Zdenek Hrib had been Prague’s mayor for little more than a month when he went face-to-face with the Czech capital’s complex entanglement with China.
Hosting a meeting with foreign diplomats in the city, Hrib was asked by the Chinese ambassador to expel their Taiwanese counterpart from the gathering in deference to Beijing’s “one China” principle.
Given Chinese investments in the Czech Republic — including the acquisition of soccer club Slavia Prague, a major brewery and a stake in a private TV station — the fledgling mayor could have easily agreed.
Photo: Screen grab from Facebook
The Prague City Council had, under his predecessor, signed a twin cities agreement with Beijing that explicitly recognized the “one China” principle.
Instead, Hrib refused and the Taiwanese diplomat stayed.
The episode was a rare case of a local politician defying the might of a global superpower while making a principled stand against a national government policy that has promoted Chinese ties.
Hrib’s conduct has invited comparison with former Gdansk mayor Pawel Adamowicz, after whom he renamed a Prague street following Adamowicz’s murder in January.
Adamowicz offered his city as a haven for refugees and adopted liberal positions at odds with the policies of Poland’s conservative Law and Justice Party government.
Hrib has since gone further, demanding that Beijing officials drop the clause stating Prague’s support for the “one China” principle in the 2016 deal and threatening to scrap the arrangement if they refuse.
“This article is a one-sided declaration that Prague agrees with and respects the ‘one China’ principle and such a statement has no place in the sister cities agreement,” Hrib said in an interview in Prague’s new town hall, close to the city’s historic tourist district, which has drawn an increasing number of visitors from China.
“The ‘one China’ principle is a complicated matter of foreign politics between two countries, but we are solving our sister cities relationship on the level of two capital cities,” he added.
Hrib, a 38-year-old doctor who spent a medical training internship in Taiwan, is challenging Czech President Milos Zeman, who has visited China several times, installed a Chinese adviser at his office in Prague Castle and declared that he wanted to learn “how to stabilize society” from China’s communist rulers.
The dispute has catapulted unassuming Hrib to household name status in Czech politics, helped by Prague’s position as an international cultural draw and its outsize share of national resources.
Hrib’s rise from obscurity is striking because Czech mayors are not directly elected.
He became mayor of a coalition administration after his Czech Pirate Party, a liberal group with roots in civil society, finished second in municipal elections in October last year.
Hrib has said that he is merely adopting the policy of his party and its two coalition partners in taking decisions that are cooling Prague’s relations with Beijing.
In March, his administration restored the practice of flying the Tibetan flag from Prague’s town hall, reinstating a tradition begun in the era of the Czech Republic’s first post-communist president, Vaclav Havel, which was dropped by the previous city administration.
At the same time, in a move tailor-made to infuriate Beijing, Hrib hosted the visiting head of Tibet’s government-in-exile, Lobsang Sangay.
An official visit to Taipei followed, during which Hrib criticized China for harvesting organs from political prisoners belonging to the Falun Gong movement.
Threats of retaliation came soon afterward.
A planned tour of China by the Prague Philharmonia in September is in jeopardy after it rebuffed Beijing’s demands to repudiate the mayor.
Orchestra spokeswoman Iva Nevoralova likened the request to the actions of Czechoslovakia’s former communist regime, which pressured artists to denounce Havel’s dissident Charter 77 movement as the price for being allowed to perform.
Speaking to the Guardian, Hrib questioned whether Prague’s arrangement with Beijing was a fair relationship and criticized China’s “social scoring” system for good citizenship.
He suggested that investment from Taiwan, with its Western-style democracy and record of technological innovation, offered greater benefit.
The mayor has won praise for restoring the Czech Republic’s image as a champion of human rights and self-determination at a time when its politics have been dominated by the populist messages of Zeman and Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis, an anti-immigration billionaire.
“It is empowering to see that a mayor of Prague can have a principled position, despite large portions of the Czech political establishment being co-opted by the narratives spread by the totalitarian government of China,” said Jakub Janda, executive director of the European Values think tank, which monitors anti-Western influence in Czech politics and beyond.
Jiri Pehe, the director of New York University in Prague, said that Hrib was using the mayor’s office to reassert the values of Havel, who died in 2011.
“Everyone in this country knows that when you support Taiwan and Tibet, you’re saying exactly what Havel used to say,” Pehe said. “This was intentional on the part of the Pirate party as soon as he took over Prague. They are saying that the Czech Republic has a special history of fighting against communism and you should respect it.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) is aware that Beijing’s treatment of Hong Kong has weakened any possible sentiment for a “one country, two systems” arrangement for Taiwan, and has instructed Chinese Communist Party (CCP) politburo member Wang Huning (王滬寧) to develop new ways of defining cross-strait relations, Japanese news magazine Nikkei Asia reported on Thursday. A former professor of international politics at Fu Dan University, Wang is expected to develop a dialogue that could serve as the foundation for cross-strait unification, and Xi plans to use the framework to support a fourth term as president, Nikkei Asia quoted an anonymous source
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