PRAGUE – Authorities in the city of Prague, led by the anti-establishment Czech Pirate Party, have rebuffed Chinese pressure since coming to power last year and have firmly placed human rights concerns above promises of lucrative investment and threats of reprisals from Beijing.
“It’s clear that blackmail is a standard tool used by the People’s Republic of China,” Zdenek Hrib, mayor of the Czech capital since November 2018, tells EFE while condemning Beijing’s pressure to undo several of his council’s decisions, which last October led to a rift in the twinning of the two cities.
The break in diplomatic relations followed immediately after Hrib took office as the leader of a coalition headed by the Pirate Party, when he refused to bow to pressure from the Chinese ambassador to expel the diplomatic representative from Taiwan, which Beijing sees as a breakaway province under its “One China” principle.
The rift began when Prague city council requested the removal of a clause that recognized the principle, which is a pillar of Beijing’s foreign policy.
China insists that countries wishing to open or maintain diplomatic relations do not recognize the independence and autonomy of Taiwan, whose official name is the Republic of China.
Unlike the capital city’s authorities, the Czech government, led by populist magnate and prime minister Andrej Babis, does comply with Beijing’s stance.
China has retaliated to Hrib’s stance by canceling visiting tours of several Czech orchestras, as well as the direct Hainan Airlines flight between Prague and Beijing from March onwards.
The rift that opened in October was further widened last month when Prague signed a new twinning deal, this time with Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, a city which Hrib praises as a “model” of efficient management and the introduction of new technologies.
Hrib, who spent time in Taiwan studying for his medicine degree, bases his stance on China on two arguments: respect for human rights and the lack of trust he places in promises of Chinese investment.
He accuses the Chinese government of harvesting organs from members of ethnic or religious minorities in “concentration camps” in the restive state of Xinjiang in western China, something which Hrib says “is absolutely unacceptable, and it is something that absolutely outside the scope of civilized society.”
As for the growth of Chinese companies in the country, the mayor believes that it is not about investments but about “acquisitions of existing companies.”
“This is why the perception of China, as a potential quality investor, has changed,” says Hrib.
A representative of Taiwan in Prague, meanwhile, said that Taipei’s investments in the Czech Republic are much higher than those of Beijing.
“Taiwanese investments are four times greater than China’s and have created five times more jobs,” says Andy W.M. Tseng, director of the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Office in the Czech capital.
For Czech expert Jiri Pehe, Hrib is continuing the legacy and “renewing the values of Vaclav Havel” (1936-2011), the first president of Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic following the fall of the communist dictatorship, who was a fervent defender of human rights and personal freedoms.
As head of state in 1990, Havel welcomed the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader-in-exile of Tibet, ending communist Czechoslovakia’s customary stance that accepted China’s “occupation” of the Himalayan region.
The city council’s position has been criticized by the Czech president, Milos Zeman, who is firmly in favor of the Czech Republic playing a major role in China’s strategy to increase its presence and influence in Europe in exchange for heavy Chinese investment.
“With these clearly ideological steps (towards Taiwan), the Prague government is hiding its inability to efficiently manage the capital. In international relations, agreements are respected,” says Jiri Ovcacek, spokesperson for the Czech Presidency, of the end of the sister city agreement between Prague and the Chinese capital.
“The Prague City Council’s decision unnecessarily damages Czech-Chinese relations. And this nonsense increases when observing the position of other EU member states, who try to cooperate with China.”
President Zeman himself, who in 2016 received his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, amid great fanfare, estimates that potential Chinese investments could be worth 4.2 billion dollars, but that figure remains a distant prospect, especially if the Pirate Party continues to grow in strength and influence.