Zdenk Hib: the Czech mayor who defied China

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By refusing to expel a Taiwanese diplomat, the Prague mayor has joined the ranks of local politicians confronting contentious national policies

Zdenk Hib had been Pragues mayor for little more than a month when he came face-to-face with the Czech capitals complex entanglement with China.

Hosting a meeting with foreign diplomats in the city, Hib was asked by the Chinese ambassador to expel their Taiwanese counterpart from the gathering in deference to Beijings one China policy, under which it claims sovereignty over the officially independent state of Taiwan.

Given recent Chinese investments in the Czech Republic, which have included the acquisition of Slavia Prague football club, a major brewery and a stake in a private TV station, the fledgling mayor could have easily agreed. Prague city council had, under the preceding mayor, signed a twin cities agreement with Beijing that explicitly recognised the one China policy.

Instead, Hib refused and the Taiwanese diplomat stayed.

The episode is a rare case of a local politician defying the might of a global superpower while making a principled stand against a national government policy that has promoted Chinese ties.

It also adds him to the ranks of mayors who have confronted contentious national policies, including US Democrats such as Bill de Blasio of New York and Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, who have opposed the anti-immigration drive of the US president, Donald Trump, and declared their fiefdoms sanctuary cities.

Closer to home, Hibs conduct invites comparison with the late mayor of Gdask, Pawe Adamowicz, after whom he renamed a Prague street following Adamowiczs murder in January. Adamowicz offered his city as a haven for refugees and adopted liberal positions at odds with the hardline policies of Polands conservative Law and Justice party (PIS) government.

Zdenk Hib (@ZdenekHrib)

Pojmenovali jsme promendu v Riegrovch sadech po zavradnm starostovi @gdansk Pawlu Adamowiczovi. Byl oblbenm starostou, kter zastval liberln a prodemokratick hodnoty. pic.twitter.com/l9kj7ZotGe

June 7, 2019

Hib has since gone further, demanding Beijing officials drop the clause stating Pragues support for the one China policy in the 2016 deal and threatening to scrap the arrangement if they refuse.

This article is a one-sided declaration that Prague agrees with and respects the one China policy and such a statement has no place in the sister cities agreement, Hib said in an interview in Pragues new town hall, close to the citys historic tourist district, which draws an increasing number of visitors from China.

The one China policy is a complicated matter of foreign politics between two countries. But we are solving our sister cities relationship on the level of two capital cities.

Hib, a 38-year-old doctor who spent a medical training internship in Taiwan, is challenging the Czech president, Milo Zeman, who has visited China several times, installed a Chinese adviser at his office in Prague castle and declared that he wanted to learn how to stabilise society from the countrys communist rulers.

The dispute has catapulted the unassuming Hib to household name status in Czech politics, helped by Pragues position as an international cultural draw and its outsize share of national resources.

Hibs rise from obscurity is striking because Czech mayors, unlike their US and Polish counterparts, are not directly elected. He became mayor of a coalition administration after his Pirate party, a liberal group with roots in civil society, finished second in last Octobers municipal elections.

He says he is merely adopting the policy of his party and its two coalition partners in taking decisions that are cooling Pragues relations with Beijing.

Zdenk Hib and Lobsang Sangay at the Old Town Hall in Prague. Photograph: CTK/Alamy Stock Photo

In March, his administration restored the practice of flying the Tibetan flag from Pragues town hall, reinstating a tradition begun in the era of the Czech Republics first post-communist president, Vclav Havel, that was dropped by the previous city administration. At the same time, in a move tailor-made to infuriate Beijing, Hib hosted the visiting head of Tibets government-in-exile, Lobsang Sangay.

An official visit to the Taiwanese capital, Taipei, followed. During the visit, Hib criticised China for harvesting organs from political prisoners belonging to the Falun Gong movement.

Threats of retaliation came soon afterwards. A planned tour of China by the Prague Philharmonia in September is in jeopardy after it rebuffed Beijings demands to repudiate the mayor.

Iva Nevoralova, the orchestras spokesperson, likened the request to the actions of Czechoslovakias former communist regime, which pressured artists to denounce Havels dissident Charter 77 movement as the price for being allowed to perform.

Members of the Prague Philharmonia. Photograph: Petra Hajska

Speaking to the Guardian, Hib questioned whether Pragues arrangement with Beijing was a fair relationship and criticised Chinas social scoring system for good citizenship. He suggested that investment from Taiwan, with its western-style democracy and record of technological innovation, offered greater benefit.

The mayor has won praise for restoring the Czech Republics image as a champion of human rights and self-determination at a time when its politics have been dominated by the populist messages of Zeman and Andrej Babi, the anti-immigration billionaire prime minister.

It is empowering to see that a mayor of Prague can have a principled position, despite large portions of the Czech political establishment being co-opted by the narratives spread by the totalitarian government of China, said Jakub Janda, executive director of the European Values thinktank, which monitors anti-western influence in Czech politics and beyond.

Jakub Janda (@_JakubJanda)


We have a good Mayor of Prague. He supports Tibet + Taiwan. When the PRC ambassador tried to force him to have a TW diplomat kicked out of a diplomatic meeting hosted by Prague City Council, he declined.

April 28, 2019

Ji Pehe, the director of New York University in Prague, said Hib was using the mayors office to reassert the values of Havel, who died in 2011. Everyone in this country knows that when you support Taiwan and Tibet, youre saying exactly what Havel used to say, said Pehe. This was intentional on the part of the Pirate party as soon as he took over Prague. They are saying that the Czech Republic has a special history of fighting against communism and you should respect it.

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Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2019/jul/03/zdenek-hrib-the-czech-mayor-who-defied-china-taiwan

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