Iceland made history of sorts recently by becoming the first European country to sign a free trade agreement with China. The island nation of 320,000 people can expect a boost in seafood and other exports to the world’s most populous country. In turn, China will benefit from having a new friend in a region where gas and oil deposits are increasingly accessible thanks to melting Arctic ice. The deal is excellent news for both countries but especially for Iceland; the country’s economy took a battering in 2008 after its three major banks collapsed and its path to recovery has been rocky.
Reading about an agreement such as this one could be forgiven for storing the information in a dusty corner of the brain, somewhere deep in a section entitled ‘For use when meeting an Icelandic person in a social situation within the next year or so’. But there is an important lesson to take from it, namely that Iceland, in cosying up to China, reveals itself as hypocritical, or worse.
You see, Iceland is highly critical of Israel. Hundreds of its citizens routinely turn out at the United States embassy in Reykjavik (Israel has no embassy in Iceland) to protest about perceived injustices against Palestinians. After Israel experienced intense rocket attacks last November the Icelandic Foreign Minister Össur Skarphéðinsson condemned Israeli attacks on Gaza, failing to see what most people considered Israeli self-defence in the face of an unprovoked assault. Late last year the Icelandic Minister of the Interior Ögmundur Jónasson gave a speech accusing Israel of engaging in genocide against the Palestinian people. Most sensible people would recognise this as either profound ignorance or simple anti-Semitism: if Israel wanted to exterminate the Palestinians it would have done so decades ago – it’s not like it doesn’t have the capability. (Syrians on the other hand have proven themselves far more adept at killing Palestinians: over a thousand have died in the ongoing conflict there while the populations of Gaza and the West Bank grow rapidly. Some genocide.)
But let’s forget about the rights and wrongs of Icelandic public opinion vis-à-vis parochial Middle Eastern quarrels. Let’s pretend that they are right about everything. What does that make them for signing this trade agreement with China? In their strong support for Palestine, the Icelandic people and government clearly see themselves as champions of human liberty, fighting for the rights of a people they consider beleaguered and oppressed. Yet China is a country that executes more people every year than any other. It has forced labour camps. There is no freedom of speech. The internet is censored. Tibet is worsening by the day, with self-immolations among the desperate native population occurring regularly. The rights of Uyghur Muslims are oppressed in Xinjiang province; several were killed around the time the trade agreement was signed. Unfair trials, torture, corruption: China has it all. And for a country populated by liberals who think of themselves as impassioned defenders of human rights Icelanders have chosen an odd country to befriend.
In reality though, Iceland’s burgeoning relationship with China is unsurprising. Europeans have no problems recognising the evils of the far right, but we are a deer in the headlights when it comes to acknowledging the horrors of the left, impressed as we are by the good intentions of big ideas. Hitler is rightly seen as a monster, Stalin and Mao more as historical curiosities. There is even a chain of Asian restaurants in my own city of Dublin named after the man whose Great Leap Forward (sic) caused 45 million deaths. Can you imagine what would happen if someone tried to open a Café Hitler?
In signing this agreement Iceland has aligned itself with a human rights abuser extraordinaire. The Icelandic people who protest in support of Palestine have been deathly silent at news of this union. The most difficult part of the day for diplomats at the Chinese embassy in Reykjavik was probably keeping down cubes of Hákarl (Iceland’s national dish: fermented rotten shark). It is highly unlikely that an Icelandic government minister daubed the Chinese flag in blood or yelled out ‘Free Tibet’ during dinner.
There are three conclusions one can draw about Iceland after all this. The first is that the people are simply ignorant, and I mean that in the dictionary definition sense of the word. This is unlikely. Iceland is isolated but in the internet age there is no excuse for being unaware of China’s human rights record.
Second is that the country has abandoned its principles for financial gain. The government may take a tough public stance on Israel in order to gain support from Muslim states in its controversial practice of whaling; for instance, it is well-known that the Japanese buy votes at the International Whaling Commission. And with China a rapidly growing superpower perhaps the Icelanders are happy to engage in realpolitik by ignoring Chinese failings in the realm of human rights.
Third and last is that Iceland is simply behaving in a way commensurate with how European people have always behaved towards Jews. We know that Iceland puts great stock in racial purity, with the state even going so far as to control the names parents can give their children. And we know how societies in that mould have traditionally thought of Jews. Add Iceland’s isolation and homogeneity to the mix and good old-fashioned European anti-Semitism suddenly requires an outlet. Step up, Israel!
Misguided as they are, the protests outside the American embassy in Reykjavik demonstrate Icelandic compassion for human suffering. Protestors at least believe themselves to be doing the right thing. But there were no such protests outside the Chinese embassy upon the signing of this trade agreement. Why not? It seems Iceland is just another country that has fallen into the trap of holding non-whites to a lower moral standard than whites. Israel (considered white) is expected to live in the Middle East as a paragon of pacifism, turning the other cheek when attacked by religious fanatics. China on the other hand is Asian, and can do what it wants to its own. All in all, there is something sinister at work in Iceland’s collective thought process. Just how sinister I will leave to you to decide.