By Jan Marchal | AFP
PRAGUE, Czech Republic, 29 March 2016
Protests greeted President Xi Jinping as he arrived in Prague on Monday on the first visit by a Chinese head of state to the Czech Republic.
Along the road leading from the airport, dozens of pro-Tibetan demonstrators scuffled with well-wishers who had turned out to welcome the Chinese leader on a visit which has seen Czech President Milos Zeman come under fire for his pro-China policies.
On Monday, in a park on the road from the airport, demonstrators put up a giant picture of the Dalai Lama with the late Czech president Vaclav Havel, a former dissident and human rights activist, with the words: “These gentlemen are at home here”, recalling the Tibetan spiritual leader’s frequent visits during Havel’s presidency (1989-2003).
And at the weekend, dozens of Chinese flags hung up along the boulevard were defaced.
Although the ruined flags were replaced, dozens of demonstrators on Monday tried to hang Tibetan flags in their place, sparking scuffles with pro-Beijing supporters, the Czech news agency CTK reported.
Police said they had arrested 12 people.
Shouting also erupted in the park as Xi’s supporters covered up the Dalai Lama billboard with giant Chinese flags, sparking a heated argument with the pro-Tibetan demonstrators, the agency said.
After Xi’s arrival on a 48-hour visit focused on business cooperation, the Chinese leader met with Zeman at his official residence just outside Prague where the two leaders also planted a ginkgo biloba tree, holding watering cans adorned with Czech and Chinese flags, CTK said.
A new start
In the city centre, another 150 people, mostly Chinese, gathered outside the Hilton Hotel to welcome the president, waving Chinese flags and banners and banging on drums, the agency added.
Zeman has hailed the visit as a “new start” in Prague’s relations with Beijing, saying China could invest up to 45 billion koruna (1.66 billion euros/$1.86 billion) in the Czech Republic.
“It’s a new start since we used to have terrible relations with China and the previous government gave in to pressure from the United States and the EU,” Zeman told China’s CCTV channel in an interview quoted on Monday by CTK.
“Right now we are once again an independent country and we formulate our foreign policy based on our own interests. We do not meddle in the interests of any other country,” he added.
Chinese group CEFC has recently invested about 20 billion koruna (740 million euros/$828 million) in the country, buying stakes in a charter airline, a brewery, two media groups and a top football team.
Zeman, a 71-year-old pro-Russian leftwinger, was the only European head of state to attend a military parade in Beijing last September that commemorated Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II.
But his recent remarks on the visit drew an angry reaction from opposition figures, with former finance minister Miroslav Kalousek, an MP for the rightwing TOP 09 party, denouncing them as “repulsive”.
“His statement basically rejects the long-term foreign and security policy of the Czech Republic,” he said, accusing the president of “bootlicking authoritarian and unfree regimes.”
“We are ashamed of President Zeman and the government, who exchanged human rights for collaboration with the totalitarian and communist China,” read a petition presented by the director of the Czech national gallery, Jiri Fajt.
Another rally against Beijing’s policy on Tibet is scheduled for Tuesday outside the Czech presidential seat, the Prague Castle.
Beijing, which has ruled Tibet since 1951, says it has brought economic development to the Himalayan region and has questioned the sincerity of the Dalai Lama, who fled for India after a failed uprising in 1959.
Beijing accuses the Nobel Peace Prize winner of supporting separatism and violence in the region.
The Dalai Lama, who has been invited to attend an international forum in Prague later this year, remains the rallying figure for Tibetans, both at home and in exile, seeking greater autonomy and rights for Tibet.
After visiting Prague, Xi will travel to the United States to attend a nuclear security summit which begins on Thursday.