Pressure mounts for Czech trade minister to resign over China-Taiwan diplomatic incident

Marta Nováková, photo: ČTK/David Taneček

Pressure is mounting for Prime Minister Andrej Babiš to recall Trade and Industry Minister Marta Nováková over a diplomatic incident that has highlighted China’s efforts to assert its influence in the Czech Republic. The revelation that a representative of Taiwan had been forced to leave a diplomatic meeting at the trade ministry at the request of the Chinese ambassador has sparked widespread criticism from politicians across-the-board.

Marta Nováková,  photo: ČTK/David Taneček
A “reset” in Czech-Chinese relations in 2014 aimed at boosting trade, investment and tourism between the two countries, brought a surge of diplomatic activity and political contacts. Following years of virtually no top-level visits, President Zeman undertook a series of trips to China, hosting his Chinese counterpart in Prague and holding a Czech-Chinese business forum at Prague Castle.

While critics warned about the danger of trading human rights for economic interests, advocates pointed out that some of the world’s leading democracies were falling over themselves to do business with China and the Czech Republic had no reason to stand on the side-lines.

However last week’s incident at the trade ministry showed that, while this may be so, Czech officials will need to coordinate their policy more closely when it comes to China’s attempts to assert its influence in the Czech Republic. There is widespread agreement across the political spectrum that the incident in which the Taiwanese representative was shown the door was a diplomatic failure and a major embarrassment. Forty Czech senators are now calling for the minister’s head. Senator Marek Hilšer:

Marek Hilšer,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů
“We think it was unacceptable blackmail on the part of the Chinese ambassador and as a proud and self-confident country we should not have bowed to the pressure. We have to make it clear that there must be no repeat of such behaviour. Our political representatives, including the trade minister, must be perfectly clear on this point.”

Minister Nováková herself admits that the situation was mishandled.

“The problem was that my team failed to consult the matter properly with Czech Foreign Ministry officials. I had no idea what was happening and found myself in the middle of this unpleasant situation when I arrived at the meeting. As to my political future, it is up to the prime minister to decide.”

Prague Mayor Zdeněk Hřib from the Pirate Party revealed that the Chinese ambassador had made a similar request of him during a New Year’s meeting of the Prague leadership with the diplomatic corps and had been refused point-blank. The minister should have known what to do, he said and added that during a business trip to Taiwan this week he had told President Tsai Ing-wen that human rights are of greater importance to Czechs than getting a panda from the Chinese.

Andrej Babiš,  photo: ČTK/David Taneček
The trade minister has also come under fire from the head of the foreign affairs committee in the Chamber of Deputies, Lubomír Zaorálek, who said the minister should not have bowed to pressure and warned that the decision could set a dangerous precedent. The foreign affairs committee has summoned representatives from both the trade and foreign affairs ministries for an explanation.

Foreign Minister Tomáš Petříček, who is currently on a working visit to the US, has said he plans to discuss the matter with Minister Nováková in person on his return.

And Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, who is besieged by journalists over the scandal, has refused to confirm speculation that the trade minister’s days in office are numbered. Asked whether he had lost trust in her, Mr. Babiš gave reporters a terse “No comment.”