The reaction of Chinese state media and the government was instant. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, on a visit to Germany, threatened to make Vystrcil, the speaker of the upper house of the Czech parliament, “pay a heavy price for his short-sighted behavior and political opportunism.” Wang’s outburst triggered immediate pushback not only from the Czech foreign ministry but also from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the French.
The affair, which has turned the Czech Republic into the European Union’s most outspoken critic of Chinese hegemony, is refreshing at a time when many reflexively associate post-communist Central Europe with “illiberal democracy” and a flagging commitment to Western alliances.
Vystrcil’s sojourn in Taiwan follows an extraordinary reversal of the Chinese-Czech relationship. The Czech Republic’s current president, Milos Zeman, has visited China five times during his time in office. When Xi Jinping arrived in Prague for a state visit in March 2016, he received a grander and more deferential welcome than any head of state in the Czech Republic’s post-1993 history. That made for a stark contrast with the stance set by the Czech Republic’s first president, Vaclav Havel, who died in 2011 and whose frequent displays of friendship with Tibet’s Dalai Lama left Chinese officials apoplectic.
Czech critics of China, who pointed out the regime’s poor human rights record and treatment of religious minorities, were long dismissed as naive. Moral posturing should not stand in the way of the coming investment and trade boom led by China, the pragmatic argument went. Spearheaded by the investment conglomerate CEFC Group, whose chairman Ye Jianming even served as Zeman’s economic adviser, the Chinese heavily advertised their economic presence in the country.
Yet the promised cornucopia of business opportunities never materialized. CEFC might have made conspicuous investments into football clubs and breweries, but Taiwan-based companies alone have invested 14 times as much in Czech manufacturing than China. It turns out the naive ones weren’t the followers of Havel’s principled approach to China but those who trusted Chinese promises.
Ye’s fall from grace with the Beijing regime in 2018 weakened the network of business interests around Zeman. Czech public opinion has been critical of China, too. In a poll conducted last November, China’s favorability among Czechs trailed that of European Union member states, the United States, Turkey and even Russia. Seventy-one percent of Czechs blame Beijing’s secretiveness for the spread of the coronavirus.
The disillusionment with China started at the city level. In early 2019, the mayor of Prague, Zdenek Hrib, refused to “disinvite” a Taiwanese representative from a meeting with the diplomatic corps, ignoring escalating Chinese pressure. Later that year, he ended Prague’s partnership with Beijing over a dispute on the one-China policy, which the agreement between the two cities included and Beijing refused to drop. In response, the Chinese threatened to withhold funds for a Prague soccer club they had purchased in 2015. In January 2020, Hrib signed a partnership agreement between Prague and Taipei.
Speaker Vystrcil’s trip to Taiwan was originally supposed to be taken earlier this year by his predecessor, Jaroslav Kubera. The reaction of the Chinese embassy and of China-friendly politicians to Kubera’s decision bordered on extortion. “Czech companies whose representatives visit Taiwan with Chairman Kubera will not be welcome in China or with the Chinese people,” the embassy warned in a letter. Shortly thereafter, Kubera died of a heart attack, which his family blames on Chinese pressure.
China’s ham-handed diplomacy has now led to exactly the opposite of what Beijing intended. The foreign ministry dismissed Chinese pleas to bring Hrib and Kubera in line. Instead, the Czechs were among the first to stop issuing Schengen visas in China following the outbreak of covid-19. In May, the Czech government and the Trump administration signed a joint declaration on the security of 5G networks — implicitly aimed at Chinese tech giants Huawei and ZTE. Other than a lot of huffing and puffing, there has been no retaliation. The economic and political leverage that Beijing exercises over Prague is essentially nil, regardless of the dramatic asymmetry in size.
The Czech Republic proves that the costs of a principled, values-based posture toward China are much smaller than the proponents of Europe’s current waffling between talk of “partnership” and “systemic" rivalry. E.U.-wide, Chinese investment accounts for less than 1 percent of total foreign direct investment, trailing Hong Kong and Singapore. Czechs are waking up. How long will it take the rest of Europe to do the same?