What you need to know
The controversy over the legal identity of Taiwanese citizens in Norway started in 2010, when the Norwegian government first changed their nationality on residency cards from Taiwan to China.
A group of Taiwanese students in Norway have borne the brunt of Norway’s attempts to mend fences with China since relations between the two countries froze in 2010.
In November, Norway’s Supreme Court rejected the student group’s appeal against the Norwegian government’s decision to change the nationality on residence permits to China, saying it is “unanimously clear that the appeal cannot proceed.”
The ruling follows the group’s failed lawsuit at a district court in May. The judges cited the Norwegian government’s adherence to the One-China policy to justify the decision to label Taiwanese as Chinese.
In response, the students involved plan to seek legal aid in other European countries and take the case to the European Court of Human Rights, the international court of the Council of Europe, in the first half of 2021, said Joseph Liu, a Taiwanese lawyer based in Norway who initiated the movement “My Name, My Right” to raise awareness about the case.
Liu said listing Taiwanese as Chinese violates the Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees respect for one’s “private and family life, his home, and his correspondence.”
Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), expressing deep regret at the ruling, has asked the representative office in Sweden, which is in charge of Taiwanese affairs in Norway, to lodge a protest against the Norwegian government. The ministry was also “gravely concerned” that the Norwegian court did not give the plaintiffs an opportunity to express their opinion.
Caught in the crossfire
The controversy over the legal identity of Taiwanese citizens in Norway started in 2010, when the Norwegian government first changed their nationality on residency cards from Taiwan to China. The first lawsuit was filed in 2019.
The action is considered an act of appeasement after the Norwegian Nobel Committee angered Beijing by awarding the peace prize to the late human rights activist Liu Xiaobo the same year, said Liu. The committee consists of five members appointed by the Norwegian parliament and claims independence from government control.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry, at the time, called the decision a “desecration” of the Nobel prize and summoned the ambassador to Norway in protest of the award. Within several months, China put trade talks with Norway on hold and restricted imports of Norwegian goods. The world’s largest exporter of salmon has seen its market share in China drop by around 70% four years into the diplomatic freeze.
In 2015, Thorbjorn Jagland, Chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize committee, was demoted and replaced by deputy, an unprecedented move seen as the result of the chilly Sino-Norwegian relations. Jagland also drew criticism in 2009 for awarding the prize to the newly-elected U.S. President Barack Obama.
The disharmony between the two countries lasted until 2016, when China and Norway announced they would normalize ties. A joint statement said the two countries “reached a level of trust” after Oslo came to “be conscious of the position and concerns” of the Chinese government over the prize.
Following the statement, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said, “Norway has deeply reflected upon the reasons bilateral mutual trust was harmed and had conscientious, solemn consultations with China about how to improve bilateral relations.”
The Norwegian government said it “fully respects China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” and reiterated its commitments to the One-China policy.
It also vowed no support for actions that undermine China’s “core interests and major concerns,” a phrase that Beijing frequently uses to refer to sensitive topics, including the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and mass detention of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
By taking full responsibility for harming bilateral relations, Norway was seeking to revive talks on a trade deal with China, but experts believe the country might be damaging its reputation as an advocate for human rights and breaking its commitments to the values it has long upheld.
In 2014, Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg declined an offer to meet with the Dalai Lama, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, and called the decision a “necessary sacrifice to show China that it’s important for us to have a dialogue with us.”
It was the first time that top Norwegian officials had subbed the Tibetan spiritual leader.
“It’s not as if China said that we cannot meet the Dalai Lama,” she told the media. “We just know that if we do so, we’re going to remain in the freezer for even longer.”
Beijing views the Dalai Lama, who lives in exile in India, as a separatist and warns foreign leaders that it would consider meetings with him “a major offense to the sentiments of the Chinese people.”
Taiwan’s weakening ties with Norway
Restored ties between Norway and China could have played a role in Taiwan’s decision to dismiss its representative office, the de facto embassy, in Oslo in 2017. Norwegian affairs have since then been commissioned to Taiwan’s mission to Sweden.
To back up its proposal, MOFA cited the Norwegian representative office’s long-time failure to improve bilateral relations and the Norwegian government’s lack of willingness to establish diplomatic representation in Taiwan.
Norway was one of the first Western countries to recognize the People’s Republic of China in 1950. Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China, cut diplomatic ties with the Scandinavian nation the same year.
While the last straw that provokes Taiwan’s decision to withdraw from Norway is unclear, it is all but certain that the absence of diplomatic mission to Norway impedes the advancement of bilateral relations and leaves Taiwan slow to react to cases relating to its citizens living in Norway.
A Taiwanese resident in Norway said Taiwan might have “sent a signal to Norway that it does not value and has given up on strengthening ties.”
Since last year, MOFA said it has been calling on the European Union to pay attention to the Taiwanese case during annual human rights consultations and will continue to negotiate on the issue about mislabeling Taiwanese as Chinese with the bloc.
The ministry also vowed to offer necessary assistance to the group of Taiwanese students to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights.
Norway, though not part of the European Union, is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, which allows plaintiffs to file a lawsuit all the way up to the European Court within six months if they exhaust the appeal system of a given member state.
Even with the help of the government, Taiwanese students in Norway have been counting on themselves to sustain the movement. In 2018, they raised more than NT$3 million to start the litigation and now have NT$1 million to appeal the case to the European court.
With the fund, the group plans to hire several lawyers from France and the United Kingdom, who are well-versed in European laws, to represent them.
A goal of the legal action is to raise awareness in Europe of the difficulties that Taiwanese people encounter abroad and the threat an authoritarian regime poses to democracy, Liu said.
“Leaving Norway is a brand new start for us,” the student group wrote on Facebook.
Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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