By MARK LEWIS, Associated Press
STAVANGER, Norway (AP) — Norway's decision to ignore the Dalai Lama's visit to Oslo this week to avoid upsetting China has drawn criticism in a country that considers itself a beacon of human rights in the world.
Unlike on his previous visits to Norway, no government officials will meet the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader during his three-day stay that started Wednesday.
The Dalai Lama has been seeking greater autonomy for Tibet within China and urges nonviolence in the struggle against Beijing, a key reason he was awarded the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize. Beijing views him as an anti-Chinese separatist and reacts angrily when Western leaders receive him.
Norway's Conservative-led government, which took power last year, has made it a priority to repair relations with China, frozen since jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.
"For close to four years there has been no contact on a political level between Norway and China," Norwegian Foreign Ministry spokesman Frode Andersen said. "Based on a thorough deliberation the government has decided that there will be no meeting between Norwegian authorities and the Dalai Lama during his upcoming visit to Norway."
China directed its anger at the Norwegian government even though the Nobel Peace Prize is given by an independent five-member committee appointed by the Norwegian Parliament. Liu, who is serving an 11-year prison sentence for penning an appeal for democracy, was represented by an empty chair at the prize ceremony in Oslo.
Since then, Beijing has scrapped talks on a free trade agreement with Norway, beefed up restrictions on imports of Norwegian salmon and in 2012 pointedly left Norway off a list of European countries offered visa free travel to China.
High-profile meetings with the Dalai Lama would likely have damaged Norway-China relations even more. But critics say oil-rich Norway can afford to stand up to China.
"Money is not a problem for us, so economic isolation is not an argument," said Ketil Kjenseth, an opposition lawmaker who plans to dress up in a national costume Friday and receive the Dalai Lama in Parliament. "Who else but Norway can stand up for what they believe in?"
During a 2000 visit to Norway, the Dalai Lama met with both the king and the prime minister. In 2005, he met the prime minister and Norwegian lawmakers. Earlier this year, President Barack Obama received him at the White House.
This time, he is scheduled to meet with Buddhist monks, Lutheran and Catholic clerics, members of the Nobel committee and lawmakers, but no government officials.
On Wednesday, he spoke to a crowd of supporters and a loud group of opponents from the balcony of a hotel in Oslo.
"I am a supporter of democracy. I welcome them, for everyone must be allowed to express themselves," he said.
In Beijing, the Foreign Ministry said it was following the visit closely.
"We hope that Norway can really respect China's concerns, do more things that can help our two countries build mutual trust and take concrete actions to create favorable conditions for the improvement of bilateral ties," ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters on Wednesday.
China hasn't spelled out what it wants Norway to do to heal the rift.
Cui Hongjian, a Europe expert from the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing, said avoiding official meetings with the Dalai Lama won't suffice. He said Norway needs to clearly recognize China's sovereignty over Tibet and make an explanation about the 2010 peace prize that satisfies Beijing.
"I think that what the Chinese government wants is not just an explanation for this and respect for Chinese territory. But also a pledge on how to avoid the same thing happening in the future," he said.