Is the severing of sister city ties between Prague and Beijing a case of Chinese punishment or Czech politics?
This article was originally published on The Diplomat and is republished with permission.
Prague Mayor Zdeněk Hřib announced on October 4, 2019, that Prague is going to cancel its sister city agreement with Beijing. On Monday, the city council voted to sever ties, and the decision moves next to the city assembly. The reason for the rupture is that the Chinese side is unwilling to enter talks about removing the “one China” policy clause from their agreement document. The diplomatic row between the cities of Prague and Beijing is yet another event in the highly turbulent relationship between the Czech Republic and China. The relationship saw a surprisingly warm period in 2013-2017, but seems to have returned to its previously cold state since then.
The Dispute Timeline
The origins of the dispute can be found in the previous city leadership, which in 2016 approved Prague-Beijing agreement. The politically charged agreement was signed by then-Mayor Adriana Krnáčová. At the time, coincidentally, the Czech government was ruled by China-friendly Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka and even more pro-China Miloš Zeman was president.
But a dispute erupted soon after Zdeněk Hřib from the Pirate Party became mayor of Prague after municipal elections in November 2018. In January 2019, Hřib suggested excluding the article acknowledging the one China policy. He declared that he sought an apolitical partnership with the city of Beijing. In addition, he upset China in March 2019 when he visited Taiwan and met President Tsai Ing-wen and when he invited the head of the Taipei Representative Office to a diplomatic event he was hosting, leading to an exchange with the Chinese ambassador.
Hřib’s steps were not met positively in Beijing. China began to retaliate in April 2019 when it first cancelled numerous cultural events from institutions which are namely attributed to Prague (ironically, it has denied doing so, arguing instead that the groups themselves cancelled the trips). Later China put pressure on the Czech national government, by warning that consequences would follow if the Prague mayor does not change his position. This, however, was met by official comments from the Czech government that the Czech Republic is a democratic country, one where City Hall has its own autonomous voice, and the national government cannot interfere. Hřib nevertheless faced opposition from voices inside the Czech Republic, most notably pro-Chinese President Miloš Zeman.
Sister City Ties and National Politics
The termination of a sister city agreement over a political dispute is not unheard of. There is the case of Rotterdam and Istanbul, where a prohibition of campaigning for Turkish officials in the Dutch city led to the cancellation of an agreement from the Turkish side. Another example is the case of San Francisco and Osaka. There a statue commemorating Korean “comfort women” placed in San Francisco as a reminder of World War II Japanese abuses led the Japanese side to terminate the partnership.
Unlike the Prague case, however, these cancellations were due to major national-level diplomatic disputes, involving issues on which the two sides have different positions. It should be noted that the Czech Republic has always diplomatically recognized the People’s Republic of China and, hence, has respected the one China policy. Even though the mayor does not claim explicitly he is against this position, his attempts to cut the one China policy clause may have conveyed this message, especially when combined with his open attitude toward Taiwan.
On the other hand, it is a fair point that sister city agreements are perhaps not the usual place where the diplomatic positions are supposed to be restated. The wordings of the sister city agreements are not automatically in the public domain, but, for example, the Cologne-Beijing agreement (which we have received from the city of Cologne) does not include a one China policy clause in its text.
An important detail in the whole story, however, is that according to three separate sources involved in Prague city politics, it was the Czech side which included the one China policy in the original agreement. To be precise, politicians of the then-ruling city coalition pushed it through against the then-opposition, probably due to their belief that China would welcome such a step and they might receive some payback – such as a panda for the Prague zoo (which nonetheless never came). In other words, it was very likely the proactive approach of the Czech side rather than China’s conditionality which created the situation in the first place.
A similar issue was discussed in 2014 when the Czech minister of foreign affairs mentioned Tibet explicitly when restating respect for one China policy and Chinese territorial integrity during his trip to China. It is unusual in the context of European relations with China to make the point so openly, and it can be seen as a proactive attempt of the then-Czech leadership to woo China.
China as a Symbol in Czech Politics
It may or may not be a coincidence that the announcement of the termination of ties with Beijing was made on the eve of what would be the 83rd birthday of late Czech President and anti-Communist revolutionary Václav Havel. The Czech Pirate Party perceive themselves as the representatives of Havel’s heritage, and in the increasingly populist and EU-sceptic Czech politics they position themselves as the main representatives of progressive and pro-Western directions in Czech foreign policy.
After polarizing Czech President Zeman made his friendship with China one of his signature positions, his opponents – and there are many of them– only increased their criticism and negative approach toward China. Obviously, the global context of growing U.S.-China tensions is another supporting factor behind growing anti-China sentiments among significant parts of Czech society. Moreover, the Czech Republic is not so directly linked to China economically as to be easily punished; so being tough on China is a relatively easy thing to do politically.
Hence, the recent case of cutting ties between Prague and Beijing can be understood from the perspective of Czech domestic politics in which China has become one of the most potent symbols in the highly polarized political spectrum. This conclusion, however, should not be interpreted as an argument that the Chinese responses were appropriate. In fact, the excessive nature of Chinese steps may well have a lot to do with their own domestic politics, in which the Chinese government cannot be perceived as weak against what they would see as a revisionist trend in a small European country.