Is China Out the Window in the CEE?
For a number of years, China seemed to be making inroads in Central and Eastern Europe, even drawing participation in an informal grouping of CEE nations. Lately, though, it seems that CEE states are fed up with unfulfilled promises, aggressive diplomacy and illiberal behavior.
In Europe, history has taught that things thrown out of windows can reverberate. The tossing of three Catholic representatives from the third-floor windows of the council room in Prague Castle in 1618 – an act that ultimately prompted the creation of a new word, “defenestration,” from the Latin fenestra, meaning “window” – had a powerful and lasting impact on politics in the wider European world. Inaugurating Bohemian resistance to the Habsburg emperor Ferdinand II, the event triggered one of history’s bloodiest and most defining conflicts, the Thirty Years War. When the human and economic devastation of that conflict finally resolved with the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, this gave rise to ideas like state sovereignty and diplomacy. In a roundabout way, then, it is to Prague’s rude act of political resistance that we owe, in the simplest version of the story, the framework of modern international relations.
Looking at geopolitics on the continent today concerning China, it is difficult not to think of that fateful event four centuries ago in Prague. The implications of the 2019 decision by the Prague City Council to chuck its sister city arrangements with the city of Beijing, over what city leaders saw as objectionable language in the sister city agreement, seem to have rippled right across Central and Eastern Europe, where countries are now more boldly questioning the costs – political, economic and security-related – of engagement with China. Was this yet another defenestration in Prague, prompting more widespread acts of defiance against an increasingly assertive power from the East?
Though the reasons for the shifting tide are of course complicated, a number of factors seem to have precipitated changing attitudes in the region – and these have, like the internal discontents that earlier had Catholic representatives tossed out the window, been brewing for some time. In this article, I look particularly at two intersecting key factors – first, the failure of China to follow through on its grand trade and investment promises; and second, growing awareness, particularly in light of China’s conduct domestically and internationally, of the illiberal nature of the Chinese regime.
Out the Window
The fracas in the Czech capital began in February 2019, shortly after the election as mayor of Zdeněk Hřib, a member of the liberal Pirate Party. Hřib quickly declared his intention to pursue the removal of an article in Prague’s sister city agreement with Beijing that demanded the city respect the “One China” principle, taking a firm position for PRC sovereignty and against the independence of Taiwan. The agreement had been witnessed by Chinese President Xi Jinping during his March 2016 visit to the Czech Republic, coming in a period of warming relations between China and the Czech Republic under President Milos Zeman. Hřib demanded the removal of any political conditionality from the arrangement so that the capital could enter into sister-city relations with Taipei.
China was furious. But the mayor was undeterred, ready it seemed to show them the window. In an interview with Taiwan’s Central News Agency on March 8, Hřib called himself a “fan of Taiwan,” which he had visited in his student days, and said he looked forward to visiting and learning more about smart cities. Meanwhile, Hřib clearly conveyed a sense of deep frustration with China over constantly disappointed expectations. “The previous city leadership favored a good political relationship with the People’s Republic of China and ignored the reality of human rights violations and freedoms over the desire for the economic advantages [of] a good relationship,” he said during a press conference in early March. “The visions of the previous leadership have not yet been fulfilled, not even the acquisition of a panda for Prague Zoo.”
As the March 10 anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan Uprising approached, local councils in Prague decided to revive a practice that had been suspended since 2014, as Zeman had sought closer ties with China – the flying of Tibetan flags to mark the day. Mayor Hřib insisted that a Tibetan flag would fly over City Hall for the anniversary, and moreover that he planned to meet with the visiting senior leader of the Tibetan government in exile, Lobsang Sangay.
Tensions culminated at the end of March, right in the midst of the mayor’s promised visit to Taipei, as Taiwan’s top representative in the Czech Republic was ejected from an economic conference in Prague organized by the Czech Ministry of Trade and Industry after a Chinese official lodged a protest. Commenting from Taiwan, Hřib revealed that he had faced similar pressure to remove the Taipei representative from a diplomatic event in Prague shortly after the new year, but had stood his ground. “I simply refused them,” he said of the Chinese. “It is not possible to throw out a guest I have invited.”
China tried to apply “soft” pressure. In September 2019, China’s Ministry of Culture, for example, cancelled all tours planned by Czech orchestras in China, including the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. Beijing’s refusal to relent on the “One China” clause in the sister city agreement forced Prague’s hand. In October 2019, the city finally cancelled its sister city arrangement with the Chinese capital. Three months later, on January 13, 2020, Hřib signed a new sister city agreement with Taipei during a visit by Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je. Beijing had been shown the window.
More than one year on from this defenestration in Prague, tensions appear only to have deepened, as though the actions of a single mayor have encouraged the airing of pent-up frustrations. =
In September 2020, the President of the Czech Senate Milos Vystrcil made the emblematic pronouncement, “I am Taiwanese,” on the floor of the Taiwanese parliament. His words consciously echoed the 1963 statement by US president John F. Kennedy, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” by which he signalled his support for West Berlin during the Cold War. Vystrcil stressed that Taiwan was a beacon of democracy, freedom, and human rights, which was being bullied and threatened with occupation by its larger, authoritarian neighbour across the Taiwan Strait – not unlike the way today’s states in Central and Eastern Europe had suffered during the Cold War at the hands of the Soviet Union.
And Czechia is now far from the only country in the CEE region to be speaking up more forcefully on China, and having second thoughts about its relations after a decade of apparently drawing closer. Back in May, the foreign minister of Lithuania, Linas Linkevicius, showed little reservation about wading into the sensitive issue of Taiwan, openly suggesting it be invited to a World Health Organization assembly on the global effort against COVID-19. On September 1, Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová voiced her support for the Czech Republic as China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, threatened retaliation over the Vystrcil’s visit to Taiwan, saying the country would “pay a high price.” In a tweet that quickly received more than 20,000 likes, Čaputová wrote that threats directed at one EU member “contradict the very essence of our partnership and as such are unacceptable.”
As the remarks from Linkevicius suggest, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a factor this year in worsening perceptions of China, and the PRC’s opportunistic “mask diplomacy” has added to frustrations in Europe, as Chinese diplomats and state media have worked to discredit EU member states and frame itself as a savior with a superior system, playing politics with generosity. But displeasure with China in much of the CEE predates the pandemic, and what we are seeing now is this displeasure translating into a greater willingness to speak openly.
Prague Mayor Zdeněk Hřib in fact plainly pointed to two core reasons for growing displeasure with China at the outset of what I have characterized as China’s defenestration in Prague. First, there is China’s perceived failure in the CEE to follow through on its economic promises, the mayor noting that the Czech Republic has not gotten so much as a panda for the Prague Zoo. Second, there is the demand from China, again in exchange for promises that never materialized, that CEE countries turn a blind eye to China’s human rights violations.
Both of these factors are worth exploring in greater detail.
Over the past decade, China has moved actively to engage with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. China sought to increase its trade and geopolitical clout in the region with the 2012 creation of the cooperation format with CEE countries known by the shorthand “16+1” until the addition last year of Greece, whereupon it became the “17+1.” The “Twelve Measures” announced by China as it formed the grouping, with a “secretariat” directly within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was a grocery list of investment and trade-related promises. China would offer concessional loans, set up an investment cooperation fund, build at least one economic and technology zone in each participating country within five years, and so on. Deals that followed in the intervening years created the perception of growing regional dependence on China’s massive economy, and the sense that the CEE region was moving steadily into China’s orbit.
Yet, perceptions and reality rarely overlap. China’s failure to meet the stratospheric expectations generated by the lavish promises for large-scale investments has provided probably the main reason for the cold shoulder that many CEE capitals are turning to Beijing. Some of the problems appear to have been prompted by the lack of knowledge about the region in China. For instance, in 2009 China’s COVEC construction company won a tender to build a 50km section of a highway running from the German border to Warsaw.
China’s failure to meet the stratospheric expectations generated by the lavish promises for large-scale investments has provided probably the main reason for the cold shoulder that many CEE capitals are turning to Beijing.
The success of COVEC’s bid was significant as it marked the first time a Chinese construction company had won a public competition in the EU. COVEC had by this time established a substantial portfolio of infrastructure projects in Africa, the Pacific, and Southeast Asia. Drawing on this experience, COVEC intended to import equipment and workforce from China to bring down the cost of the project. Its offer was less than half of the budget projected by the Polish government. However, by 2011 it was apparent that the company had seriously underestimated the impact EU road infrastructure standards and labour regulations would have on the cost of the project. As a result, the Polish government was eventually forced to revoke the contract and scramble for an alternative supplier. A similar lack of local experience led to the collapse in 2017 of a Great Wall Motors car manufacturing powerplant in Bulgaria. The signing of the joint venture in 2009 had been witnessed by the then Chinese vice president Xi Jinping.
Apart from this lack of know-how, the main issue has been the extraordinary lack of Chinese investment in the region. At the outset of China-CEE cooperation Beijing promised to offer a 10 billion dollar direct credit line which would grow to 100 billion by 2015. These promises, however, were never fulfilled. Poland and Hungary, two of the largest CEE recipients of Chinese investment, were receiving something in the neighbourhood of 450 million dollars per year. Chinese foreign direct investment in the EU peaked at 43 billion dollars in 2016, and last year plummeted back to 2012 levels. This year, owing also to the impact of the pandemic, it is likely to be even lower. To provide perspective, the top source of FDI in the EU-28 is the United States, with more than one third (35.1 percent) of the inward investment in the EU-28 from the rest of the world in 2017; by contrast, China accounted for a 0.9 percent share of inward FDI positions in the EU-28 economy, according to official statistic from the EU.
At the same time, after years of “17+1” summits, it seems that policymakers in the CEE region have begun to suspect that China was more interested in cooperation photo-ops than in real and meaningful investments. The Czech Prime Minister Babiš spoke for many of his CEE counterparts when he shared his frustrations in April 2019, during the Dubrovnik summit of the then “16+1,” about hosting “masses of [Chinese] delegations over and over again” without any tangible results. This appears to have been a sentiment shared even by Czech President Milos Zeman, known as one of the most pro-Chinese CEE politicians, who in a moment of exasperation seemed to let his diplomatic guard down when he announced in January 2020 that he would not attend a “17+1” summit then planned for the following April in Beijing, citing a lack of Chinese investment in his country.
Zeman subsequently walked back his statement, but it nonetheless echoed the feelings of many CEE leaders who had sat through China-CEE cooperation summits and were now venting privately – according to the author’s own conversations and interviews with CEE representatives – about how Chinese organizers seemed keener to use the events to advance their careers back home than to develop substantive initiatives in the region.
In this respect, China now finds itself confronted with a growing expectations–capability gap – and this is true not just in the CEE region. The question remains: can it match the heightened expectations stemming from its growing economic clout with delivery on these expectations?
The 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong were the real bifurcation point for CEE states, resulting in a split between those CEE states ideationally committed to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, and those seeking illiberal alternatives. Coinciding with the thirtieth anniversary of pro-democracy protests in Beijing and other Chinese cities in 1989, the Hong Kong protests also triggered memories of the “velvet revolutions” in the CEE countries. Moreover, the employment by Hong Kong protesters of tactics developed by dissidents in Central and Eastern Europe – such as the Lennon Wall and the Baltic Way – resonated in the region.
Across the Baltic states, commemorations of 1989 involved support for the plight of Hong Kong. These also provoked negative Chinese reactions. In August 2019, for example, Chinese diplomats in Lithuania attacked a gathering for solidarity with Hong Kong. One month later, a group of self-styled “Chinese patriots” defaced the original Lennon Wall in Prague with graffiti celebrating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. In December 2019, a Chinese tourist desecrated Lithuania’s Hill of Crosses pilgrimage site – a symbol of the country’s national independence – by destroying a cross placed there in support of the struggle of the people of Hong Kong. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius called the act a "shameful, disgraceful act of vandalism."=
Reaffirming the continuing significance of the legacy of 1989 to the identity of CEE states, politicians from Albania, Bulgaria, Czechia, Estonia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, Lithuania, and Poland were among the signatories of a protest letter in July against China’s introduction of a national security legislation in Hong Kong. At the same time, 11 of the 17 CEE countries, those that are EU member states, signed the UN joint statement in October criticizing China for human rights violations in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong. =
The COVID-19 pandemic has only solidified this split, and China has been deployed to justify distinct normative choices. Therefore, it is the contextual localization of China in domestic political debates – rather than what China necessarily does in the individual CEE states or globally – that informs CEE perceptions of China. This critical stance is not unique to the region and reflects a broader trend in Europe towards pushback against China. For some CEE states, such as Slovakia and the Czech Republic, this move is associated with a negative reaction to the crudeness of China’s so-called “wolf warrior diplomacy.” In a public announcement in April 2020, for example, the Slovak Ministry of Foreign Affairs openly criticized disinformation stemming from China. For other CEE states, the frustration is primarily with China’s failure to meet its investment commitments. And for still others it is spurred by a normative commitment to the liberal values in a rules-based international order.
Prague’s decision to sever the sister-city agreement with Beijing seems to have taken China by surprise, and some experts have rightly seen the visit to the region by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi last fall as an effort at “damage control.” The actions by the Czech capital marked a symbolic pivot in China’s relations with the CEE region.
For its part, China had hopes that the Czech Republic might provide an important gateway to greater involvement in Europe, and this romantic vision of the country was mirrored by a popular interest in Prague among traveling Chinese. Many Chinese know by heart the lyrics to the Mandopop hit “Prague Square,” as performed by the Taiwanese singer Jolin Tsai, and in recent years hundreds of thousands of Chinese tourists have flocked to the city to enjoy its romance – and to take wedding photos. By launching its China-CEE cooperation summit in October 2016 in its own city of romance, Suzhou, by all the regional heads of state and government, China perhaps hoped to begin a mutual love affair with CEE countries. But while the “17+1,” which brings together 17 CEE countries and China, is now a centerpiece of China’s relations with Europe, the romance has faded, and the grouping has become a significant bone of contention between Brussels and Beijing.
In fact, the “17+1” framework is one important reason why the EU, in its 2019 strategy paper, designated China a “systemic rival.” Shortly after the release of the paper, Johannes Hahn, then EU Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, went as far as to decry “17+1” participants as “Trojan horses” undermining European unity. The 2020 summit of the China-CEE cooperation was initially postponed because of the pandemic and has since been deferred indefinitely. There are no future summits on the horizon. But reinforcing the view that CEE states have grown weary of Chinese promises, and wary of its bullying, only Serbia, Hungary, and Greece among all 17 CEE states agreed to take part in China’s June 2020 videoconference on the Belt and Road Initiative.
While there are multiple contingent factors have led to the current freeze of the “17+1,” if not necessarily a complete breakdown, most CEE states have been mulling a freeze in their participation for quite some time. In this respect, while the pandemic has only accelerated the “social distancing” of CEE countries from China, at the heart of this distancing there seems to be a nascent values-based approach to relations with China. In particular, human rights and democratic accountability have become central to the framing of China-related issues. One of the most prominent recent examples has been Zuzana Caputova, a human rights lawyer and activist, who both during her election campaign and after her June 2019 inauguration as President of Slovakia, has remained vocal in her condemnation of China’s treatment of minorities and dissidents.