Individual acts of bravery easily seem futile — until lots of other people join in. That is the message from Belarus, where protestors are sounding the final death knell for the Soviet Union. But the same is true in Prague. A delegation of ninety Czech public figures has just breached communist China’s taboo and arrived in Taiwan.
The regime in Beijing loathes the offshore island democracy. Taiwan maintains a token claim to be the “Republic of China” – a legacy of the nationalist government’s flight there after the communist victory on the mainland in 1949. But its real strength is its success. Taiwan is not an emerging economy. It has emerged. GDP per head (admittedly an imperfect measure) is nearly three times higher on the island than on the mainland: testimony to the madness and inefficiency of communist economics. Taiwan is also a lively democracy, which has largely overcome the traumas of its authoritarian past; on the mainland, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the massacres of 1989 are subject to officially enforced amnesia. In short, on any measure except size, “free China” (as we used to call it) scores better than its “Red China” communist counterpart.
For decades, the regime in Beijing tolerated Taiwan as an anomaly: a rebel province in theory, but a useful trading partner in practice. That has changed under Xi Jinping, the communist leader since 2012. He wants reunification sooner rather than later, and by force if necessary. A first step is to intimidate and isolate Taiwan.
This plan could work. It could make Taiwan feel friendless and indefensible. Western countries, even the US, would give up. But it is failing. Taiwanese voters have decisively rejected politicians who want appeasement. Western countries are beginning to wake up. The Netherlands recently upped the status of its unofficial embassy (very few countries actually have formal diplomatic relations with the government in Taipei). Last week the US — Taiwan’s de factor security guarantor — sent its highest-level visitor since 1979: the health secretary Alex Azar.
And now come the Czechs. Their country has a long history of resisting communist tyranny. I still remember meeting the Dalai Lama in Prague in 1990 — the Tibetan exile leader was one of the first foreign visitors invited there by Václav Havel, the dissident-turned-president, after the revolution. Now the torch has been taken up by the mayor of Prague, Zdeněk Hřib, who briefly studied medicine in Taiwan. He objected to the Chinese regime’s attempt to impose political conditions in an agreement with his municipality. When Chinese officials bullied him, he fought back, saying he would respond to their sanctions by boosting ties with Taiwan. Hřib is a prominent member of the Czech delegation. Its leader Miloš Vystrčil is the speaker of the Czech senate, taking the place of his similarly pro-Taiwanese predecessor Jaroslav Kubera, who died in January after receiving threatening letters from the Chinese embassy.
The Chinese reaction has been characteristically splenetic: a spokesman described the Czech delegation’s visit as a “despicable act”. The real point is what other countries do now. Breaching a taboo is much more effective when others follow suit. Lawmakers and public figures in other freedom-loving countries — Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Sweden, and Ukraine all spring to mind — should start booking their tickets to Taipei, and urging their governments to open offices there. The cost is trivial. The potential impact is huge. Once it becomes routine to go to Taiwan to talk not just trade, investment, and health-care but also security policy the bullies of Beijing will have nowhere to turn. They can punish an individual country. But not everyone.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.