T6PCAB Prague, Czech Republic. 02nd May, 2019. Prague Mayor Zdenek Hrib (front) and Ambassador of Denmark Ole Henrik Frijs-Madsen (centre) in action during the campaign
Zdenek Hrib, front, Prague's mayor, pushed to cut a reference to the 'one China' policy from a twinning agreement between Prague and Beijing © Katerina Sulova/Alamy

Zdenek Hrib had been in office for only a couple of months when he first locked horns with Beijing. The youthful mayor of Prague was welcoming diplomats to a reception in the Czech capital when the Chinese ambassador approached and demanded that he kick out the representative of Taiwan, which China does not recognise. Mr Hrib refused.

“I said no because we don’t throw out guests we have invited,” recalled Mr Hrib in an interview in his office in central Prague. “So he repeated his request multiple times, and blocked the queue of other ambassadors waiting for my welcome. They were tapping on his shoulder and saying: ‘Maybe you could do this somewhere else’.”

The Chinese ambassador soon left the reception, but the tensions between Mr Hrib’s office and China continue to flare. Last year, Mr Hrib pushed to cut a reference to the “one China” policy — a crucial tenet of Chinese diplomacy — from the agreement twinning Prague and Beijing. China responded by scrapping the whole pact. Last month, Prague approved a sister-city deal with the Taiwanese capital, Taipei.

Mr Hrib spent two months as a medical student in Taipei and has a certificate granting him honorary citizenship of the city propped against his office wall. But he insists the push to remove the “one China” clause was a collective decision by the coalition running Prague, rather than a personal initiative. “Our representatives in the city assembly were criticising this even in 2016 . . . So it shouldn’t be a surprise that . . . we would try to correct this error,” he said.

Indeed, the spat is part of a growing backlash in the central European nation against the closer ties with China promoted by President Milos Zeman. Since 2012, Beijing has sought to boost its influence in the region to gain a diplomatic and economic foothold in the EU. It found a receptive partner in Mr Zeman, who claimed the tighter links would lead to a stream of Chinese investments in Czech projects.

Some high-profile investments — in property, a brewery and Slavia Prague football club — have followed. But over the past year Czech-Chinese ties have frayed. The Czech cyber security watchdog has warned against perceived threats from Chinese telecoms giants Huawei and ZTE. And Prague’s prestigious Charles University has become entangled in a scandal over secret Chinese payments to scholars.

To make things worse, the much-trumpeted Chinese engagement has disappointed. One notable case was the conglomerate CEFC, which made some big investments in the Czech Republic, before its chairman was detained in China, casting doubt over its future, and sparking a fight over its involvement in a Czech financial group.

As another case in point, Mr Hrib cites pandas. The “one China” clause in the Prague-Beijing twinning agreement was accepted, he claims, in the hope that it would result in a gift of the black-and-white bears to Prague zoo. But no bear materialised, which Mr Hrib sees as symptomatic of China’s broader approach to the Czech Republic.

“There is no panda because the Chinese did not fulfil their promises. They are simply not good business partners,” said Mr Hrib, adding that Beijing had behaved like a “bully” in the dispute over the sister-city agreement.

“If you look at the Chinese promises of investment . . . only a fraction of it happened. And basically they were not investments. They were merely acquisitions of companies or sports clubs that already existed — not investment creating new job opportunities or knowhow transfer.”

Martin Hala, director of Sinopsis, a China-focused research group, agrees. “The relationship was supposed to be based on economic diplomacy, but from that perspective it has been a fiasco,” he said. “The fight [between Prague and China] is a symptom of a relationship that has already been damaged.”

Others see the spat as more a reflection of Czech domestic politics. Mr Hrib’s political grouping, the upstart Pirate party, is the second-biggest opposition group, and has been staunchly critical of both Mr Zeman and Andrej Babis, the Czech prime minister.

“If politicians want to be visible against the current elite, they very often do it by being anti-Russia or anti-China,” said Vladimira Dvorakova, a political scientist at the University of Economics in Prague, adding that keeping distance from China was one of the hallmark policies of Vaclav Havel, the writer dissident who was a friend of the Dalai Lama, and became Czechoslovakia’s first post-communist president.

This merging of local and international politics frustrates Czech government officials. “It’s somewhat disruptive,” said one. “[Local politicians] do this purely for their visibility, which is a shame. It complicates [our] overall job.”

However, Mr Hrib said that he had not sought to intervene in the foreign arena but had been dragged into it by the wrong-headed inclusion of the “one China” clause in the Prague-Beijing agreement. He also played down suggestions that the spat could hurt the Czech Republic and rejected threats that Chinese tourists might be diverted to cities other than Prague, which is one of the world’s most visited cities.

“If the number [of Chinese visitors to Prague] dropped from 620,000 per year to zero, it would mean that tourism would return to the level of 2017,” he said. “Which is not a big tragedy as . . . we are actually dealing with problems of over-tourism right now.”

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