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.
Pavel Novotny, a conservative politician, sent a profanity-laced letter to Wang demanding an apology and calling Chinese officials “uncouth clowns.” Novotny ended the letter with his own warning, “don’t f*ck with me!” and “with much feigned regards.”
The letter was a hit on social media among China watchers and was named “document of the week” by the magazine Foreign Policy, which posted the letter and English translation on its site.
As for the impending doom China’s officials warned Prague would suffer for their insolence; Hřib said it hasn’t amounted to much and other nations should not be worried about threats from China.
“The net result is that some Chinese company refused to buy 11 pianos from another Czech company,” he said. “If you look at the damage they were able to do to the Czech Republic, It’s just funny. Seriously. This is the big thing the hegemonic superpower of Asia was able to do to Czech Republic.
“Seriously, their power is overrated.”
One observer said the incidents have helped spark debate in the Czech Republic on relations with China’s government.
Jakub Janda, the director of the European Values Centre for Security Policy in Prague said the attention has led to some changes in the federal government.
“The government is becoming less pro-Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in its policies,” Janda said.
The Czech Republic’s government has been pushing for increased ties to China, aided by the country’s Communist Party which holds the balance of power in a minority government, he said.
But the continued threats to Prague from Chinese officials has left a sour taste in the mouths of the Czech public, who widely don’t support increased relations, Janda said.
In January, 72-year-old senate speaker Jaroslav Kubera died from a heart attack his family said was brought on by his being bullied by China’s officials for his support of Taiwan.
There is also a history of investments or promises which never materialized drawing into question why the country would want to increase ties with Beijing, Janda said.
“The government was and is still up against a lot of public pressure,” he said. “The Czech government now cannot really be submissive to the CCP’s demands because anything they do is under scrutiny.”
As Canada wrestles with its own relationship with Beijing, Conservative MP Michael Chong, told the Star Ottawa needs to get tough.
Chong said ambassador Cong’s comments last week were “unbecoming and outrageous” and agreed that he should apologize or be asked to leave.
The federal government is expected to release its new approach to China in the coming months, but Chong worries it won’t be as tough as he’d like to see.
To begin, he said, the Chinese government’s attempt to influence Canadians via initiatives like the United Front Work Department needs to be addressed with other levels of government. The United Front is an arm of the Chinese Communist Party that works to advance Beijing’s agenda.
“Only the federal government has the intelligence gathering and security capabilities to be aware of these threats,” Chong said. “They need to sit down with other orders of government to make them aware of these threats so we can protect Canadians.”
He said Canada should also consider a registry for foreign-backed entities seeking to influence Canadian government and society, as well as do more to tackle foreign disinformation operations.
“I think the Liberals have been very cosy with parts of the Canadian business establishment that want to be in China to make money while ignoring the real threats to Canadian sovereignty and to Canadians that government represents,” Chong said.
Chong cautioned conflating jobs in Canada with business investments in China by Canadian firms, pointing out exports to China account for one per cent of Canada’s economy.
Hřib, meanwhile, said it is also important to beware the promises China makes for investment and prosperity outside of its own borders and realize the actual economic impact of defying Beijing isn’t so severe.
“How they apply their influence is the promises,” he said. “Promises of investments that never happen.”
Jeremy Nuttall is a Vancouver-based investigative reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @Nuttallreports
With files from the Associated Press