The case of Canada resembles that of the Czech Republic. Because the mayor of Prague is a supporter and promoter of Taiwan, the Chinese government got upset, affecting diplomatic ties with the Czech Republic, even though the national government has no control over the mayor. While this happens in China, there are no democratic strings that can empower a national institution to dictate to a local politician what to do. China’s misunderstandings in the Czech Republic didn’t stop there. When then-President of the Senate, Jaroslav Kubera, announced his intention to visit Taiwan, China decided to pressure President Miloš Zeman, to whom it addressed a letter threatening retaliation against Czech companies in China, like Skoda Auto or Home Credit Group. The Czech President has no power and no control over the Speaker of Parliament. Zeman is traditionally a close friend of China, but soon after the letter, he publicly declined the invitation (he later reconsidered his position) to participate in the 17+1 Summit between China and 17 Central and East European countries, which would have take place in Beijing, but it was postponed because of the pandemic. It was a high profile snub showing the costs of China’s failure to understand how democracies work and using friends to achieve political ends.
But China didn’t learn anything, because in August, while Wang Yi was in Germany, he threatened the Czech Senate President Milos Vystrcil that because of his visit to Taiwan he will pay a “heavy price”. The German Foreign Minister promptly defended Milos Vystrcil.
And the examples can go on. During the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, a paper from Denmark published a cartoon of the Chinese flag, replacing its five stars with five coronavirus images. Although China, through its embassy, pressured the publication to apologize, it led to the involvement of the national government, as Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said “we have freedom of expression in Denmark — also to draw”.
Even the Estonian government became an innocent victim of China’s misunderstanding of democracy and separation of powers, when after the visit to Taiwan of an Estonian Member of the European Parliament, the Chinese Embassy decided to complain to the Estonian Foreign Ministry. European Members of Parliament don’t represent their native country, but the European Union’s interests. The Estonian MOFA and the European Parliament are not only two different institutions, but they represent different political entities.
If this wasn’t enough, even when they might get the way Western institutions work right, Chinese officials completely miss the political winds. When the wife of the Chinese Consul General in Chicago asked a Republican senator from Wisconsin to pass a resolution praising China for how it handled the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak, she only succeed in determining him to pass a resolution criticizing the Chinese leadership. The outcomes of these endeavors are very similar to what happened in India with #TaiwanNationalDay. The more China is insisting on telling other entities what to do, the more backlash it receives. In a functioning democracy, you can’t just go to the President of the Senate with an already-written resolution and ask them to pass it, nor can you go to the mass-media and asked them to not call Taiwan a country.
On the same note, China started a fight with the Italian parliament, just because a few nationalist members of parliament, who weren’t very influential in the Italian parliament, organized a videoconference with Joshua Wong, a Hong Kong democracy activist. The Chinese Embassy in Rome criticized the members of parliament, prompting a committee of the Italian Chamber of Deputies to pass a resolution supporting the Hong Kong protesters. Because China failed to understand the limited influence of MPs from a party outside the mainstream, and instead of ignoring, directly criticized them, it united Italy’s political elite, including Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who signed onto China’s Belt and Road Initiative, in fighting back against the intrusion.
All these examples show us that democracy, rule of law, separation of powers or freedom of speech are just words in the Chinese dictionary, ignored or misunderstood by Chinese leaders and officials. As the COVID-19 pandemic is sharpening divisions between China and the US and its allies, China’s misunderstanding of how Western countries function will deepen this divide.
Where there is a will, there is a way, but the Chinese government seems to indulge itself with the idea that it knows best and there is no need to understand the intricacies of other countries. Over time, this only leads to diplomatic failures, driving China further apart from the countries it is trying to court.