Prague Mayor Zdenek Hrib announced on December 2, 2019, that the Czech capital would sign a sister city agreement with Taipei in January 2020, during a planned visit by Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je. The announcement came just two months after Hrib canceled a similar sister city agreement with Beijing.
Since his election in November 2018, Zdenek Hrib, a doctor who did a medical training internship in Taiwan, has raised the ire of China on several occasions, including by meeting with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, resisting Chinese demands to expel Taiwan’s representative from a meeting of foreign diplomats, and expressing his support for Taiwan’s participation in such international organizations as the World Health Organization. In response to Mayor Hrib’s actions, which were perceived by Beijing as openly challenging the Czech Republic’s “one-China” policy, Chinese authorities swiftly punished institutions that have ties to Prague, canceling a planned tour of China by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, backtracking on their promise to send pandas to the city’s zoo, and threatening to limit the number of Chinese tourists allowed to visit the European country.
The pro-Taiwan stance adopted by Zdenek Hrib stands apart from the country’s current pro-Chinese president, Milos Zeman. Since Zeman became president in 2013, the bilateral relationship between the Czech Republic and China has experienced a dramatic upswing. Calling Chinese President Xi Jinping his “best friend” and pledging to turn his country into “China’s gateway to Europe,” Milos Zeman has spared no effort to win the favor of Beijing.
However, this proximity between the Czech president and his Chinese counterpart, combined with the growing influence of China in the Czech economy (the Asian giant is about to become the second-largest trading partner for the Czech Republic) is increasingly viewed with suspicion by the local population. A recent survey by Pew Research found that just 27 percent of Czechs harbored a positive opinion of China – the second-lowest rate in Europe.
Zdenek Hrib, a clear opponent to Zeman, has taken advantage of his office to criticize the Czech political and business elite for their coziness with China. A member of the anti-establishment Pirate Party, the Prague mayor seeks to reassert the humanitarian foreign policy famously promoted by Vaclav Havel. The former Czech president was not only one of the great figures of anti-communist resistance, but also a strong supporter and admirer of the Dalai Lama.
In Taiwan, the cooperation agreement between Prague and Taipei is likely to have an impact on local politics. While Tsai Ing-wen is expected to make only moderate gains from the partnership between the countries’ two capitals in next month’s presidential election, Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je is emerging as the main beneficiary. A surgeon turned politician, Ko is known for his colorful personal style. Winning the 2014 mayoral election as an independent candidate, he was re-elected for a second term in 2018. Historically, the Taipei mayor’s office has served as a launching pad for a future presidential bid. With the exception of Tsai, all three previous democratically elected presidents of Taiwan – Lee Teng-hui, Chen Shui-bian and Ma Ying-jeou – had once held that high-profile position.
In August 2019, Ko Wen-je established his own political party, the Taiwan People’s Party, with the goal to become an alternative to both the Democratic Progressive Party of President Tsai as well as Taiwan’s other traditional political powerhouse, the Kuomintang. After months of speculation, Ko finally decided not to throw his hat in the ring for the January 2020 presidential election. There is, however, little doubt that the Taipei mayor will run for the island leadership in 2024.
Ko, who is not a career politician, has suffered in the past from a lack of professional expertise in international relations, committing minor diplomatic faux pas such as making disdainful comments over gifts presented by foreign visitors. In addition to the Czech Republic, the upcoming tour by the Taipei mayor will take him to Finland, Latvia, and Estonia. This international engagement will provide Ko Wen-je with an opportunity to make himself known abroad and strengthen his political stature at home.
While Ko has much to gain from his visit to Europe, he will have to be careful to adopt a profile that will not be seen as provocative by China. Beijing has not made up its mind about the Taipei mayor yet, and it will no doubt keep a very close eye on his first steps onto the world stage. As Prague Mayor Zdenek Hrib can attest, any attempt to internationalize the question of Taiwan sovereignty and status can incur dire consequences.
Gregory Coutaz is Assistant Professor at the Graduate Institute of National Development and Mainland China Studies, Chinese Culture University, Taipei (Taiwan).