Written by Martin Lavicka.
Since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, relations between Czech Republic and the PRC have undergone a long and somewhat interesting journey, one full of turbulence. Until 1989, the relationship between the two countries, former Czechoslovakia and China, followed a similar path to the relations between China and the Soviet Union, simply because the USSR played the “Big Brother” of Czechoslovakia. When the relations between the PRC and USSR soured, logically the same happened between the PRC and Czechoslovakia. The cooling down of Czechoslovak and China relations were particularly visible after the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s. After 1989, Czechoslovakia, soon to be divided into the Czech and Slovak Republics in 1993, had a unique opportunity to establish their own foreign policy toward China and Taiwan for the first time.
With the last Czechoslovak, and later the first Czech president Vaclav Havel, foreign policy toward Asian countries started to follow a relatively unique path, different from the West European countries. The subject of human rights abuses, a very sensitive and fresh topic in the Czech society, where it could be discussed freely after many decades, became one of the decisive points when dealing with foreign countries. This policy was often criticized by technocrats for hurting the Czech economy and business opportunities in states with less or non-democratic regimes, where the previous Czechoslovak brands and companies used to have a good reputation and a favorable access to their markets. There was an ongoing discussion whether the newly established Czech Republic, with its economy undergoing transformation from a centrally planned model to the market one, could actually afford to lose these non-democratic markets only because of this moral reasoning.
In January 1990, shortly after the so-called Velvet Revolution, President Havel officially invited the Dalai Lama to visit Prague. His visits to Prague became quite regular under Havel’s presidency and continue until now, even though in a less official way. None of these were to China’s liking, causing protests from the Chinese side and resulting in the worsening of mutual relations. It is quite understandable that during this period of stagnation of Czech and China’s relationship, contacts with Taiwan, by contrast, flourished. There were numerous exchanges at different levels, carrying many expectations regarding the mutual investment possibilities at that time. The Czech government hoped to attract more Taiwanese investors to spend their money in the Czech Republic, but also to get contracts and access to the market for Czech companies in Taiwan. From this point of view, it can be argued that the friendly relationship between Taiwan and Czech Republic was not solely built on the mutual understanding of being “bullied” by a stronger neighbor and the recent history of the struggle for democracy, but that money has always been a strong argument. In June 1995, the Republic of China’s (ROC) Premier Lien Chan made a historical trip to Prague. It was the highest ROC dignitary who had visited Europe since 1949. In the same year the Czech Republic supported Taiwan’s unsuccessful bid to join the United Nations. In 2000, shortly after his retirement, the former ROC President Lee Teng-hui visited Prague on Vaclav Havel’s invitation to attend the Forum 2000, actually to be a discussant at the panel where the Dalai Lama had his keynote speech. This created an interesting image of two representatives from two of China’s “troubled” regions to meet together.
After the new President of the Czech Republic Milos Zeman took office in March 2013, and the new government was formed in January 2014, it can be clearly identified a significant shift in the Czech policy toward China and other regions criticized for their human rights abuses. This change became visible in early 2014 when the foreign minister of the new government visited China. During his visit, the foreign minister Zaoralek confirmed that the Czech Government supports the One-China policy, that it does not want to interfere with China’s internal affairs and that it does not recognize the Tibetan exile government. The incumbent Czech President Milos Zeman also expressed his willingness to officially visit China in October 2014. Already in early September 2014, a large-scale China Investment Forum took place in Prague with more than 500 guests from China, including the vice Premier Zhang Gaoli and representatives of various provincial governments. This event clearly revealed the new tendency in Czech-China relations, focusing more on business and less on “controversial” topics. Last month the Central Bank of China announced it will begin to spread its UnionPay card technology to Central and Eastern Europe, starting in the Czech Republic as a pilot country, then followed by Hungary, the Slovak Republic and Romania. It has also been widely discussed that direct flights from Beijing and Shanghai might start operating the next year.
What is quite interesting is the almost invisible shift in the attitude of the Czech media when referring to China. The Czech audience has been used to hearing rather critical news about Chinese society, environment and human rights issues, but this has changed recently when the Chinese correspondent of the Czech TV was replaced with a new one, who seems to be less “critical” and investigative. It might be a coincidence corresponding with the overall shift in foreign policy toward China, but somehow previous experiences have taught us to be a little bit skeptical about such “coincidences.”. It is quite certain that under these new policies the relationship between Taiwan and Czech Republic will not surpass the heyday of the 1990’s, but since Taipei has gained a mastery of “non-political” diplomacy avoiding conditions limiting the relationship, it will most certainly continue its way of cooperation in economic, academic and cultural ways.
It will be interesting to see the outcomes of this change, whether the big expectations will be fulfilled, or that as some critics say, we have just traded our moral values over uncertain promises of investments and money coming from China.
Martin Lavicka is a PhD candidate at the Department of Politics and European Studies, Palacky University