On September 9, the new Czech Minister of Culture Lubomír Zaorálek (Czech Social Democratic Party, ČSSD) met with Zhang Jianmin, the Chinese ambassador to Prague, to debate Czech-Chinese cultural relations. While the issue of culture – if not linked to religious freedom in China or the Dalai Lama – rarely stirs emotions, this time the meeting resulted in yet another quarrel. Zaorálek accused the ambassador of lying and of damaging Czech-Chinese relations and claimed that he would renew the talks only when the Chinese side approaches Czechs with respect and reciprocity.
The basis of the quarrel seemingly lies in actions and statements of Prague Mayor Zdeněk Hřib (The Pirate party). At the very beginning of the story, in January 2019 Hřib took aim at the controversial article of the Prague-Beijing partnership agreement signed in 2016, in which the city of Prague acknowledged One China Policy. He claimed that political declarations should not be a part of city agreements as the foreign policy issues belong to the agenda of governments not municipalities. Yet Hřib‘s actions did not stop there. In March, Hřib flew a Tibetan flag to commemorate the anniversary of Tibetan uprising in 1959. Later on he met with Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen and suggested Prague should open a direct flight to Taipei.
In reaction to Hřib’s actions and statements, the Chinese side cancelled concerts of music ensembles containing “Prague” in their title in Beijing – the immediate case of Zaorálek‘s dispute with the ambassador. The cancellation concerned the Prague Philharmonia orchestra, Pražák Quartet, Czech Radio Symphonic Orchestra and Guarneri Trio Prague. Amusingly enough, some of the ensembles do not have a connection to the municipality at all, as the case of Pražák Quartet, named after the founder of the ensemble and not the capital city, shows.
A PR disaster
The escalation of the dispute from the municipality level to the bilateral issue between the states came from the Chinese side without fully understanding that the issue cannot be easily resolved from the position of power. The Chinese Embassy’s public diplomacy toolkit to remedy the issue included interventions to various Czech politicians and members of the government, asking them to pacify the ‘outspoken’ mayor Hřib. The Czech Minister of Foreign Affairs Tomáš Petříček retorted that the Czech government could not influence the moves of the democratically elected municipality.
The interventions uncovered how uninformed of the functioning of the Czech political system the Chinese Embassy in Prague is. The constant criticism of Czech politicians from the Chinese ambassador also backfired, resulting in Czech ministers’ unwillingness to meet ambassador Zhang again. Andrej Babiš, the Prime Minister, could not be reached as the last resort, given the personal quarrel between him and the ambassador from December last year. The dispute concerned the handling of the Huawei issue after the National Authority on Information and Cyber Security (NÚKIB) issued a warning against Huawei and ZTE products in the country’s critical infrastructure. The Chinese Embassy issued a statement suggesting the Czech government should “rectify its mistakes” in the future. The statement indicated that Babiš would hold more favorable views of the Chinese companies going forward. Babiš retorted in publicly calling Zhang “a liar”, denied admitting that the Czech side made any mistakes and said that the Huawei issue had not yet been solved.
Besides seeking political intervention, the Chinese Embassy issued a number of press releases on the dispute with the Prague City Hall, some qualifying as a PR ‘harakiri’. After the meeting with the new Minister of Culture Lubomír Zaorálek, the Chinese Embassy published a statement denying the cancellation of concerts of the Czech Radio Symphonic Orchestra. According to the statement “the orchestra postponed its visit to China on the basis of its own decision, which was based on the recommendation of the [orchestra’s] agency. The head of the orchestra explained to the Embassy that they had decided to visit more Chinese cities next year.” However, the alleged ‘recommendation’ to the orchestra was, according to its spokesperson, based on the fact that the orchestra’s local agency did not obtain permission needed for organizing the concerts from the Chinese authorities.
Another statement by the Chinese Embassy from September 13 repeats the problem with the ‘rogue’ mayor and contains a warning to the Czech politicians: “The Prague City Hall and its mayor have been very negative for some time on issues related to China’s national sovereignty and its key interests, such as Taiwan and Tibet. Unfortunately, this seriously damages the feelings of the Chinese people and undermines the good atmosphere of bilateral relations, especially regional exchange and cooperation. We call on the Prague City Hall and individual Czech politicians not to deliberately harm Sino-Czech relations, as their actions in the long run also harm their own interests.”
Prague as a victim
While a lot of attention was given to the cancellation of concerts of Prague music ensembles, Chinese strategy in ‘punishing’ Prague has clearly more facets. In the explanation given to Guarneri Trio Prague, the Chinese agency allegedly claimed that “the word Prague is now problematic in China”. Should it be the case, the alleged ‘censorship’ of the name of the capital can result in decreased promotion of the city among Chinese tourists. Furthermore, it turned out that the plans for opening a fifth direct flight connecting China and the Czech Republic (Shenzhen to Prague), announced by Miloš Zeman during his visit to Beijing in April, were apparently abandoned by China without informing the Czech side.
Unlike cancelation of concerts in China, the shunning of Prague by Chinese tourists and scrapping of additional direct flight connection could directly impact Prague city’s revenues from tourism. Such a move would not be without precedent. China has previously limited organized group travel to Taiwan or South Korea in reaction to political disputes. But so far the dispute not seem to have brought a significant drop in numbers of tourists as Prague remains a popular destination. Also, the city does not rely on Chinese tourists alone. Almost 8 million made it to Prague last year and among those, tourists from other countries of origin than China – Germany, Great Britain, US, Russia and Italy – prevailed.
The changing tides
Apart from obvious and rather amusing clumsiness of the Chinese Embassy in Prague, there is clearly more than meets the eye.
The dispute underlies a changing tide in the Czech domestic policy. Traditionally, the Czech Republic was rather skeptical of the Communist regime in Beijing and bilateral cooperation. After the Velvet revolution in 1989, Czechia was one of the most critical countries in Europe towards China (actually, the most critical among EU member states after its accession in 2004). The shift came in 2013, when Czechs in the first ever direct vote elected Miloš Zeman, a vocal supporter of Vladimír Putin and later on Xi Jinping, for the Czech president. Simultaneously, the new government led by Bohuslav Sobotka (ČSSD) turned a favorable eye to Beijing. Coinciding with the changes in the Czech Republic, China made its vista to the region of Central and Eastern Europe with the founding of the 16+1 platform.
Interestingly, the very same Lubomír Zaorálek, the current Minister of Culture now in dispute with the Chinese ambassador, was in 2014-2017 the Minister of Foreign Affairs responsible for starting country’s more favorable policy towards China. In 2014, the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement reiterating the validity of the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs and claiming that the Czech side respected One China Policy and did not support Tibet’s independence in any form. Zaorálek also said in an interview: “The government in Beijing cannot be ignored, as China will be the country with the largest GDP in the world within 15 years”, thus supporting Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka’s foreign policy decision to trade off Czech traditional focus on the human rights agenda for economic diplomacy.
However, the anticipation of diversification of Czech exports and access to the vast Chinese market, which underlined the calculations behind the foreign policy U-turn, did not materialize. Though the exports to China have risen, so have the imports and the trade balance has actually grown more unfavourable to the Czech side. Chinese CEFC company which made Prague its headquarters in 2015, had to be bailed out by Chinese state-owned CITIC after the company turned out to be based on a Ponzi scheme. The chairman of CEFC, Ye Jianming, once an honorary advisor to the Czech president Miloš Zeman, disappeared in China and his fate has been unknown ever since. The Czech politicians and political entrepreneurs who hoped to benefit from the pro-China stances realized that Chinese promises have not turned into action. Thus a vocal group of China enthusiasts in the Czech Republic, to which Zaorálek once belonged, grew thin. In the same time, China skeptics in the Czech Republic gained momentum and leaned back to the challenged, but never completely wiped out Czech political canon based on active critique of China.
The dispute over cancellation of concerts thus hides more important changes in the Sino-Czech relationship. Swinging back from the ‘honeymoon’ of bilateral relations just a few years ago, skepticism towards China seems to be gaining ground again in the Czech Republic’s political circles. China’s overblown reaction and mismanagement of the disputes, taking cultural exchange as a hostage, is only adding oil to the fire and complicating the relationship in the long run.
The article was written under the project Chinese Influence in V4: Understanding the Impact on Political Elites supported by International Visegrad Fund.