Prague Mayor Zdeněk Hřib on tourism, China, Taiwan – and city’s two tanks

Zdeněk Hřib, photo: archive of Prague City Hall

Zdeněk Hřib of the Pirate Party has been the mayor of Prague for only 10 months but has already garnered the attention of international media, particularly over his attempts to remove an article recognising the One China policy from the city’s partnership agreement with Beijing. I met with Mr. Hřib at City Hall to discuss his view of the situation, as well as his fondness for Taiwan. The mayor is actually a physician by training and I began by asking him for a diagnosis of tourism in Prague and the city’s plans in this area.

Zdeněk Hřib,  photo: archive of Prague City Hall

“Prague is a really nice city and I would like to tell listeners that if you haven’t come yet you should check it out and enjoy the city full of historical architecture and culture.

“Nevertheless, there are some problems connected with tourism, which we are working on as we speak. One of them are the so-called ‘beer bikes’ which are generally a very annoying thing for residents in the city centre. We are trying to appeal to different types of tourists, ones who are more oriented towards culture and architecture rather than those who favour cheap beer in pubs.

“Therefore, one of the things we are focusing on is the congress industry. Prague has a very good history of congress visits. If you organise your congress in Prague, you are likely to get more visitors. That is important for agencies organising these events. There is also a new congress hall under construction which will increase the city’s capabilities in this area even more.”

When it comes to tourist traps, things such as exchange offices, are you doing something to combat these? What can you realistically do about it as a city?

“We are trying to appeal to different types of tourists, ones who are more oriented towards culture and architecture rather than those who favour cheap beer in pubs. Therefore, one of the things we are focusing on is the congress industry.”

“The situation with exchange offices is still not as ideal as it could be, but it has improved. There is a new law which enables you to cancel your transaction within three hours of it taking place and the exchange offices are obliged to inform you about that.

“However, we know that some of them can be a little bit, shall we say ‘hesitant’, when it comes to that duty. The Czech National Bank is in charge of enforcing this law, so I believe that in the near future this issue will be solved definitively.

“What we can do specifically as Prague City Hall is cancel the rents of exchange offices that are directly in certain premises of the city. We are trying to do that to deal with the problem. However, a lot of exchange offices are actually located on privately owned property, so our capabilities are limited.”

On the One China policy article

You are the city’s mayor, but it is actually your clashes with China, which have perhaps made you most visible abroad. These stem mainly from your reservations about the Prague-Beijing Agreement that was signed by the previous administration, because it contains a clause that states that Prague respects the One China policy. This has put you in a strange role, where apart from being in charge of municipal administration, you have, whether you like it or not, become an active variable in Czech-Chinese relations. How do you feel about that?

“Although it can be seen like that in some media, we are not dealing with China as such in Prague. We are dealing with our partner city of Beijing, which our predecessors signed the partnership agreement with. That agreement includes the One China policy statement.

Prague,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů
“This from my point of view was a completely unnecessary agreement and it was actually a mistake of our predecessors to allow Prague to be involved in this issue, because the One China policy is something that should be dealt with on the level of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It is a very complicated matter.

“We in Prague need to focus on insufficient investment into transport infrastructure, the housing crisis, etc. Those are things we have to deal with here. Not with the One China policy. That is something we do not want to deal with. Therefore, we would like to keep this article number III [according to which Prague confirms its continuous commitment to the One China Policy of the Government of the Czech Republic] out of the agreement. We want to keep our partnerships with foreign cities apolitical and based on a mutually beneficial cultural exchange.”

I recently spoke to sinologist Filip Jirouš about what your future steps could be. He said it is either to annul the agreement, or simply ignore the fact that there is this clause. Is that how you see it? And which one of the two are you leaning closer to at the moment?

“We are currently in middle of negotiations with the Beijing side and our aim is to exclude the article number III out of the contract. Right now we are waiting for their response. We have already sent some letters and now we have sent another one, so the negotiation is ongoing and we are waiting for their response. I think that we should have this issue closed by the end of autumn. If it will be impossible to exclude article III, then cancelling the contract definitely is one of the realistic scenarios.”

On Taiwan

The other China is Taiwan and it is a place you know quite well. As a student of medicine you spent some time there on an exchange trip. What was that time in Taiwan like and did you learn something that impacts your decisions today?

“I found out that Taiwanese people are probably the nation with the greatest hospitality in the region…I really felt like being home when I was there for two months.”

“I was in Taiwan for two months. It was a clerkship during my studies. I learnt a lot there regarding radiology, x-rays, magnetic resonance and CT scans. But yes, I also found out that Taiwanese people are probably the nation with the greatest hospitality in the region.

“While that is true, it has no influence on the negotiation regarding article III in the sister cities agreement between Beijing and Prague, because it is not actually my decision that the article should be excluded. That is a decision of the whole Council of Prague City Hall, a consequence of the fact that all the parties of which it is composed were criticising the agreement at the time during which it was signed.”

You travelled to Taiwan and met President Tsai in March. The president went on to say back then that Taiwan is your second home. Would you go as far as to say that?

“Yes, yes. I really felt like being at home when I was there for two months. This year we met with the mayor of Taipei, representatives of the Ministry of Informatics as well as with President Tsai. I believe that there is an opportunity to learn from Taiwanese successes in IT and technology and we could transform some of this success to Prague.”

Zdeněk Hřib,  photo: archive of Prague City Hall
You were also active in implementing IT technologies in healthcare before you became mayor. I read what the Taiwanese president stated after your meeting and she said she hoped the exchanges between the two sides would continue to develop and strengthen, especially in the field of smart healthcare. When it comes to that area, will there be some sort of agreement, or have you learned things in Taipei that you also want to implement in the Czech Republic?

“I visited the medical school in Taiwan and generally what is interesting is that they are focused on artificial intelligence, for example in healthcare. In Prague we are also focused on this sort of AI. We started Prague AI, the city’s artificial intelligence super hub, which should also facilitate the development of AI applications both for the city and others as well.

“The topic of AI is one of the areas we are interested in, so yes, I do see potential for cooperation between Prague and Taipei in this field as well as in the field of other student exchanges.”

Planting a million trees in Prague

Since you have been placed in the international spotlight, I was wondering how you would define yourself as a politician in western terminology. Are you a liberal, a progressive, or something else? What does it mean to be a Czech Pirate?

“I consider myself a liberal politician. We [the Pirate Party] do not put ourselves on the left-right scale we are sort of in the middle from this point of view. Personally, one of my priorities is the promise of planting one million new trees in Prague. Right now we have an action plan on paper and have planted 170,000, so we know we are on schedule and will get to half a million by the end of this election term. Whoever wins the next ones will have the opportunity to reach the one million mark.”

“I consider myself a liberal politician. We [the Pirate Party] do not put ourselves on the left-right scale. We are sort of in the middle from this point of view. Personally, one of my priorities is the promise of planting one million new trees in Prague.”

You come from a family of architects. Your father was project manager in the reconstruction of the Czech National Bank. During last year’s City Hall elections various candidates came out with a number of ideas on structures that would be unique and create new monuments in Prague. I was wondering, are you thinking of building anything? Or, will your legacy be the newly planted trees?

“We have just started the construction of the new metro line D. That is a long term project which will not be finished by the end of this election term. However, we also have plans for a new concert hall on the bank of the Vltava river. That is something that will also take some time.

“Besides that that is a plan to build two new bridges will be built across the Vltava. But there is not a project which will be both started and finished during one election term, so yes the trees will probably be the most prominent legacy. But I think that it not a minor legacy, because as I said the overheating of the city is one of the most serious problems today.”

In the beginning you explained why people should visit Prague. I was wondering if, since the time you became mayor, there is something new you discovered about Prague. Perhaps something that distinguishes it from other cities?

(Smiles) "Well I have had some surprises in my office since I was elected. For example, one was that the City of Prague owns two tanks which can be used immediately. They are not intended for use in war though. Rather, in emergencies such as when floods hit the city to help in things such as moving ships along the bank. That Prague owns two tanks certainly was a surprise.”

Zdeněk Hřib,  photo: archive of Prague City Hall

On housing affordability and Airbnb

Czechs work longer than other Europeans to buy a flat. So in terms of affordability of housing to what degree do you think Airbnb and vacant flats play a role? What is Prague doing to tackle the housing problem in general?

“We are approaching the problem of the housing crisis from many sides simultaneously. One of the things is that brownfields need to be unlocked that is a space for hundreds of Prague citizens.

“The second thing is that permission processes are very slow, so we have to speed them up.

“I have had some surprises in my office since I was elected… That Prague owns two tanks certainly was [one].”

“The next aspect is that the City of Prague has some flats, which are not being used because they are in need of reconstruction. Therefore we are focusing on their reconstruction and the effective management of the pool of the city’s owned flats.

“Finally, there are of course problems related to short term accommodation such as Airbnb.

“In this field there is a new law which allows us to raise the city tax on accommodation both on hotels and Airbnb. That is one way to approach this problem. However, there are issues connected with this, such as the effective collection of the tax which is connected to data sharing between the city and Airbnb.

“Since this was left out of the law, it needs to be solved through a memorandum between the City of Prague and the company. Negotiations on the memorandum are currently underway.

Is it possible to put some date on when we will start seeing changes in this area?

“There are also activities done on the part of districts, mainly Prague 1, which will put emphasis on enforcing the current rules. That basically means that flats used for making money out of Airbnb need to be appropriately labelled and that they do not contribute towards disturbing the peace at night, so that residents are not disturbed.

“These are the activities of Prague 1 and Prague City Hall supports this. Overall though, we will have to see how we can deal with the problem without a substantial change in legislation.”