The Czech Republic’s relationship with China? It’s complicated

Stuart Lau
·8-min read

As US-China rivalry intensifies, European states have found themselves caught in the middle. The Post looks at how countries on the continent are responding, ranging from anti-China, to China-friendly, and those trying to walk a line between Washington and Beijing. The second in the four-part series looks at the Czech Republic. Read part one, on Portugal, here, and part three, on Greece, here.

Czech Republic President Milos Zeman made clear his views on relations with Beijing in a congratulatory message on China’s National Day on October 1, urging cooperation and deeper ties even as other major European states call for a more cautious approach.

“I firmly believe that we will soon defeat the coronavirus crisis and resume previous exchanges,” Zeman wrote. “The long-awaited Czech-Chinese governmental cooperation committee meeting can be launched, in order to assess the bilateral relations and plan the direction for future cooperation.”

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Beyond Zeman’s presidential optimism, however, the mood in the Czech Republic towards the country’s relations with China is much more nuanced, with some voices in academia, the civil service, and opposition groups taking an opposite tack to Zeman, and earning his anger.

These Czech critics of China, as with those in Europe’s heavyweights Germany and France, raise questions in the context of human rights and trade practices, though the Czechs have seemed to particularly annoy Beijing over Taiwan, especially Prague mayor Zdenek Hrib.

Prague mayor Zdenek Hrib revoked a sister-city agreement with Beijing last year. Photo: Facebook
Prague mayor Zdenek Hrib revoked a sister-city agreement with Beijing last year. Photo: Facebook

The sharply contrasting views result in the Czech Republic being among the nations in Europe most difficult to classify in terms of relations with China, despite president Zeman’s enthusiastic statements, according to commentators on the two countries’ relations.

Zeman, however, remains one of China’s most ardent supporters in the European Union, hailed by the Chinese ambassador in Prague as “an old friend” of President Xi Jinping. Zeman is a member of the Czech Social Democratic Party and former member of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia.

Since he became president in 2013, Zeman has visited China five times – and in one visit became the only Western head of state to attend a Chinese military ceremony.

He is fiercely critical of Czech Republic diplomats and intelligence officials who hold sceptical views of China and its intentions.

Zeman last year demoted his top envoy to Beijing and sent him to Armenia, a move regarded as punishment for having co-signed a letter with other diplomats calling for better protection of human rights in China.

The Czech president also attacked his own intelligence agency for citing security risks in the use of Huawei Technologies’ 5G mobile communication infrastructure, reassuring Beijing that Chinese enterprises would be welcomed in the country.

In 2018, the Czech National Cyber and Information Security Agency said Huawei’s telecoms equipment posed a security risk, according to the Czech News Agency.

The Chinese company’s role in the Czech Republic’s 5G network remains unclear. CETIN, the country’s largest telecoms operator, decided in October to work exclusively with Ericsson to build 5G towers, in a snub to Huawei which has also reportedly failed to get top security clearance from the Czech intelligence agency.

The US has said that Huawei’s telecoms networks could be used by Beijing for spying on other countries and Britain and some other nations have blocked use of the company’s equipment in next-generation 5G systems.

Last month, when the Czech ambassador to the United Nations was approached to join a Germany-led human rights resolution on Xinjiang and Hong Kong, Zeman, according to local media, intervened and overruled his foreign minister’s support for the motion.

The president’s spokesman, Jiri Ovcacek, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

While Zeman stands out in the European Union for the tone of friendliness towards Beijing, other prominent officials in the Czech Republic are very much on the other side of the fence.

Prague Mayor Hrib revoked a sister-city agreement with Beijing in October last year after Chinese officials declined to remove “one China” language from the pact. Hrib said the policy, which states Beijing’s sovereignty over Taiwan, was inappropriate for a city-level agreement.

In August this year, Senate President Milos Vystrcil and Hrib visited Taiwan and met President Tsai Ing-wen, breaking one of Beijing’s diplomatic taboos in a way few other EU politicians would ever consider. Under its one-China policy, Beijing considers Taiwan a breakaway province of the mainland that will eventually be reunited.

When Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned that Vystrcil would pay “a heavy price” for the visit, other EU countries came to the senator’s defence, with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas saying in a joint press conference with Wang that “threats don’t fit in here”.

It shows us that the influence of China is actually very, very limited not just in the Czech Republic

Prague mayor Zdenek Hrib

In an interview with the South China Morning Post, Hrib said Beijing had done little to fulfil Wang’s warning to punish the Czech Republic.

“It turns out the only thing China was able to do was that they decided not to buy 11 pianos from a Czech company,” the Prague mayor said, referring to piano maker Klaviry Petrof, whose US$234,000 order was cancelled by a Chinese importer.

“These pianos were soon bought by a local Czech patron of classical music. So I don’t think there’s a lot of damage,” Hrib said. “It shows us that the influence of China is actually very, very limited not just in the Czech Republic, but I believe it’s the same situation in the whole Eastern Europe, and maybe even in the rest of Europe as well.”

Milos Zeman slams Taiwan visit as ‘boyish provocation’ as he seeks to calm China’s anger

Some EU countries would not necessarily agree. Germany, for instance, is concerned about the future of its lucrative car industry’s interests in China and has yet to make up its mind about Huawei’s role in the German 5G telecoms market.

But Hrib’s observation has a point. According to UN Comtrade data, China runs a huge trade surplus with the Czech Republic, exporting US$28 billion of products to the country in 2019, compared with Czech exports to China of US$2.5 billion, which suggests China has more to lose in any trade spat.

It is also complicated. While Czech carmaker Skoda sold 22 per cent of its cars to China in 2019, its parent company is Volkswagen, making it problematic if Beijing chooses to punish a Czech business that is a subsidiary of a German company.

Another Czech company operating in China, Home Credit, a consumer lender, scrapped a plan for a US$1.5 billion initial public offering in Hong Kong after investors demanded a lower valuation, and its prospects have since been dampened by the coronavirus pandemic, according to Bloomberg.

There has long been a struggle between the pragmatic and value-based orientations in Czech foreign policy

Filip Sebok, Association for International Affairs

China has also been lukewarm in its investment expansion in Central and Eastern Europe, despite the 17+1 initiative set up for the purpose, according to analysts.

A report in April by the China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe – a group of scholars associated with Prague think tank the Association for International Affairs – said all 17 European countries in the initiative had seen their trade deficit with China increase since the group was established in 2012.

“When it became clear that investments were not coming, it became difficult to further substantiate maintaining a partnership with China,” said Filip Sebok, a China expert at the Association for International Affairs. “There has long been a struggle between the pragmatic and value-based orientations in Czech foreign policy.”

There has also been scandal. Ye Jianming, founder of CEFC China Energy Company, once served as a special adviser to Zeman, as his business empire snapped up the country’s oldest football club, a brewery, a share of the Travel Service airline group, a publishing house, and property.

Ye has since disappeared, following what was understood to be an investigation by the Chinese authorities. Nearly half of CEFC’s stakes in the Czech Republic have been transferred to Citic, a Chinese state-owned investment company.

For China, the question is whether its influence all the way up to the presidency can continue when Zeman – who turned 76 in September and is in declining health due to diabetes – completes his second term in 2023.

“He’s sort of a lame-duck president coming towards the end of his term not in good health,” said Jeremy Garlick, an assistant professor specialising in China relations at Prague University of Economics and Business. “He’s becoming less and less of a factor in Czech politics,” Garlick said.

“I’m doubtful that you will get another president that would be as pro-China as Zeman.”

Part one of this series looks at Portugal.

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