“I am Taiwanese”: Tumultuous Czech – China Relations, what about the EU?

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Being dependent is the state of being relying on someone or something. The early stages of the global pandemic of COVID-19 have shown that our dependence on China concerning masks or sophisticated products is even bigger in a globalized world. China’s enormous influence in the international sphere represents a tool for Beijing to promote its “One China” policy, claiming Taiwan as an entire member of continental China and a way to isolate the island diplomatically. This strategy clearly works, since officially only 14 out of 193 United Nations member states recognize Taiwan, as the majority chose to establish relations with China. However, some EU countries, like the Gallic village, as the Czech Republic, crossed this red line by establishing some tied relations with Taiwan. This is perfectly emphasized in Senate President Vystrcil’s powerful speech, echoing John F. Kennedy‘s “Ich bin ein Berliner” — or, as he put it, “I am Taiwanese”.

The Czech Republic shifted a U-turn concerning its relationship with the People’s Republic of China. The honeymoon started well, as the 2013 elected President Milos Zeman was the only head of state among the EU countries attending the V-day parade on September 3. Both countries have specific reasons to build good reports. While the Czech Republic expected China’s presence to be a huge economic boost, Chinese authorities surprisingly are not driven by economic interests but rather, you guessed it, by symbolism with the case of Taiwan. Nevertheless, from 2016 and the controversial visit of the Tibetian spiritual leader in Prague onwards, relations have significantly downgraded, to the extent that the Czech Republic seems to be one of the few EU members annoying China’s patience, symbolized by several factors.

Firstly, the population’s view of China is not the most reluctant, as shown in the Pew Research study of 2019, as Czech is by far the most negative of EU countries surveyed after Sweden. One of the main reasons is related to how China’s authoritarian power is perceived. The post-communist Czech Republic has witnessed a rapid process of democratic and economic transformation, in which assets as human rights and democratic values became prominent in the country. This prominence was represented by Václav Havel, the writer and former dissident who served as President from 1989 to 2003.

No wonder that, not only the population, but also some Czech representatives repeatedly criticize human rights abuses in China while expressing support for a democratic transition in Taiwan, the face of this reversal being the current Prague Mayor, Zdenek Hrib.

The Prague Mayor took charge of the capital city in 2018, with a fearless opposition against China, stating China’s only interests are focused on making business. Doctor by profession, he developed a close relation with Taiwan during his two months spell there as a medical student, affection showed in its actions, which disturb the Beijing government. Firstly, in a meeting with foreign diplomats, he refused the Chinese ambassador’s demand to expel its Taiwanese counterpart, which is an offense against the Chinese domestic policy of one united China. This act is aligned with others like celebrating the Tibetan revolt anniversary against the Communist Party or Prague signing a sister city agreement with Taipei, both show defiance towards China.

All those actions make us think that repercussions for the Czech Republic’s government could be terrible, as China’s economic power can highly influence other countries’ economy. However, the specificity here is the low economic presence of China in the country. In fact, there is a genuine sense of disappointment about China’s minimal investment, as business opportunities barely materialized, growing the general debate and criticism over Chinese added value in the country. The regime might have invested into football clubs and breweries, but Taiwan-based companies have invested 14 times as much in Czech manufacturing than China. As such, this low economic influence might be one of the ways not to be drawn to this superpower’s influence.

If the Czech government might have eased to annoy China, that is not the case for the whole European Union, as the Middle Kingdom remains an important economic partner. This question poses a dilemma, as major powers are generally respecting their commitment to recognize the “One China” policy. However, it is hard to tolerate that an Asian democracy of 23 million inhabitants could be swallowed by force by Beijing. This is ultimately a good test for the EU’s unity, as the EU must find a balance between supporting its members daring to criticize China while at the same time, improving economic relations with Beijing. If those two trends strongly clash, the question would be: Does the EU strongly support its members or does it go to bed with China?

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