The Czech Republic and the People’s Republic of China. „Good old“ relations restarted?

Mesmerized by a vision of participation in Chinese economic success, the Czech Republic is willingly throwing away the legacy of Václav Havel and the human rights agenda, which until recently was a vital ingredient of Czech foreign policy. Eager acceptance of the Chinese policy of non-criticism of its internal affairs, devalues the CR as an equal partner in diplomatic relations with China. Moreover, the newly built alliance is based on – to a large extent – false claims about a common history which undermines the basis of Czech post-1989 identity.

Photo: Government of the Czech Republic

At the beginning of October 1949, Czechoslovakia was the 3rd country, following the Soviet Union and Poland, to officially recognize the newly founded People’s Republic of China (PRC). This year we commemorate the 65th anniversary of establishing diplomatic rapports with an enthusiastic “restart” of relations between the two countries, and this fits into the greater scheme of Chinese efforts to influence European politics. Our political representation has accepted the Chinese initiative without a moment’s hesitation, hoping that this will translate into an influx of Chinese investments, including support for economically unviable projects such as the completion of the Temelín Nuclear Power Plant. In their official statements, Czech leaders express respect for Chinese “core interests” (in other words Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen) turning their back on the idea of universal human rights, as if they forget that this idea has been our own core ineterest since the time of resistence against the communist régime during the normalization period.

Platform 16 + 1

The efforts of the PRC to expand influence in Europe via former communist countries has been obvious since June 2011 when the China – CEE Countries Economic & Trade Forum was held in Budapest. The forum was attended by Wen Jiabao, the then Prime Minister of the PRC, who in his speech stressed the traditional ties of China to the countries of the former Eastern bloc and hailed the benefits of a deeper cooperation.

This was followed in April 2012 by a Warsaw meeting between the Chinese Prime Minister and the leaders of sixteen post-communist countries ranging from the Baltic to Albania. This so-called “Warsaw initiative” came to be the first meeting of the platform that the Chinese mass media has since labeled 16 + 1. Wen Jiabao, who is considered to be the mastermind of the project, used this opportunity to sketch the basic outlines of economic and cultural cooperation, envisaged as a strategic partnership.

In the fall of the same year, a new office was set up in Beijing to follow up upon the Warsaw initiative. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs opened the China-CEE Cooperation Secretariat and the Eastern European countries were invited to send in their permanent representatives. The first meeting of these national coordinators and their Chinese counterparts took place on 6th September 2012.

Czech participation in the Budapest meeting seems to have been restrained. It is hard to estimate from open sources, who were official Czech representatives – if any – at the Budapest meeting. The website of the Czech Embassy in Beijing just “informs the business circles” about the event without further details. One year later Czech PM Petr Nečas was already present at the Warsaw meeting, but the true acceleration of the improvement of Czech-China relations began in 2013 with PM Jiří Rusnok in Bucharest.

The Bucharest Guidelines

The next step in reinforcing the strategic partnership between the European post-communist countries and China was marked by a summit of Prime Ministers held in November 2013 in Bucharest. The Chinese were represented by their Prime Minister Li Keqiang, who made a speech on key principles and strategies of cooperation. In a manner customary to Chinese politics, he branded these with numerical reference points as the Three Major Principles and Six Propositions. The Three Major Principles encompass requirements of equality, mutual benefit and ‘mutual respect for the paths chosen’ by the countries united under the platform; in other words maintenance, or rejection, of the authoritarian establishment. The Six Propositions then embody 6 areas of cooperation and their specific goals, namely the doubling of foreign trade volume; cooperation in the area of infrastructure buildup (landline and online); ecology (specified as support for Chinese investors in energy, including nuclear power); finance; regional development; and lastly cultural exchange. Czech Republic (CR) was represented by the interim PM Jiří Rusnok who also signed the joint memorandum containing specific steps towards further development cooperation, with 2014 designated as the year of propagation of mutual investments and trade (sometimes referred to as the Bucharest Guidelines for Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries).

One of the engines behind Czech participation in the 16 + 1 platform is a NGO with an obscure background named the Mixed Czech-Chinese Chamber of Mutual Cooperation (Smíšená česko-čínská komora vzájemné spolupráce). One member of the Mixed Chamber, Jaroslav Tvrdík was an important figure in the social democratic party. After his run as Minister of Defense (2001 – 2003), he was appointed as Chairman of the Board of Czech Airlines, and later put in charge of the campaign for the Social Democrats during the 2006 election. In 2007 he left politics and has since been active as a business consultant. During this period he developed close relations with China, being an active member of the Czech-Chinese Friendship Association – an organization hardly known in Czech Republic, but apparently most welcome in China with a branch office in Beijing. Today he is the President of the Mixed Chamber, and since 2014 he has become an “honorary” advisor to current PM Bohuslav Sobotka on China. Another former politician involved in the organization is former Minister of Foreign Affairs Jan Kohout who was in charge of the chamber from 2011 – 2013.

In a follow up to Bucharest negotiations, a symposium of think tanks from China and CEE was organized in Beijing. According to the information from the Czech Embassy in China, CR was represented by delegates from the Institute of International Relations of the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Václav Klaus Institute, and the above- mentioned Mixed Chamber. The activities of Václav Klaus Institute are unsettlingly reminiscent of the lobbyist pursuits of PPF Group (the leading financial and investment group in the Czech Republic, ed. note), which have been influencing Czech political statements in respect to China since the Nečas government.

At the same time, the Mixed Chamber has made no secret of its close ties to Chinese officials. It is thus natural to ask, whether the delegates of these institutions are the right candidates to represent CR in inter-government seminars, where positions on the future formulation of Czech foreign policy with one of the most influential world powers are being clarified within these informal settings.

Meeting in Prague

The third meeting of the 16 + 1 platform took place in August 2014 at Prague castle, under the auspices of President Miloš Zeman and PM Bohuslav Sobotka. The Czech press spoke of the Third Czech-China Investment Forum, but the official name of the event (which, curiously appeared, even in Czech language websites, solely in English) was the Local Leaders Meeting and China Investment Forum. Similarly, the Chinese media stressed the political dimension of the meetings and referred to negotiations of “regional leaders”. The forum was again attended by delegates of all countries of the 16 + 1 platform, yet only CR was represented at the highest level. In addition, more than 800 Czech politicians from various tiers of the administration (central government, local governments) as well as businessmen took part in the meetings. Over 700 subjects attended the Prague forum on behalf of China, comprising both regional government representatives and entrepreneurs. The central government was represented by Deputy PM Zhang Gaoli and Transport Minister Yang Chuantang. The organizers of the Prague forum stated that their ambition was “to become a historically important milestone on the road of the all-out developing cooperation between the PRC and the CEE countries.” The arrival of the Chinese Deputy PM was accompanied by activist protests against human rights violation in Tibet, during which an employee of the Chinese Embassy physically attacked the protesters and had to be taken away by the police.

Passive object of Chinese expansion

The fact that the 16 + 1 platform, allegedly constructed by the former Chinese PM Wen Jiabao, has not materialized with the initiatives of the 16 European states it unites, makes one thing obvious: There is a fairly large group of European countries, including ten EU member states, voluntarily positioning themselves as objects passively accepting the initiatives of Chinese foreign policy.

Total passivity of post-communist EU members vis-à-vis the Chinese “core-interests” does not conform to the EU’s commitment to human rights ideals and fundamental freedoms. The response of the EU to the recent protests in Hong Kong can be mentioned as the latest example of the difference. While the spokesperson of the EU delegation to China expressed concern about the situation and emphasized that it is monitoring the situation and expressing hope that a ‘high degree of the political participation by the people in Hong Kong’ will be achieved, Czech politicians refrained from making any comments. (However, it should be mentioned that the EU policy toward China regarding human rights is being “overhauled”, as Human Rights Watch pointed out shortly before the last meeting of the EU-China Human Rights Dialogue in June 2013).

The inequitable nature of the relationship between the partners is also confirmed by the fact that it was the Chinese PM Li Keqiang who set out the basic outline and strategy of the cooperation, including implicit rejection of any criticism of China’s internal affairs. Representatives of the Eastern European countries united on the Chinese platform hoping that in exchange for the loss of their own subjectivity, they will receive Chinese investments, which are expected to create new jobs and bring about economic development.

Up until now, no specific analyses of the potential impacts of the planned intensification of economic cooperation with China have been brought to the table. Politicians occasionally juggle with figures, like when present Minister of Economy Jan Mládek, during a December 2013 debate broadcasted on Czech Radio, indicated the billions that the Chinese will pour into CR’s economy and listed derivative benefits, however, these statements cannot be taken seriously.

Some analysts also see a lack of compatibility between China and the 16 countries of CEE, including differences in business practice, and the naturally diverging interests of the European partners gathered on the platform. These problems are being considered also by the Chinese, as can be seen in a working paper on the China – CEE cooperation by Liu Zuokui, a researcher in the Institute of European Studies of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Czech politicians speak primarily about investment inflow into the CR, or alternatively, about the influx of Chinese tourists and their influence on the development of Czech tourism. However, they tend to forget that one of the reasons behind the PRC’s expansion into Eastern Europe was the impact of the 2008 global economic crisis on Chinese exports. They underestimate the primary interest of China is to gain greater access to the post-communist markets, or use these as an entry point to the broader European market, especially in areas where Chinese businesses face various obstacles. During his visit to China in spring 2014, Czech Foreign Minister Lubomír Zaorálek was interviewed for Chinese television about the benefits of a Free Trade Agreement with China without the slightest signs of hesitation. He even expressed a belief that possible benefits were more feasible than with a similar treaty between Europe and the USA.

Nevertheless, no one has thus far analyzed potential effects, and we do not have a way to know whether further liberalization would not eventually bring the Czech economy more harm than benefits.

The 16 + 1 platform, no matter how much Czech politicians seek to minimize it as mere development of economic cooperation with no political consequences whatsoever has a very apparent political dimension. The above-mentioned passive acceptance of the Chinese agenda devalues our standing as an equal partner in diplomatic relations with China. Instead of emphasizing our proud membership in the EU, our rich history and our culture and democratic traditions, our political representatives entirely and needlessly reassure China that it is a super power not to be challenged.

A strategic partnership of post-communist countries – which are members or aspiring members of the EU – with the PRC naturally rouses suspicions, even if it does not automatically translate into our distancing from the traditional Western European countries of the EU. Statements of Chinese politicians as well as joint declarations accentuate that this initiative is being pursued within the context of a strategic EU – China partnership, disregarding any such worries. The danger of EU disintegration is rejected also by Richard Turcsányi in his January 2014 expert article Central and Eastern Europe’s courtship with China: Trojan horse within the EU? Nevertheless, his emphasis on the specific situation of the post-communist countries, which allegedly surpasses differences between the EU member and non-member states as well as between the European countries and China, is not overly convincing. The declarations made by post-communist countries’ representatives demonstrate a degree of carelessness with respect to a further opening of our economies to China, including the strategic sectors, such as nuclear energy.

Censored history

The newly built alliance between China and the European post-communist countries is based on – to a large extent false – claims about a common history. Chinese officials as well as mass media repeatedly emphasize our long-standing friendship which began shortly after the victory of the Communist Revolutions in China and in Central and Eastern Europe at the beginning of October 1949. They pretend as if the historical developments in our region were identical to those in China, ignoring entirely the fundamental transformation of the political system that we underwent after 1989. The Chinese interpretation of our common history contains a number of inaccuracies and it is astonishing how easily it slips into the rhetoric of Czech politicians who aren’t considering the basic facts. The tale of 65 years of a firm friendship may be taken seriously only in new, carefully censored Chinese history texbooks, – i.e. leaving out dramatic circumstances of the Soviet-Chinese rift, domestic political and repressive campaigns, the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution.

In reality, after 1959 – that is, a mere 10 years after our alliance had been forged – Czechoslovakia ended up on the opposite side of the barricade: on one hand Mao’s China and on the other the USSR and its allies. It is worth noting that the main cause of the rupture was a criticism of Stalinism in the USSR, and the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev’s endeavor to relieve international tensions – contemporary officials of the PRC were strictly opposed to both of these initiatives. A cautious normalization of relations began to ripen only in the mid-80’s, when the then PM Zhao Ziyang – a pro-reformist politician who was put out of power after the Tiananmen massacre and consequently spent the rest of his life under house arrest – came to Czechoslovakia for an official visit in 1987.

Havel thrown over the board

After 1989, disagreements within the “socialist camp” lost their gravity, yet a new problem emerged – the Velvet Revolution put an end to the authoritarian political system in Czechoslovakia, achieving something that had not even been started by the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. The symbolic importance of Václav Havel for Chinese opposition, including his friendship with Dalai Lama, made the problem even worse. It was at this point that – as Chinese diplomacy puts it, and our politicians are now quick to agree – the dialogue was suspended and the door, which is now being enthusiastically opened by the 16 + 1 platform, was closed. The topic of human rights, until recently a vital ingredient of CR’s foreign policy agenda, has completely faded from our negotiations with China. It is important to note at this point that this direction was already taken up by the Nečas government. Media speculations about the leftist politicians’ affiliation with Communist China thus fail to take into account the purely pragmatic motivations behind the entire development. Yet, the CR has – more than anyone else – a major trump card in her negotiations with Chinese officials, which the country’s political representation appears to be utterly unaware of. This is the figure of Václav Havel and the smooth change of the political system after 1989; the peaceful transition from an authoritarian regime to democracy, with all its civil liberties and respect for human rights. While China is experiencing spectacular economic growth, the nation has come short of political reforms even though internal discussions on the topic have been led since the beginning of the 80s. Czech politicians, blinded by Chinese largeness, GDP growth and the resources, which China promises to invest in the CR, willingly leave behind the very values that have enhanced our standing, even in the eyes of our Chinese counterparts.

(Un)willingly defending authoritarianism?

The foreign policy strategy of the PRC with respect to Europe’s post-communist countries appears to be closely linked to Chinese political representation and the nation’s endeavors to defend its legitimacy. A legitimacy that in the past was undermined by the disastrous mistakes made during the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, and which today is compromised by a contradiction between official communist ideologies and ruthless capitalist exploitation and corruption in the top party echelons. The reminiscences of the early years of the PRC as the period of stability and emerging prosperity play an important role in these legitimization efforts, since at the beginning of the 1950s, the Communist Party truly enjoyed wide popular support.

If the Czech officials – be it out of ignorance, courtesy or most importantly a blindness to the chimera of potential economic benefits – repeat Chinese phrases about a “common history”, “long-standing friendship” and the need to “restart” our relations, they are de facto making it clear that making money is the only thing they consider crucial for the successful development of society. In this context, all other values lose their worth. Reiterating the Chinese political rhetoric, we are erasing the message of Václav Havel and the human rights ethos which stand at the core of our post-1989 identity and which also resonate strongly in the Chinese intellectual milieu.

Overwriting history in order to attract Chinese investments may seem a smart move by our government. After all, the wolf (China) will have eaten and the goat (CR and its democratic system) will remain whole and both parties will benefit. A Chinese diplomat would smile conspiratorially and call it a win-win situation. However we should not forget that in this game we put at stake the ideas of humanism, on which the entire human civilization is built, regardless of cultural differences. It is not by coincidence that at the moment of a political and economic rapprochement with China, voices promoting cultural relativism started appearing in the CR, convinced of fundamental differences between Czech and Chinese cultural traditions. They do not realize that in this case, the demand to respect cultural differences does not advocate ancient Chinese traditions (a concept problematic in itself, given the constant variability of all traditions), but an authoritarian regime, the political structure and culture of which were founded on the model of the Stalinist USSR, and the market economy of which emulates early capitalism in 19th century Europe.

Olga Lomová

Olga Lomová

focuses on literature of Early Middle Ages and especially poetry and translates Chinese modern and classical literature. She also does research on the intellectual transformation of 20th century China. In the past she regularly published artiles on China in Czech media, today she writes mainly for the internet journal Deník referendum.