Why I renounce our partner city relationship with Beijing, by Zdenek Hrib, mayor of Prague
On January 12, 2020, the following piece was published in Welt am Sonntag. I appreciated it so much, I decided to translate it into English.
It is not so often these days one hears an elected politician in the West speak so forthrightly and critically about the dictatorship of the Chinese Communist Party. Mr Hrib definitely has the CCP’s number, and I can only hope that more people in Europe and elsewhere in the world come to see how true his words are. Indeed, I would go even further: the CCP, being the world’s biggest, most powerful dictatorship, is one of the greatest global threats of the twenty-first century.
The public was shocked. The headline of a Czech newspaper showed the small mole, hero of a famous Czech comic strip series and symbol of the Czech Republic, being eaten by a gigantic, fearsome panda, a symbol of China. That was 2014. At that time, few recognized China’s potential threat to Europe. And no one could have guessed that the caricature would prove absolutely fitting.
Our capital, Prague, is one of the musical capitals of Europe, and Czechs are rightly proud of that. Every year music festivals like “Prague Spring” and the “Dvorak Prague Festival” take place here. Some of the all-time greatest composers were inspired by their time in Prague. After the premiere of his opera “Don Giovanni” in our city, a grateful Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart said, “My Prague citizens understand me.” Not only for that reason, Czech musicians are welcome guests around the world.
But China has recently unilaterally cancelled the long-planned tours of four Czech musical ensembles. And that as a response to a political measure that Prague took in relation to Beijing. One of the ensembles, the Prazak Quartet, is only connected to the city by the name of its co-founder: Prazak means Prague citizen in Czech. But this made the quartet in the eyes of the Chinese organizers an official representative of the “rebellious” capital Prague, sufficient grounds for cancelling the tour. A downright Kafkaesque scenario.
Beijing has retracted the invitations to the musicians for purely political reasons. As mayor of our capital, I have tried to fulfill a campaign promise; namely, that I would return to the course of respect for democracy and human rights, the ideals of our Velvet Revolution that are ignored by the current government of our republic. Insofar as we have kept our promise, the city council and I have hurt China’s feelings.
We decided for example to fly the flag of Tibet at City Hall. This should be legitimate according to the agreement between Tibet and China in 1951 since this agreement allowed Tibetans a certain autonomy, including the use of its own symbols. In addition, as a doctor, I’ve condemned forced organ removals from prisoners of the regime.
Our city council has also rejected the third clause of the Prague-Beijing partnership agreement. According to this highly political clause, we were obliged to speak out against the independence of Taiwan and Tibet, something very unusual for such a city partnership. Other partner cities of Beijing like London, Riga and Copenhagen didn’t have to sign such a clause.
Our predecessors in office signed the clause, to Beijing’s great satisfaction. We wanted to reject this clause only and otherwise preserve the partnership. But that was unacceptable to Beijing’s negotiators. They insisted on rejecting the whole agreement. So we lost one partner city but gained another. This coming Monday, we’ll sign a partner city agreement with Taipei, the capital of Taiwan.
From my negotiations with Beijing, I’ve learned two important lessons.
First, China is an unreliable business partner that without hesitation will subordinate even profitable business deals to the primacy of politics. The Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party can within seconds transform important economic agreements or memoranda on cooperation into worthless paper. Besides that, the economic relations between the Czech Republic and China are characterized by a strong imbalance. China promised up to ten billion Euros in investments within the next five years. While we opened our markets and correspondingly modified our foreign policy, the Chinese investments never came about.
Prague is in this respect not alone. There are many examples of punitive measures taken against politicians who are perceived by Beijing as troublemakers. Thus a planned visit by the German parliamentary committee Digital Agenda was cancelled because those in power in Beijing would not allow the representative Margarete Bause to enter the country because of her outspoken criticism of Chinese human rights abuses.
Second, China is full of enormous resentment and sees citizens of Western democracies, whether politicians, artists or business people, not as autonomous individuals but as representatives of their governments. China makes no distinction between the mayor of Prague and a cellist of the Prague Philharmonic. “Someone from Prague has misbehaved? Well, someone from Prague will be punished for it.” That is the essence of the Communist mentality that anyone born behind the Iron Curtain knows all too well. So don’t be surprised if your actions in regard to China are met by a completely unexpected response. Especially when government representatives don’t meet you in person.
Not long ago, China’s attempts to influence public opinion in the Czech Republic lead to a scandal. The Czech firm, Home Credit, which belongs to one of the wealthiest Czech business people who has substantial business interests in China, was caught trying to use various means to ensure positive coverage of China and the policies of the CCP. That is a typical example of China’s attempts to manipulate European citizens.
I am not in favor of breaking diplomatic ties or avoiding economic relations with China. That would be not only extreme but counter-productive. But I would advise you to think twice before getting into bed with such an unreliable and risky partner. It would be as if you wished to end up like the little mole in the belly of the Chinese panda.
Even more important: I’d like to tell you not to relinquish your values and personal integrity out of fear of threats and intimidation. I’d like to tell you to seek out partners who not only share common values like freedom and democratic principles but also respect one another. That is why I look forward to the coming partnership with Taipei and the collaboration with the other capitals of the EU Visegrad Group, with which Prague has formed a “Free Cities Alliance”. Together we can better counter the growing wave of populism and anti-democratic tendencies not only in Europe but worldwide.