet through the Miyako Channel between Okinawa and Miyako Island, two of a long string of islands that stretch for more than 1,000 km from the southern tip of Kyushu nearly as far as Taiwan. Japan has controlled the islands, once part of the Ryukyu kingdom, since 1895. Although the channel between Miyako and Okinawa is fractionally wide enough to qualify it as international waters, the Chinese venture was looked upon with alarm in Japan.

These incidents appear to be threatening formerly softening relations with South Korea, especially given China's acceptance of North Korea's protestations of innocence over the March sinking of the patrol boat Choenan despite the fact that North Korean markings were found by an independent inquiry panel on the propeller of the torpedo that sank the corvette with the deaths of 46 South Korean crewmen. Likewise, Vietnam is becoming alarmed over Chinese claims that the South China Sea is China's lake. India, potentially China's biggest rival in the region, has faced Chinese assertions of claims to the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which it calls South Tibet, and has blocked international funding for projects in the poverty-stricken territory.

But whether anybody is going to challenge China at this point is probably not realistic, should China decide to throw its weight around. And it already is.

See accompanying story: Southeast Asia's nerves over China