How a politician's death deepened the Czech rift with China

Czech Senate Speaker Milos Vystrcil receiving a map of Taiwan from Taiwanese President Tsai-wen in Taipei on Sept 3, 2020.
Czech Senate Speaker Milos Vystrcil receiving a map of Taiwan from Taiwanese President Tsai-wen in Taipei on Sept 3, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

PRAGUE (BLOOMBERG) - Pressure on a Czech politician over plans to visit Taiwan grew so great that it contributed to his death, according to his family. Now his replacement has gone ahead with the trip - widening a rift between China and what was once one of its biggest cheerleaders in the European Union.

Senate Speaker Milos Vystrcil, who headed to Taipei this week, is not just facing threats from Beijing but is also ignoring opposition to his trip from China-friendly President Milos Zeman.

It's that level of politically induced stress that his 72-year-old predecessor, Mr Jaroslav Kubera, endured before a fatal heart attack in January.

While the Czech Republic tends to toe the EU line on foreign policy, the nation of 10.7 million has entered an unlikely and worsening spat with China, its fourth-biggest trading partner.

In reality, though, politicians are divided over relations with Beijing, with some favouring close economic ties and others appalled by China's human rights record.

That's opened a fault line that China can exploit as it grapples with the United States for influence in Europe. US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo toured Europe last month, including a stop in Prague, where he labelled China a greater threat than Russia.

Some of those tensions have been translated to Taiwan, which China regards as a renegade province - Beijing condemns any outside diplomatic activity related to Taipei as interference in its affairs.

US Health Secretary Alex Azar became the most senior American official to go there in decades when he visited last month.

For Mr Zeman and local tycoons like billionaire Petr Kellner, China is a source of investment and a destination for Czech businesses to expand. Mr Zeman, also a supporter of Russia, was the only EU head of state to attend a World War II commemoration in Beijing in 2015.

But diplomatic spats have marred cooperation.

'HEAVY PRICE'

Many Czech officials are sceptical of Beijing's promises and strategic goals after seeing little investment coming from the 17+1 forum between mostly eastern and southern European nations and China. The country's human rights record is a source of dismay for many including Prague mayor Zdenek Hrib.

 
 

Having angered China by cancelling a sister-city agreement with Shanghai, Mr Hrib visited Taipei earlier this year and also joined Mr Vystrcil's trip. The needling dates back years, with late president Vaclav Havel travelling to Taiwan and welcoming the Dalai Lama.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi - in Europe discussing investments - warned of a "heavy price" for visiting Taiwan, calling Mr Vystrcil's trip a "betrayal" that makes him an "enemy of 1.4 billion Chinese people".

The Taiwanese and the Czechs both "had to struggle to find a path to democracy", Mr Vystrcil told students in Taipei. Other EU officials will come too, he said.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen honoured Mr Kubera in a ceremony on Thursday morning (Sept 3) in Taipei. "We feel regret about his departure," she said of the late Czech lawmaker. "Conferring a medal on him shows our respect to him."

Mr Vystrcil was feted like a visiting head of state, a rare opportunity for Taiwan, which has lost all but 15 formal diplomatic partners to Beijing. "His warmth and kindness are like spring sunshine, while Wang Yi's threats are like cold winter winds," said Mr You Si-kun, the Speaker of Taiwan's legislature.

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said Mr Wang's remarks crossed a line. For Mr Kubera's daughter, Ms Vendula Vinsova, the threats stirred uncomfortable memories.

"We knew he was under pressure and behaving really unusually, but we didn't know the details," she said. After sifting through documents about his planned trip and following developments in the past few months, she said: "I felt like I'd suddenly woken up in a different world."