The Historic Czech Delegation to Taiwan: When a Small Democracy Stands up to China’s Intimidation

The Historic Czech Delegation to Taiwan: When a Small Democracy Stands up to China’s Intimidation

The Historic Czech Delegation to Taiwan: When a Small Democracy Stands up to China’s Intimidation

At the beginning of September, a Czech delegation consisting of 89 members, including the Senate President, the Mayor of Prague, parliamentarians, entrepreneurs, and educators embarked on an official visit to Taiwan. The delegation, dubbed “historic” by Taiwan officials and observers for its high-profile participants and symbolic significance, came at a time when many countries are becoming increasingly wary of the China’s coercive and malign practices in the international arena. The visit enjoyed wide international attention—not only because the delegation was led by Czech Senate President Miloš Vystrčil, the second-highest ranking official after President Miloš Zeman—but also for the threats that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) diplomats publicly directed against Vystrčil. The visit appears to be reflective of a fundamental shift in perceptions within the Czech Republic—and perhaps more broadly in Europe—towards China and Taiwan. The first part of this series outlines the events leading up to the visit as well as the delegation’s accomplishments, while the second part will discuss European solidarity with the Czech Republic during the visit and its larger implications.

Counterproductive Chinese Intimidation Tactics in Prague

Czech Senate President Vystrčil’s decision to lead a delegation to Taiwan was preceded by a very turbulent period in Czech-China relations. Following Chinese dismissal of Prague Mayor Zdeněk Hřib’s request to remove a “One-China” clause from a Prague-Beijing sister-city agreement, the mayor terminated the partnership in October 2019 and instead established sister-city ties with Taipei. Around the same time, the Chinese Embassy in Prague expressed outrage when then-Senate President Jaroslav Kubera attended a Taiwanese Double Ten reception in Prague. That fall, multiple controversies pertaining to Chinese influence in Prague—described in a past Global Taiwan Brief—came to light.

However, it wasn’t until early 2020 that the Czechs fully realized the lengths to which Chinese diplomats are willing to go to in order to bar another country’s development of ties with Taiwan. After then-Senate President Kubera announced his plans to make an official visit to Taiwan, intimidation by the Chinese embassy intensified significantly. In meetings with Chinese diplomats and at an event hosted by President Zeman—a long-time promoter of cooperation with China—Kubera was repeatedly pressured to reconsider the visit. The Senate president was later given a letter from the PRC embassy threatening retaliation against Czech businesses should he follow through. Tragically, Kubera never realized the visit—he died of heart attack in late January 2020. Kubera’s family blames his death on the pressure exerted by the Chinese embassy.

Miloš Vystrčil was elected Senate president in February, and despite continued pressure from Chinese embassy, he announced in June that he would proceed with the visit in honor of his predecessor Kubera. Vystrčil explained that he waited four months for an adequate public investigation and response by Czech officials to the threatening letter given to Kubera. Instead, he found that the Czech Republic was heavily dependent and subservient to China, and that there was no will among Czech politicians to free the country of this reliance. Vystrčil added that he also waited for the PRC to make a gesture indicating remorse over the incident and apologize, but to no avail. Instead, he experienced continued pressure from Chinese diplomats and came to the conclusion that China expected obedience from the Czechs, not a mutually beneficial and equal partnership. The delegation to Taiwan would help to demonstrate that the Czech Republic is a sovereign, independent, and democratic state, while simultaneously bolstering cooperation with a partner—in this case Taiwan—on equal footing.

This notion of standing up to Chinese intimidation was echoed by many other members of the delegation as well. For instance, Senator (and Senate Vice-President) Jiří Růžička explained to this author:

For a man of my generation who has spent most of his life under a communist regime, it is very important to show that […] we will not kowtow to anyone. The Czech Republic is a sovereign state built on democratic principles, which I try to defend not only as a senator, but also as a citizen. Taiwan and the Czech Republic have a lot of similar experiences in their history with authoritarian and totalitarian systems, so to me, the support of a democratic Taiwan is only natural. [1]

Another member of the delegation also pointed out that there had been numerous visits to Taiwan by members of the Czech Senate in the past, and that it was because of China’s impertinence that the Senate president “had no other option but to make the visit in order to maintain his dignity.” Ironically, he concluded, Taiwan can thank Beijing for the realization of the visit and for the attention it has enjoyed.

The Czech Republic is a multi-party democracy; therefore, it is no surprise that opinions on the visit varied widely. President Zeman and his supporters resolutely opposed the plans, while the majority of high-ranking politicians, including the prime minister and foreign minister, urged caution and advised against upsetting China. Meanwhile, many opposition politicians welcomed the return of a values-based parliamentary foreign policy, in line with the tradition of promoting democratic values and human rights, tracing back to the legacy of Václav Havel. Although the visit was opposed by the president, prime minister, and other political figures, it was supported by the Senate majority. [2] Senate President Miloš Vystrčil told this author in an interview that he also appreciated the hundreds of supportive emails and messages he received from the Czech people and underscored that the visit did not violate the “One-China Policy” as it is interpreted by the Czech Republic. [3]

Coincidentally, only 3 weeks before the visit, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a speech at the Czech Senate during his Central European tour. Pompeo explicitly lauded the legislator’s decision to visit Taiwan and declared that “the United States will stand by the Czechs” in the face of China’s growing influence and threats. Then, only days before the visit, a joint statement signed on August 25 by 70 leaders from the European Parliament, the United States, Canada, and Australia condemned China’s pressure on the Czech Senate leader and backed the delegation. In a similar sign of support, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell argued at a Heritage Foundation event on August 31 that the visit was a “very reasonable interaction“ given Taiwan’s success with handling the coronavirus.

The Delegation’s Visit in Taiwan and its Achievements

The goals of the visit—all of which were accomplished, according to the Senate President Vystrčil—were threefold: to search for business opportunities (particularly by connecting Czech and Taiwanese small and mid-sized enterprises) and expand research and development cooperation; to send a signal that the Czech Republic is a sovereign, independent country which conducts its parliamentary diplomacy as it sees fit; and to promote cooperation with a fellow democracy. The Senate President said he believes that democracies should cooperate and mutually reinforce the values they stand for, and that in his view, promotion of democracy only within the borders of one’s country is not sufficient. “We must also support democracy and freedom outside our borders, and that is what we did,” Vystrčil said. [4]

The 6-day visit—from August 30 to September 5—was described by the delegation’s members to this author as very productive and fruitful. [5] The delegation met with high-level Taiwanese representatives, including President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and Prime Minister Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌), signed MOUs on smart city and AI cooperation at a trade and investment forum, as well as on collaboration between numerous academic and research institutions, among many other accomplishments. The delegation also reported that 280 business meetings took place over the course of 150 hours spent on the island, and that some investment opportunities discussed by delegation members are already reaching the late stages of negotiations. Delegation members particularly appreciated that many of the discussed investment opportunities are to move entire production operations to the Czech Republic and that they are largely based in areas of innovation and high-added value industries—fields which can boost and transform the Czech economy. Finally, the delegation also learned from Taiwan’s handling of the coronavirus, most notably its smart quarantine, the production of protective equipment, and the government’s communication with the public. [6]

Prague Mayor Hřib, who joined the delegation to further bolster Prague-Taipei ties, told the author that the visit confirmed that Taipei is a “reliable partner” and highlighted the planned direct flight connection between Prague and Taipei, Taiwan’s pledge to send a pair of pangolins to Prague Zoo, a donation of 100,000 face masks, the possibility of establishing a branch of Taiwan Cooperative Bank in the Czech Republic, and cultural and educational exchanges as key accomplishments of the visit. [7] Senate President Vystrčil also noted in an interview that the Taiwanese were very interested in cooperation, and that he hoped that the opportunities developed in Taiwan would be turned into concrete projects. [8]

Reflecting on the visit, Senator Růžička noted:

[We appreciated] the readiness of the Taiwanese to negotiate with our delegation. There was not a single high-ranking representative of Taiwan or a major Taiwanese company with whom we did not discuss specific forms of further cooperation. The president, the vice-president, the prime minister, the ministers, the heads of global companies and research institutes—they were all ready to develop further cooperation between our countries. [9]

The Senate President Vystrčil also delivered speeches at the National Chengchi University on the importance of freedom and democracy, and accepted an order on behalf of the late Senate President Kubera during a meeting with President Tsai. The visit was capped off with the Senate president’s speech at Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan, which concluded with a proclamation, “I am Taiwanese” (我是台灣人)—in reference to President John F. Kennedy’s iconic “Ich bin ein Berliner”—intended to express solidarity with Taiwan. Vystrčil also invited his counterpart, Legislative Yuan President You Si-kun (游錫堃) to the Czech Parliament.

Last week, Vystrčil announced that working groups would be formed to develop concrete opportunities in areas including investment, banking, a direct flight connection, the donation of face mask production lines, educational exchanges, and more. [10] Business opportunities and scientific collaboration will be developed individually, based on the contacts made in Taiwan. Meanwhile, the Czech-Taiwan Chamber of Commerce, in cooperation with the Czech Representative Office in Taiwan, will collect information about additional Czech and Taiwanese companies seeking business opportunities and facilitate communication between the interested parties. [11] Despite his initial opposition to the visit, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš promised that the government will support any economic opportunities delivered by the delegation. Taiwan proved itself a reliable partner ready to provide tangible business opportunities; “the ball is now in our court,” Mayor Hřib concluded. [12]

Another delegation to Taiwan, this time led by the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, Jiří Drahoš, and comprising of members of the scientific community and companies dealing with cybersecurity, is planned for October—however, it remains to be seen whether the visit will be postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. [13]

(The author would like to thank the Czech Senate President Miloš Vystrčil, Prague Mayor Zdeněk Hřib, and Senator Jiří Růžička for their comments.)

The main point: The historic visit to Taiwan by the Czech delegation led by Senate President Vystrčil was truly a remarkable moment for both Czech and Taiwanese foreign policy. While the trip primarily served as a way to stand up to mounting pressure by the PRC, it also provided a wealth of opportunities for deepening Czech-Taiwan economic ties.

[1] Email exchange with Senator Jiří Růžička, September 14.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Interview with Czech Senate President Miloš Vystrčil, September 22.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Based on interviews with Czech Senate President Miloš Vystrčil on September 22 and Prague Mayor Zdeněk Hřib on September 16, and an email exchange with Senator Jiří Růžička on September 14.

[6] Email exchange with Senator Jiří Růžička, September 14.

[7] Interview with Prague Mayor Zdeněk Hřib, September 16.

[8] Interview with Czech Senate President Miloš Vystrčil, September 22.

[9] Email exchange with Senator Jiří Růžička, September 14.

[10] Interview with Czech Senate President Miloš Vystrčil, September 22.

[11] Based on an email exchange with Senator Jiří Růžička on September 14, and an interview with Czech Senate President Miloš Vystrčil on September 22.

[12] Interview with Prague Mayor Zdeněk Hřib, September 16.

[13] Based on an email exchange with Senator Jiří Růžička on September 14 and an interview with Prague Mayor Zdeněk Hřib on September 16.