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Watching Prague (KOR)

July 29,2019
SHIN KYUNG-JIN
The author is a Beijing correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

During the regular press briefing on July 17, China’s foreign ministry announced that it was placing sanctions on the city of Prague after pro-Taiwan sentiments expressed by the Czech Pirate Party members and Pargue Mayor Zdenek Hrib “harmed the feelings of the Chinese people.” It warned the city government to change its course “as soon as possible” and to stop “wantonly undermining” overall the China-Czech relationship, according to spokesman Geng Shuang.

Punitive actions have become common after U.S. President Donald Trump has regularized such moves under the pretext of “national interest.” But Beijing has taken sanctions to a new level by picking on a city. The 38-year-old mayor fumed on Facebook against China for unilaterally breaking a contract on a whim. “Its cancellation of the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra concerts (planned across Chinese cities in September and October) clearly shows China is not a reliable business partner,” he wrote. To punish the Prague mayor, Beijing also called off the plan to permit a direct air route between China and the Czech Republic agreed upon during the Czech president’s April visit to Beijing.

Under President Milos Zeman, China-Czech ties have been cozy. Zeman was the only European Union member to attend the Chinese military parade in commemoration of the end of World War II.

Xi in following year returned the courtesy by making the first Chinese summit visit to the Czech Republic in the 67 years since normalization of ties. Zeman made his fifth visit to Beijing to attend China’s Belt and Road forum and also an international import expo in Shanghai as well as summit talks.

The Czech capital went solo after the liberal Pirate Party lawmaker became its mayor in November last year. Hrib followed the former dissident-turned-president Vaclav Havel, who accepted Tibet and Taiwan regardless of the risk of angering Beijing. He hoisted the Tibetan flag on the 60th anniversary of the independence movement and refused to hand over a Taiwanese to China accused of a financial scam. He paid a visit to Taiwan, telling legislators that his party represents the young people of the Czech Republic who prioritize human rights.

Prague has also been a regular mention in Hong Kong through the Lennon Wall. The Lennon Wall was originally established in Prague following the assassination of John Lennon and became the symbol of “love and peace” against the Communist regime ahead of the 1989 Velvet Revolution. The Lennon Wall in Hong Kong was created amidst the Umbrella Movement in 2014.

Beijing has increased pressure on the Prague mayor by capitalizing on its relationship with the president. How Prague will stand up to Beijing’s bullying will be closely watched by Koreans.