Pangolin Instead of Panda for Prague? – Turnaround in Czech-Chinese Relations 

The capitals of the Czech Republic and Taiwan, Prague and Taipei, signed a partnership agreement on Monday last week in the city of Moldova

 

The Mayor of Prague Zdeněk Hřib and his Taiwanese counterpart Ko Wen-je signed a partnership agreement on joint economic and cultural cooperation between the two cities last week. The agreement comes just three months after the cancellation of the partnership agreement with Beijing, which failed due to the Prague city government’s opposition to the One-China clause in the previous agreement. China is angry and threatens the Czech capital with retaliatory measures. It also seems that President Miloš Zeman, Beijing’s strongest supporter in the Czech Republic to date, is gradually deviating from his strict pro-China course.

 

The city council of the Czech capital already voted in favour of the agreement with the Taiwanese metropolis at the end of 2019. According to the Prague City Council, the town twinning extends cooperation in the areas of education, culture and economic exchange. Three memoranda of understanding were also signed, which explain closer cooperation in tourism, in the field of intelligent technologies, but also between the zoological gardens of both metropolises. The Prague zoo could thus preserve a rare pangolin, the only mammal with scales.

 

Taipei Instead of Beijing

In October last year, the Mayor of Prague declared his intention to terminate the partnership agreement with Beijing, which was concluded under its predecessor in 2016. The reason for this was Beijing’s refusal to remove a clause from the contract in which the city of Prague declared its commitment to the One China policy and was not allowed to recognise Taiwan’s sovereignty. Beijing reacted immediately and in turn terminated the partnership even before the Prague City Council came to confirm the termination.

The new city administration, which took office in 2018, has been trying since the beginning of last year to change the wording of the article of the agreement on the recognition of the One China policy. The former city administration, which has received much criticism precisely because of the controversial clause, defended itself, among other things, by saying that Beijing had linked the planned loan of a panda to the Prague Zoo with the inclusion of the One China clause in the contract. “Human rights are worth more than a panda in a zoo,” said Jan Čižinský, one of the representatives of the city of Prague, as early as January last year.

Mayor Hřib explained that Prague wanted to depoliticize the relations between the two cities: “Other twin cities of Beijing such as London, Riga or Copenhagen did not have to sign such a passage,” he explained, adding that the signing of the agreement with Taipei should not jeopardize the partnership agreements with other Chinese cities: “Cooperation is only formalized by the signing of the agreement, informally we have been working with Taipei since 2001,” emphasized Hřib.

However, China’s reaction was not long in coming: one day after the signing of the agreement, the Shanghai People’s Foreign Affairs Office published a statement stating that Shanghai – another Chinese twin city of Prague – immediately suspended all official contacts with the Czech capital. Prague wanted to “arbitrarily intervene in China’s domestic policy and publicly question the One China principle,” the declaration said. Prague’s mayor is convinced that Prague will lose nothing by taking this step, as the city never really benefited from the partnership agreement with Shanghai.

It is not the first time that Mayor Hřib, who spent several months in Taiwan as a medical student in 2005 and always openly criticised Beijing for human rights violations, has angered the Chinese authorities. In March last year, he received Tibetan exiled Prime Minister Lobsang Sangay and decided to raise the Tibetan flag again at the Prague Municipal Council building. Two months earlier, at the New Year’s reception, Hřib refused to comply with a request from the Chinese ambassador to expell a Taiwanese diplomat to the meeting. During his visit to Taipei in the spring of 2019, he advocated a direct flight connection between Prague and Taipei – all to the great displeasure of China, of course.

However, Hřib is not the only Czech politician whose actions China has vehemently protested against in recent months. When Senate President Jaroslav Kubera attended the National Day reception at the Taiwanese representative office in October, this triggered strong protests from the Chinese ambassador in Prague. Later, Kubera, who died suddenly and unexpectedly this week, also declared his intention to travel to Taiwan at the end of February with a business delegation. “More generosity is needed on the Chinese side. We understand their position, but they must also understand ours,” Kubera said, stressing that the Czech Republic is a sovereign country against which China must not exploit its position of power. He also reminded that Taiwan is the third largest Czech trading partner in Asia.

However, Beijing did not show the desired generosity. On the contrary: last year China cancelled performances of the Prague Philharmonic and several other musical ensembles connected with the Czech capital that had been planned at short notice. The Czech-Chinese investment forum planned for the end of last year was also postponed. The Chinese side pointed out to representatives of the presidential office at Prague Castle that this was the consequence of the activities of the chairman of the Senate Kubera and the mayor Hřib directed against the People’s Republic.

 

Is Beijing Losing its Most Loyal Czech Ally?

The attitudes of Kubera and Hřib are in stark contrast to the policy of Czech President Miloš Zeman, who has been promoting relations with the People’s Republic for several years. Zeman repeatedly criticised the two politicians, whose actions, in his opinion, damage Czech economic interests.

Since taking office in 2013, Zeman has already visited China five times. He often publicly praised the country and cultivated friendly relations with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. In return, he hoped for a massive influx of Chinese investments. But they did not come in the expected amount.

“I don’t think the Chinese side delivers what promised. I’m talking about investments,” the head of state put on record in January and, to everyone’s surprise, announced that he would not attend the upcoming 17+1 summit in China. The president added that while he understands that Mayor Hřib and Senate President Kubera “may irritate China”, “on the other hand, it must understand that there is a different political regime here, that we cannot order local or opposition politicians to do anything”.

 

What Can the Czech Republic Lose?

The Chamber of Commerce of the Czech Republic and the Czech-Chinese Chamber of Mutual Cooperation warn that the conclusion of the treaty between Prague and Taipei could have a negative impact on tourism in the Czech capital, but also on the position of Czech companies on the Chinese market.

According to Lukáš Kovanda, an economist with the real estate investor Czech Fund, the growth of Czech exports to China has indeed slowed down last year. The interest of Chinese tourists in the Czech Republic has also declined. However, the declining trend could be observed even before the contract with Beijing was terminated.

Kovanda also stressed that Taiwan invests about 14 times more than China in the Czech manufacturing industry and is therefore a more important partner for the Czech Republic than the People’s Republic. Of the Asian countries, only South Korea and Japan could be expected to be larger investors in domestic industry in the long term, he said.

 

 

Natálie Maráková

Project Manager

Office for Central Europe and the Baltic States in Prague.