Arne Melsom is Deputy Chair at the Hong Kong Committee in Norway. Follow him on Twitter @Melsom62.
On Tuesday this week, Norway’s Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide met with his Chinese counterpart in Beijing. Eide, my country’s top diplomat, and Wang Yi, held talks on tensions in the Middle East. The human rights abuses of Hong Kongers, Tibetans, Uyghurs and other minorities by Wang’s government were apparently deemed far less important. When asked about the human rights situation, the Foreign Minister flatly rejected adopting a policy of holding the Chinese and Hong Kong governments to account when bilateral agreements are severely violated.
Unlike Eide, I am profoundly concerned about our government’s links with Beijing while the latter regime continues to erode human rights.
The focus of the Hong Kong Committee in Norway, the organisation I am proud to be deputy-chair of, is solidarity work for the fight for basic human rights in Hong Kong. This is a focus that we share with most of our sister groups around the world, if not all.
So what can we do to promote human rights in Hong Kong? With Xi Jinping in power in Beijing, and his minions ruling Hong Kong, the prospects for positive changes are dim in the short term. Realistically, the next opportunity will be when Xi is unseated.
Until that time comes, countries that support freedom and democracy should hold the perpetrators to account whenever they violate commitments under international law, and other multilateral or bilateral agreements. The next transition of power in Beijing must take place with a backdrop of sustained protests against human rights offences. If the rest of the world turns a blind eye on the appalling oppression of freedom as directed by Xi, we will provide no incentive for fundamental changes and reforms when that time comes.
Norway’s international relations are in many aspects contrasting to other countries that share our values when it comes to democracy, the rule of law and human rights: Norway is not an E.U. member, and the foreign policy of right- and left-leaning administrations have been balancing acts with an embedded fear of making decisions that may provoke other nations.
Sadly, the PRC is no exception, and in 2016 the Norwegian government accepted a humiliating bilateral declaration which e.g. states that “The Norwegian Government fully respects China's development path and social system, and highly commends its historic and unparalleled development that has taken place.”
The purpose of this statement was basically to re-establish normal diplomatic relations between the two countries, which China had frozen after an independent committee had awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to the leading Chinese dissident Liu Xioabo.
The spineless China policy as it was stated in the declaration has later taken small steps in the right direction. Norway aligned itself with E.U.’s criticism of China’s plans for Hong Kong in 2020. Norway was also among the countries who spoke out in support of the 2022 OHCHR statement about serious violations of human rights in East Turkestan (Xinjiang).
On the other hand, the government refused repeated calls to stay away from the opening ceremony in the Beijing Olympic winter games in 2022. This event served no other purpose than CCP propaganda. This lack of consistency makes it challenging for the Hong Kong Committee to influence the government’s policy on China.
With the Sino-British joint declaration from 1984, Hong Kong became a city with its own currency and customs arrangements. This opened a path for Hong Kong to enter into bilateral trade agreements, something that makes Hong Kong unique: No other city in the world can negotiate and implement its own trade agreements.
Hong Kong doesn’t have a trade agreement with the E.U. However, through Norway’s membership in the European Free Trade Association, we have a bilateral free trade agreement with Hong Kong from 2011. In the preamble, the parties reaffirm “their commitment to democracy, the rule of law, human rights and fundamental political and economic freedoms”. One is hard pressed to think of ways that the Hong Kong government has not severely violated these promises during the past four years.
As explained above, our approach in the fight for basic human rights in Hong Kong is to argue for holding Beijing and its minions to account when they encroach on the people’s rights. Consequently, the Hong Kong Committee in Norway has to date submitted nine reports to the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Fisheries where we have detailed how freedom and human rights are collapsing in Hong Kong. In each of these reports we have requested the ministry to publicly call out Hong Kong’s violations of its commitment, and to withdraw from the Free Trade Agreement.
Sadly, our government has so far made no move in that direction. We are told that human rights concerns are raised, and will only be raised, under bilateral talks. These talks are nothing more than a theatre where the actors play their predefined roles. The destruction of civil society in Hong Kong rolls on with no consequence. The lack of real action is infuriating, and the government’s fear of holding the perpetrators to account is disheartening. But the Ministry can expect new reports from us and calls to grow a spine. We’re not going away.