By James M. Dorsey
A Czech mayor’s refusal to endorse Beijing’s One China policy potentially sets a high bar as Western powers grapple with how to respond to allegations of excessive use of violence by police against Hong Kong protesters and the implications of leaked documents detailing a brutal crackdown in China’s north-western province of Xinjiang.
Prague mayor Zdenek Hrib rejected a sister city agreement between the Czech capital and Beijing in late October because it included a clause endorsing the One China policy, which implicitly recognizes China's sovereignty over Taiwan, as well as Hong Kong and Tibet.
Mr. Hrib argued that the agreement was a cultural arrangement and not designed to address foreign policy issues that were the prerogative of the national government.
The mayor’s stance has since taken on added significance against the backdrop of US President Donald J. Trump’s signing of legislation that allows for the sanctioning of Hong Kong officials, embarrassing Communist party leaks that document repression in Xinjiang, the election of a new Sri Lankan government that intends to adopt a tougher policy towards China, and simmering anti-Chinese sentiment in Central Asia and beyond.
Mr. Hrib’s rejection was in fact a reflection of anti-Chinese sentiment in the Czech Republic as well as opposition to the pro-China policy adopted by Czech president Milos Zeman.
To be sure, Mr. Hrib, a 38-year old medical doctor who interned in Taiwan, was shouldering little political or economic risk given Czech public anger at China’s failure to fulfil promises of significant investment in the country.
On the contrary, Mr. Hrib, since becoming mayor in mid-2018, appears to have made it his pastime to put Mr. Zeman on the spot by poking a finger at China.
Mr. Hrib visited Taiwan in the first six months of his mayorship, flew the Tibetan flag over Prague’s city hall, and rejected a request by the Chinese ambassador at a meeting with foreign diplomats to send Taiwanese representatives out of the room.
Beijing’s cancellation of a tour of China by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra in response to Mr. Hrib’s provocations forced Mr. Zeman to describe the Chinese retaliation as “excessive” and his foreign minister, Tomas Petricek, to declare that "diplomacy is not conducted with threats."
Perhaps more importantly, M. Hrib was taking a stand based on principles and values rather than interests. In doing so, he was challenging the new normal of world leaders flagrantly ignoring international law to operate on the principle of might is right.
"Our conscience is not for sale," said Michaela Krausova, a leading member of the governing Pirate Party of the Prague city council. Ms. Krausova and Mr. Hrib’s party was founded to shake up Czech politics with its insistence on the safeguarding of civil liberties and political accountability and transparency.
While couched in terms of principle, Mr. Hrib’s stand strokes with newly installed Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s intention to wrest back control from China of the island’s strategic Hambantota port that serves key shipping lanes between Europe and Asia.
Hambantota became a symbol of what some critics have charged is Chinese debt trap diplomacy after Sri Lanka was forced to hand over the port to China in 2017 on a 99-year lease because the government was unable to repay loans taken to build it.
"I believe that the Sri Lankan government must have control of all strategically important projects like Hambantota. The next generation will curse our generation for giving away precious assets otherwise," Mr. Rajapaksa said.
Fears of a debt trap coupled with the crackdown on Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, which targets not only Uighurs, but also groups that trace their roots to Central Asian countries, have fuelled anti-Chinese sentiment in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan.
“Given that China is likely to continue to expand its presence, further irritating local publics, the temptation of opposition groups to exploit such anger will only grow. If that happens…the anti-Chinese demonstrations that have taken place to date will be only the prelude to a situation that could easily spiral out of control, ethnicizing politics in these countries still further,” said Central Asia scholar Paul Goble.
Beyond Xinjiang, anti-Chinese sentiment in Central Asia is fuelled by some of the same drivers that inform Czech attitudes towards China.
The shared drivers include unfulfilled promises, idle incomplete Chinese-funded infrastructure projects, widespread corruption associated with Chinese funding, and the influx of Chinese labour and materials at the expense of the local work force and manufacturers.
Beyond Xinjiang, Central Asians worry about potential debt traps. The Washington-based Center for Global Development listed last year two Central Asian nations, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, as risking China-related “debt distress.”
Warned China and Central Asia scholar Ayjaz Wani: “Chinese principles in Central Asia are hegemonic. China has always interacted with Central Asian states without regarding their cultural identities, but according to its own vested interests… However, the ongoing anti-China sentiments may be coming to a tipping point.”
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture