Czech-Chinese Ties Strained As Prague Stands Up To Beijing Beijing recently canceled a sister-city agreement with Prague, whose mayor opposed inclusion of a "One China" provision that Taiwan is part of China. Beijing also canceled a Prague Philharmonic tour.
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Czech-Chinese Ties Strained As Prague Stands Up To Beijing

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Czech-Chinese Ties Strained As Prague Stands Up To Beijing

Czech-Chinese Ties Strained As Prague Stands Up To Beijing

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's getting tougher to stand up to China. Just ask the NBA, which was forced to publicly back down after a tweet from one of its executives supporting protesters in Hong Kong spurred Beijing to promise, quote, "retribution against the association." But in the European city of Prague, a mayor is saying enough to Beijing. NPR's Rob Schmitz reports.

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ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: It is called the City of a Hundred Spires.

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SCHMITZ: Their bells have rung for centuries, a reminder of Prague's history and its fortitude. And amidst the baroque and Gothic cathedrals overlooking the cobblestone streets of the old town, a debate is underway inside City Hall - a debate over reasserting that fortitude.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

SCHMITZ: Instead of talking about fixing potholes and replacing sewer pipes, Prague City Assembly is debating a bigger topic - China - and what to do about it. In 2016, a month before a state visit to Prague by Chinese leader Xi Jinping, the city approved a sister city relationship with Beijing. In it was an agreement to adhere to the One-China policy, Beijing's insistence that Taiwan is a part of China.

Three years and one city election later, Mayor Zdenek Hrib led an effort to excise the One-China language from the agreement, an effort that prompted Beijing to punish Prague institutions with interest in China and terminate the sister city relationship. Mayor Hrib says his city is learning a lesson about China's government.

ZDENEK HRIB: It was quite obvious that the only thing that the Beijing side was focused on was their propaganda, and not a political-cultural exchange we are interested in.

SCHMITZ: And the cultural collateral damage was felt here, at the Prague Philharmonic.

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SCHMITZ: Beijing abruptly canceled the orchestra's 14-city tour of China planned for this autumn.

HRIB: We have been preparing this concert tour over two and a half years.

SCHMITZ: The Philharmonic's director, Radim Otepka, says the China tour was the orchestra's biggest project in recent memory. He says the Philharmonic lost nearly $200,000 on the tour.

RADIM OTEPKA: Of course, I felt very badly. And we have to come up with something to replace this concert tour because there is financial loss.

SCHMITZ: Martin Holub, a sinologist at Prague's Charles University, says the sister city debacle is the latest in a frustrating list of episodes with China's government that have ended badly for the Czech Republic.

MARTIN HOLUB: There's been this backlash building up slowly. You know, people really feel cheated.

SCHMITZ: In 2014, the new populist president, Milos Zeman, said he wanted his country to be China's gateway to Europe. He appointed the CEO of a mysterious Chinese energy company as his honorary adviser after the company went on a spending spree in Prague, buying part of an airline, a football club and a brewery. That company, CEFC, became insolvent. Its CEO disappeared, and it was taken over by the Chinese state. Holub says that left nothing for his country except a big pile of debt. And he says Prague Mayor Hrib is reacting to that.

HOLUB: And I think that's the reason for this whole backlash, you know? And that's the reason why we have somebody like Mayor Hrib, you know. It was just a matter of time before somebody says, enough, you know. It's just ridiculous.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).

SCHMITZ: Back at Prague City Hall, Mayor Hrib listens on as a City Assembly member says Beijing may retaliate further. I ask him if he's worried that China's government will limit its hundreds of thousands of yearly tourists to the city, something it's done in the past to countries that offend it.

HRIB: Because the Chinese tourists do not stay here for a long time, they are using their own Chinese agencies. They are basically not the tourists we would like to focus on.

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SCHMITZ: And, says Mayor Hrib, anyone who's been to Prague in its peak summer season knows the city has too many tourists anyway. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Prague.

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