After thumbing his nose at China, Prague’s mayor has advice for Canada. ‘Their power is overrated'

Updated: Nov 11, 2020

Jeremy Nuttall

24 October 2020

VANCOUVER—When Prague’s Pirate Party posted a rebuttal on its Facebook page to threats of economic action against the historic city from China’s diplomats in the Czech Republic, people laughed. It was cheeky.

The post featured a photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping next to a picture of Winnie-the-Pooh and a message mocking the Chinese government for trying to ban the cartoon character in China.

Beijing had been on a mission to forbid images of the beloved bear among internet users in China when people began comparing the physical appearance of the tubby, honey-guzzling bear to president Xi’s husky belly and facial features.

The 2019 salvo was the latest exchange between Czech politicians and China, exchanges that have often involved Prague mayor Zdeněk Hřib. Another instance was a March 2019 decision to hoist the Tibetan flag in Prague on Tibetan National Uprising day and greet the head of its government in exile.

Hřib’s defiance of China has also meant he is defying his nation’s federal government and its desire to increase ties with Beijing, a relationship he said only benefits “certain” business people in the Czech Republic.

As Canada gets set to announce “rules of engagement” for dealing with mainland China, Hřib has some advice.

“You should be aware of the fact China is not a reliable partner,” he said in a Skype interview. “There is no reason to be servile and allow China to unilaterally dictate the rules.”

Recently, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused Beijing of using coercive measures in diplomatic relations. Then Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland also called out what many said is a direct threat made against Canadians by Chinese ambassador Cong Peiwu this month.

Cong said if Canada “really cares about the good health and safety” of some 300,000 Canadians in Hong Kong it would not grant asylum to pro-democracy refugees from the region.

Cong was scolded by Global Affairs officials and many, including Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole want Cong kicked out of Canada if he doesn’t apologize.

A tougher tone with Beijing has worked out for Prague, said Hřib.

In 2019, Prague officials wanted to discuss removing a stipulation it support the one-China policy in a sister-city agreement a previous council signed with Beijing. The policy declares Taiwan to be part of China, a notion Taiwan rejects.

But when Beijing officials didn’t even acknowledge the request, Hřib said, Prague’s council decided to take steps to end the agreement.

It wasn’t just the one-China policy in the sister-city agreement driving the decision. Concerns about human rights in China and Beijing not living up to its end of the relationship also factored in, he said.

When Beijing received word of the plan it pre-emptively terminated the sister-city agreement before Prague could finalize its withdrawal and cancelled tours of Prague classical music ensembles.

After Chinese diplomats threatened that Prague would “feel harm” for the sister-city dispute Prague’s Pirate Party, of which Hřib is a member, posted the pictures of Winnie-the-Pooh and Xi attached to a statement on its Facebook page. The statement accused China of wanting its partners to be vassal.

“However, we are a country of free people with a democratic constitution and government and refuse to bow down to the authoritarian regime responsible for ‘re-education’ camps and trafficking in illegal organ transplants,” reads an English version of the statement on the page.

“The moment you receive pure threats from your partner, you cannot talk about the duration of the partnership.”

It ended with, “and we add an illustration picture that Chinese censors would like to delete from the internet” above the photos of Xi and Winnie-the-Pooh.

Prague then started upgrading its relations with Taiwan’s capital city, Taipei, entering into a sister-city agreement, which caused another Chinese city, Shanghai, to end its agreement with Prague.

Hřib spent some time in Taiwan as a medical student, but said it isn’t the reason for his support of increased relations with Taiwan.

“We want to have apolitical relationships with other cities which are mutually beneficial and the partners treat each other with respect,” Hřib said. “This was not true in the case of the partnership with Beijing, but it’s definitely true in the partnership with Taipei.”

In late summer, Hřib was part of a weeklong delegation of 80 Czech politicians, academics and business people to Taiwan, a trip which caused Beijing to issue multiple warnings to the Czechs throughout the week.

China’s foreign Minister Wang Yi, who also once snapped in front of reporters in Ottawa, threatened a “high price” would be paid for the visit. That was enough for the mayor of another small district of Prague.

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