Can Europe Make It?

Tibet, symbolism and the Czech Republic

Czech President Milos Zeman recently labelled pro-Tibet protestors "mentally ill" during a visit of the Chinese President to the Czech Republic. What does this say about Zeman and Czech society?

Jan Hornát
28 April 2016

Activists waving banners and free Tibet flags attend a rally opposing Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit in Prague, Czech Republic. Petr David Josek/PA. All rights reserved.Chinese president Xi Jinping paid an official state visit to the Czech Republic on 28 March – this three day visit was the first historical trip of the Chinese president to the country and represented the culmination of a revised foreign policy course adopted by the government that took power in 2013 and strongly advocated by President Milos Zeman.

Strengthening ties with China could be labeled as President Zeman’s main foreign policy goal in his first term in office and thus Xi’s visit, which brought pledges of Chinese investments and whereby the Czech government elevated the relations with Beijing to a strategic partnership, epitomizes a “mission accomplished”.

While it is yet to see whether the pledged investments will materialize and whether they will benefit the Czech economy or rather serve as geopolitical tools of China’s expansion into Europe, the presidential visit caught media attention for different reasons.

On 30 March two men, introducing themselves as officers of the criminal police, entered the city-center premises of the Film and TV School of Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU) and demanded to know who gave the school permission to hoist Tibetan flags, remarking that “the Chinese do not like it”.

According to the official statement of the dean’s office, the display of the Tibetan flag was a symbol of the institution’s freedom of thought, a critical expression of the injustices of our times and therefore a reaction to a state visit “reminiscent of communist-era masquerades”.

Various other accounts where the Czech police allegedly gave preferential treatment to participants in the crowds welcoming the president carrying Chinese flags over those with Tibetan flags and purported interventions of officers in private homes that flew Tibetan flags out of their windows have since emerged.

Accordingly, the public started questioning the conduct of the police during Xi Jinping’s visit and demanded to know whether an order to “side with Chinese demonstrators and intervene against Czech human rights activists” was made and if yes, by whom. Also, the opposition in parliament quickly mobilized to seek further investigation into the issue to reveal if this was a systematic breach of the society’s freedom of expression.

After initial denial of the events at FAMU, the police president apologized for the episode. Moreover, the interior minister announced that he would resign if the investigation revealed that the police had received such orders and that the alleged excesses towards the wielders of Tibetan flags were not just the self-initiative of a few officers.

Meanwhile, President Zeman applauded the role of the police officers during Xi’s visit and – using disturbing rhetoric reminiscent of the communist-era terminology employed to counter any oppositional forces – acknowledged their difficult role in “preventing the public expressions of mentally impaired individuals”.

Essentially, in President Zeman’s jargon, these “mentally impaired individuals” are human rights activists, the entire NGO sector, the “Prague Café intellectuals” and, in fact, most of his opponents (which, as he recently pointed out, remind him of Hitler’s Sturmabteilung).

In a sense, President Zeman tends to formulate a realpolitik narrative that appears to say that carrying a Tibetan flag during the official state visit of the Chinese president was not a legitimate form of protest, but rather a foolish provocation merely damaging Czech national interests. Needless to say, Czech society is divided over the issue of Tibetan flags in the streets – the overlap between critics of the initiatives and President Zeman’s supporters is expectedly high.

For a portion of the Czechs, however, the Tibetan flag is not just a form of protest – the flag is a reminder, a symbol that alludes to the most vulnerable points of Czech (Czechoslovak) history. The contemporary Czech affiliation with Tibet is somewhat influenced by former president Vaclav Havel’s friendship with the Dalai Lama and His Holiness’ frequent visits to the country since the Velvet Revolution (more than ten times).

At the same time, China’s occupation of Tibet and the subsequent repression of the Tibetan people can be viewed as an analogy to the German occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939 and the Moscow-ordered Warsaw Pact intervention in the country in 1968, which put an end to initiatives aimed at reforming communism and launched an era of “normalization” characterized by a firmer totalitarian grip on the society.

Therefore, given these perhaps simplified historical analogies, the Tibetan flag serves two purposes in the Czech context. Not only does it send a message of support to “the oppressed and the occupied”, who share a similar fate as the Czech nation, but the flag also serves to reaffirm modern-day Czech identity.

The symbol of the Tibetan flag has moved from the concrete (the situation and history of Tibet) to the universal (human rights and even democracy). By hoisting the Tibetan flag, or flying it out of the windows during the Chinese president’s visit, the Czechs were implicitly being reminded of their own history. For this reason, any attempts to suppress the freedom to fly the Tibetan flag will be viewed by a significant part of Czech society as a denial or an attack on an important aspect of its identity.

The above-described episode should thus be interpreted along two separate dimensions – on the one hand, it is about the limits of the freedom of expression and on the other hand, it is about the (re)affirmation of Czech identity.

The major takeaway from this story, though, is that Czech society realized that in certain circumstances there is a very thin and fuzzy line between the freedom and the restriction of expression. It engaged policymakers in a debate targeted at identifying where this line is and where it should be.

Apart from a few exceptions, the majority of Czech policymakers acknowledged (at least rhetorically) that a high-level instruction given to the police to intervene against human rights protestors and to attempt to minimize the occurrence of Tibetan flags in the city would represent an unacceptable crossing of a red line. This is good news (although we may never actually find out whether such and order existed and who put it forward).

It seems that once in a while a democratic society needs moments like this that serve as a wake-up call to break out of its lethargy and (at least for some period of time) stop taking institutions intrinsic to democracy – like freedom of expression – for granted and subsequently discuss their limits and functions. Such debates are vital for a not yet consolidated democracy, like the Czech Republic.

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