Taiwanese expats and other supporters display a Taiwanese flag in the Czech capital of Prague. Photo: Central News Agency, Taiwan

China suffered a rare diplomatic discomfiture earlier this week when the municipal government of Prague determined to sever sister city ties with Beijing, as ideas diverged between the city’s mayor and Beijing cadres over the status of Taiwan and the “one China” clause inserted into the friendship covenant.

The Chinese diplomats stationed in the Czech capital were caught off guard on Tuesday when Prague’s newly-installed mayor, Zdeněk Hřib, announced during a city council meeting his decision to rip up the agreement and cut ties.

This is against the backdrop that the central European country, hailed as a bridgehead for China’s Belt and Road Initiative investments, remains a diplomatic ally of China, with Czech President Miloš Zeman being a staunch advocate of Xi Jinping’s geopolitical construct.

Prague and Beijing signed a friendship deal during Xi’s state visit in 2016 when Hřib’s predecessor, Adriana Krnáčová, pledged that Prague’s municipal government would stay on message with the Czech authorities on the “one-China policy” to recognize Taiwan as an inalienable part of China.

Before the latest falling-out, China was reportedly in the process of donating a giant panda cub to Prague as a symbol of amicable ties.

Taiwan, with its dwindling numbers of diplomatic allies as Beijing dangles bigger carrots to poach them, can claim the development as a morale-boosting victory.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is seen with his Czech counterpart Miloš Zeman in Prague in March 2016. China pledged a total investment of 10 billion yuan during Xi’s visit. Photo: AFP
Czech President Miloš Zeman attends a reception celebrating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the people’s republic at the Chinese embassy in Prague in September. Photo: Handout

It was revealed that Hřib broached changes to the “one-China” clause in the sister city treaty with Chinese diplomats in March, arguing that Prague should not be entangled in China’s territorial disputes and that his city must uphold human rights and universal values when furthering relations with China.

His travails with China deepened after he said in the same month while in Taiwan that Prague should look to enter a similar sister city pact with Taipei.

Hřib also lashed out at a March incident in which a Taiwanese representative was banished from an official forum in Prague hosted by the Czech trade and industry ministry, after the uncongenial Chinese ambassador Zhang Jianmin threatened to give a cold reception to President Zeman during his upcoming trip to China.

The repercussions from China are hefty. On Wednesday Beijing’s municipal government scrambled to hit back, noting in a statement that it had terminated the friendship deal with Prague due to the lack of political understanding and that Prague officials must reflect on their mistakes.

China’s central government has also moved to retaliate by cancelling the panda donation as well as several cultural exchange programs, prompting Hřib’s Czech Pirate Party to retort in a social media post that freedom and human rights were more important than a giant panda from China.

“We know that the Chinese regime likes to look at partners more like vassals and does not like disobedience, but we are a country of free people and we refuse to bow down to the authoritarian regime,” read the post. “From the beginning we wanted only a depoliticized relationship between Prague and the Chinese capital but the other side kept bullying Prague with open threats.”

The thread also included a picture that “Chinese censors would like to delete from the internet”: a meme of Xi and Winnie-the-Pooh. The Chinese leader is often caricatured for his passing resemblance to the teddy bear, although any such comparison is strictly banned in China.

“Thirty years after the Velvet Revolution [which marked the change from communism to democracy] we must remind ourselves that conscience is not for sale,” tweeted Michaela Krausova, head of the Pirate caucus at the Prague City Council.

The upstart Pirate party took over the Prague mayorship in November last year and took issue with Beijing’s “one China” policy including Taiwan’s and Tibet’s statuses.

Prague Mayor Zdeněk Hřib met with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei in March. Photo: Handout
A 2008 file photo shows former Czech President Václav Havel participating in a protest outside the Chinese embassy in Prague against Beijing’s crackdown on protests in Tibet. Photo: Twitter/SINGER

The new mayor’s refusal to accede to China’s demand has won widespread plaudits in Taiwan. He was feted from city to city during his March visit to the self-ruled island.

Hřib met with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and told her it was a mistake for the city’s government to accept the “one-China” decree. He was a doctor by training before becoming the mayor and spent one of his medical internships in Taiwan.

Prague has long been a bastion of support for Tibet as well, and former Czech president Václav Havel and other politicians once hosted the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader.

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