This article is a part of the project “The Role and Influence of the People’s Republic of China on Visegrad Group Countries” funded by the International Visegrad Fund. Author of the article is Lukasz Kobierski.
From August 30 to September 5, the President of the Czech Senate Miloš Vystrčil visited Taiwan. This stay resulted in a series of diplomatic and media events, which in turn worsened China-Czech Republic relations. The articles published in the Chinese media and statements by political representatives of the Communist Party of China (CPC) critically approached this situation, which is yet another manifestation of the Chinese diplomatic and information offensive. This is an analysis of the events and comments regarding this visit based on statements made by the CPC diplomats and materials mainly from the Global Times daily, which were reprinted in other Chinese media.
It is worth mentioning that the trip of a 90-person delegation took place despite protests of the main political forces and the government of the Czech Republic. It consisted of business leaders, several senators, scientists, journalists and the Mayor of Prague Zdeněk Hřib. The aim of the visit, as indicated by Vystrčil, was to establish economic and scientific contacts.
Even before the arrival of the Czech delegation, the spokesperson of the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the Czech Republic issued a statement on this matter. It argued that the visit of the President of the Senate will lead to “serious interference in China’s internal affairs, seriously violating national sovereignty and territorial integrity and fundamental principles of international relations and political obligations in bilateral relations. The Chinese side strongly disagrees and condemns such an act. Taiwan is an integral part of China. The Chinese government and the Chinese people have a strong will to protect national sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as to defend against interference by external forces in China’s internal affairs.” On August 31 the same position was presented by the Chinese Ambassador to the Czech Republic Zhang Jianmin at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic.
During a visit to Germany in September, the Head of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi, said that Miloš Vystrčil will be forced to “pay a high price for his short-sighted behavior and political opportunism.” He added that questioning the “One China” policy means “making enemies of the 1.4 billion Chinese people,” as well as that the Chinese government and people will not tolerate the “open provocation” of the President of the Czech Senate and “will have to pay a heavy price for their moves.” In conclusion, he stated that the President had “crossed a red line.”
The Czech Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Martin Tlapa, who summoned the Chinese Ambassador to Prague, said that the statement of the Head of Chinese diplomacy was inappropriate and that it did not comply with the standards for diplomatic communication between two sovereign and countries. The Czech Minister of Foreign Affairs Tomasz Petrziczek had a similar opinion and expected the Chinese side to explain these words. Moreover, he assessed that certain boundaries have been crossed. He added, however, that the Czech government and diplomacy continue to support the “One China” policy.
On August 31, the Chinese Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Qin Gang summoned the Czech Ambassador to China Vladimir Tomsik to protest over the visit of the President of the Czech Senate. Moreover, the Minister said that regardless of the PRC’s opposition, Vystrcil is visiting Taiwan island for his own personal gains, being tempted by the Taiwanese authorities and instigated by anti-China forces.
The visit was also commented by the Head of the Chinese Mission to the European Union (EU) Zhang Ming. He wrote back to two members of the European Parliament – Reinhard Bütikofer and Maria Spyraki, who expressed their “concern” about China’s opposition to the trip of the Czech delegation. He stressed that Taiwan is an inalienable part of the Middle Kingdom and that Taiwan’s affairs are internal affairs of Beijing. Zhang said that the “One China” policy, which is well recognized by the international community, including the UN and the EU, is a prerequisite and political basis for maintaining development, friendship and cooperation between China and other countries. He added that this position is consistent and clear-cut whilst MEPs should refrain from seeking Taiwan’s independence.
Other European countries criticized the attacks by the CPC representatives. A spokesperson for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that “any threat to the EU’s member state is unacceptable.” On the other hand, the German Minister of Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas said that “we as Europeans act in close cooperation – we offer our international partners respect, and we expect the exact same from them.”
A spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Zhao Lijian, said during a press conference that: “we urge the relevant authorities of the Czech Republic to immediately take measures to eliminate the negative impact of this erroneous practice, so as to avoid damaging the big picture of bilateral relations. We also solemnly inform the Taiwan authorities and the anti-China forces behind Vystrčil: your acts cannot alter the fact that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China, and your attempts of political manipulation and ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist activities will never succeed.”
The atmosphere was further strained by the following words of the President of the Czech Senate in the Parliament of Taiwan: “please let me also express in person my support to Taiwan and the ultimate value of freedom and conclude today’s speech … with perhaps a more humble, but equally strong statement: ‘I am a Taiwanese,’” after which he received a standing ovation. He referred to John F. Kennedy’s words “I am a Berliner” delivered in West Berlin in 1963, which were an significant message for freedom and against communism. During his speech at the Taiwan-based National Chengchi University, Vystrčil called on democratic countries to support each other. Moreover, he said that the “most important common denominator” between Taiwan and the Czech Republic is that both countries choose to live in freedom and democracy.
The Chinese media tried to discredit the importance and rank of Vystrčil’s visit. The Global Times article quoted the spokesperson of the Czech President Jiri Ovcacek, who wrote on Twitter that the visit was “not recommended” by President Milos Zeman as well as the Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of the country. Moreover, the statements were issued by the Czech President, who condemned the visit of the Head of the Senate, calling it a “boyish provocation,” and Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, who said that Vystrčil did not understand the bigger world.
Yang Lixian, a researcher at the Beijing-based Research Center of Cross-Straits Relations, told the Global Times on Wednesday that the Czech Republic would “lose much more than they gain” if they choose the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) authorities of Taiwan over the Chinese mainland and “China will retaliate when some Czech politicians further challenge China’s sovereignty.”
Lü Cuncheng, a researcher at the Institute of Taiwan Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, made a statement on this case. In his opinion, anti-China forces in the Czech Republic have been incited by the US to play the so-called Taiwan card. They would hijack and compromise China-Czech Republic relations, which in the end will do nothing but harm the Czech Republic’s own interests. According to him, the Chinese mainland is far more important to the Czech Republic than is the island of Taiwan. In another interview, he said that “China cannot tolerate such an odious act by Czech politicians that infringes on China’s core interests,” as well as “China condemns this despicable act and urges the Czech side to abide by the one-China principle and handle Taiwan-related questions correctly and prudently.”
The editorial office of the Global Times went even further in their assessments. In another article, the President of the Senate was called “a rule-breaker who is trampling on diplomatic civilization,” and his “evil deeds are a manifestation of being a political hooligan.” The decision to pay a visit was also analyzed in terms of history.” The Czech Republic, as a former Soviet satellite state, behaves more aggressively in anti-communist terms to declare that it belongs to the West. Moreover, this action was intended to appeal to Washington, which “over the past two years has drastically changed its China policy, and has launched a whole-of-government attack against China, instigating its European allies to engage in a new cold war against China. Vystrčil was also regarded as “behaving like a clown, attempting to gain attention by taking advantage of the Taiwan question. He is a selfish politician that disregards his country’s interests.”
There were also more subdued articles. In one of them, Chinese experts pointed out that the meeting would not affect the substantive exchange of views between the governments of China and the Czech Republic, nor would it upset the friendly exchange between the PRC and EU countries. Additionally, it was stated that despite the pressure from the US, most EU governments, including the Czech Republic, will not dance to the US and Taiwan’s tune.
The Chinese media pointed out that China is the Czech Republic’s second largest trading partner and that 50 Chinese companies invested in the country by the end of 2018, creating 6,000 jobs. The deterioration of diplomatic relations could impact economic cooperation. Some users of the Chinese social media called on China to not resume air travel to Czech Republic even after the pandemic ends as well as called on others not to travel or do business with the Czech government and companies. The example of the Czech piano manufacturer Petrof, which sells 35% of its products to China, lost a contract worth CZK 5.3 million from a client in Beijing (about USD 230,000, which is a rather symbolic value). Data presenting the huge trade disparity between the Czech Republic, Taiwan and China were also outlined and supposed to show how big was Vystrčil’s mistake. It was added that this could damage cooperation within the Belt and Road projects and the 17+1 initiative.
After the delegation returned to the Czech Republic, the Chinese media focused on the words of the President of the Czech Senate, who denied in a TV interview that he had ever said anything about recognizing Taiwan as an independent country. According to the Chinese media, he had previously deceived Taiwan authorities with his support and visit to make Taiwan donate 100,000 masks and five mask production lines. It was emphasized that Vystrčil neither acknowledged his wrongdoing nor made an apology about his trip whilst the Czech Senate did not issue any explanatory statement.
Beijing once again conducted a diplomatic and informative offensive. Earlier, similar cases took place in Sweden (the Gui Minhai incident), Denmark (graphics showing the flag of China with symbols of viruses instead of five stars in one of the newspapers) and permanently in confrontation with the USA. This phenomenon is called a “wolf warrior diplomacy,” which is a more confrontational foreign policy of the PRC.
The Chinese representatives and the media used various methods to present the very idea and the visit of the Czech delegation to Taiwan in the worst possible way. There were threats that the diplomatic relations and economic exchange will deteriorate significantly. Criticism of the delegation’s trip by Czech politicians was widely presented, and the position of the President of the Senate was diminished. Moreover, it was stated that the representatives of the United States were supposed to encourage Western countries, including the Czech Republic, to conduct similar actions. These reactions clearly show that the “One China” policy is crucial for the CPC and it will not accept any deviations in this matter.
So far, however, there has been no clear deterioration of economic cooperation between Prague and Beijing. Only a symbolic gesture, which was, among others, the case of cancelled contract of the Petrof piano manufacturer. We can expect marginalization of the Czech Republic in the 17+1 format, ignoring Czech diplomats in Beijing, or opposing Czech nominations for high positions in international organizations.
This event has also damaged China’s image in the international arena and especially in Europe. It once again showed the face of the Middle Kingdom, which is different from a peace-minded nation focusing on dialogue and cooperation, as it is attempted to be presented. High representatives of the EU and the leaders of its member countries who referred to this fact, criticized Beijing’s reaction. This did not help China, which is trying to increase its influence in Europe and build its economic capital here. This was reflected, for instance, in the last meeting of the EU and PRC leaders on September 14, when the EU presented a joint position on tough policy towards China.