In late August, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi toured Europe to forestall European economic de-coupling from China and to dissuade Europeans from backing America’s increasingly anti-China posture. It didn’t go well for Wang. In every capital he visited, organized protests awaited him, some including local parliamentarians. Hong Kong democracy activist Nathan Law, who recently relocated to the United Kingdom, made public statements before, during and after Wang’s visit urging European countries to be more valiant in standing up to China’s war on civil liberties.
Many observers allegedly found Wang arrogant and overbearing. German Minister for Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas criticized Wang for his “threats.” The Mayor of Prague remarked that Chinese diplomats behaved like “unmannered rude clowns.” Both French President Immanuel Macron and Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio confronted Wang with concerns about the loss of civil liberties in Hong Kong and China’s persecution of Uighurs. The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, called China “expansionist” and warned that Europe should move quickly to address its “excessively asymmetric” trade with China. Bloomberg’s Patrick Donahue concluded “a planned Chinese charm offensive in Europe only appears to have backfired.”
Perhaps the most interesting moment in Wang’s European tour came during a stop in Norway, home country of the committee that in about one month will announce the winner of the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize. In Oslo on Aug. 26, Wang warned against giving the award to the Hong Kong protesters who have been opposing Beijing’s creeping authoritarianism: “China will firmly reject any attempt by anyone to use the Nobel Peace Prize to interfere in China’s internal affairs.”
Wang also said “We don’t want to see anyone politicizing the Nobel Peace Prize.” This was a nonsensical statement; since peace is a political condition, a peace prize is intrinsically political.
Everyone in Norway understands that China “rejecting” the decision means Chinese economic retribution against Norway. This occurred a decade ago when the Nobel Committee awarded the Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. In retaliation, China suspended high-level bilateral meetings with Norwegian officials, broke off talks on a free trade agreement between the two countries, and imposed targeted economic embargoes — notably in salmon exports to China, where Norway’s market share dropped by over 90 percent.
Norway made several efforts to smooth over China’s hurt feelings, including accepting Chinese membership in the Arctic Council, opening a China-Nordic Arctic Research Center in Shanghai, returning relics looted from Beijing’s Old Summer Palace a century ago and Norwegian government officials refusing to meet with a visiting Dalai Lama.
The Chinese government reportedly wanted Oslo to guarantee that a Chinese dissident would never again win the Nobel Prize as a precondition for re-normalized relations. The request highlighted Beijing’s persistent inability to understand liberal democratic political systems. The Norwegian government could not make this promise because the Nobel Committee is a private organization.
After six years of frozen relations, China and Norway made amends in 2016. A likely factor was the perception of rising protectionism in America, which would have incentivized China to diversify by strengthening its trade relationships with European countries. But Beijing also extracted a toadying statement from the Norwegian government that expresses “respect” for China’s political system, “commends” Chinese development, disses Taiwan, upholds China’s “territorial integrity” and “core interests,” and promises to “avoid any future damage to the bilateral relations.” The statement reads like the signed confession of a tortured prisoner written by his captors.
In a response, John Peder Egenaes, secretary general of Amnesty International in Norway, had good reason to say he was concerned his government was becoming “subservient” to China and was backing away from Norway’s tradition of championing human rights.
So here’s what we know: first, the Nobel Committee does not accept China’s demand not to “politicize” the Peace Prize. The Committee gave the Prize to a Chinese dissident once, and Beijing obviously fears this could happen, which is why Wang said what he said last month. Second, when a Nobel Prize embarrasses China, Beijing is sure to respond with a campaign of targeted vengeance. The price Norway had to pay to earn China’s forgiveness was steep and humiliating. This treatment does not garner China’s government international respect, but rather disgust and fear.
Hong Kong activists are probably not the favorites to win the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize. There are many strong candidates, including environmental activist Greta Thunberg.
The point is that for the foreseeable future, when Nobel season comes around in a year when there is a visible flareup of authoritarian brutality in China, Chinese officials will feel compelled to re-threaten the Nobel Committee.
China has a Nobel problem: the Chinese Communist Party is locked in a long-term battle with a respected international organization, a battle that inevitably harms China’s global reputation both by calling attention to China’s harsh authoritarianism at home and by drawing out vindictive Chinese behavior toward other countries.
Denny Roy is a senior fellow at East-West Center in Honolulu.