The Czech-Chinese relations have not been discussed as intensively as in recent months. The new Prague administration has dared to stand up to Beijing and to disrupt relations built through economic diplomacy. Questioning the nature of Chinese interests got in the limelight and what started as a diplomatic row between the capitals could stand for lasting damage to the relations between both states.
‘Panda Diplomacy’ and a Vision of Massive Investments
The Czech Republic opened itself up to the Chinese influence particularly in 2013 with the newly elected president Miloš Zeman. He is well known for his positive attitude towards China, and he has placed a narrative of ‘economic diplomacy’ in the forefront. It was a fundamental turn in diplomatic relations between the countries. Chinese President Xi Jinping was warmly welcomed for a state visit in 2016 and Zeman declared the Czech Republic to be a ‘gateway to Europe’. This occasion carried a promise of massive investments, business deals and increasing trade. The special treatment to Xi sparked protests in name of Tibet and Taiwan, and legacy of the first Czech post-communist president, Václav Havel, a personal friend of Dalai Lama, was ubiquitous.
A month before this pompous visit, Prague’s administration signed a sister-city agreement with Beijing that included ‘One China’ policy provision – considering Taiwan as a part of China. Mayor Krnáčová defended this step as it was a Beijing’s condition to lend a panda to Prague Zoo. Likewise, she expected more Chinese tourists coming to Prague and cultural and economic exchange to be anchored.
The Czech-Chinese ‘Honeymoon’ is Over
The pro-Chinese attitude has changed with a new Prague administration. Anti-establishment Pirate party, challenging the eastward-looking foreign policy of the president, has won election in the capital and Zdeněk Hřib was appointed as a mayor. He has openly criticized Krnáčová for favouring good political relations regardless of human rights violation in China. He also pointed out that neither investments nor acquiring a panda have been fulfilled. Prague also restored a tradition of raising the Tibetan flag at several official buildings and invited PM of the Tibetan government in exile for a meeting. Unlike the previous mayor, Hřib is not willing to conform to unreasonable demands of the Chinese such as to cancel invitation of the Taiwan representatives to the New Year’s reception.
The roots of the current diplomatic row can be dated back to January 2019 when Hřib promised to examine the wording used in the Prague-Beijing agreement. His action did not pass unnoticed and Chinese embassy was getting restless. Hřib claimed that any agreement between the capitals must be apolitical and mutually beneficial. Therefore, he suggested excluding ‘One China’ provision from the agreement. Importantly, such a provision is not usually found in similar agreements and so it was a trigger for questioning actual Chinese interests in the Czech Republic.
Meanwhile, Chinese officials have issued threats and resorted to the first retaliatory actions. One of the most publicly visible ones was a cancellation of the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra tour of fourteen Chinese cities – the biggest project they have ever had. Other performances of the cultural institutions, whose names are associated with Prague, were cancelled. Hřib has followingly branded China as an unreliable business partner. The Chinese embassy exerted pressure on the Czech government and urged to change Prague’s attitude. The reaction of the Minister of Foreign Affairs was clear – there is no way how to influence any action of a democratically elected municipality. As anticipated, president Zeman criticized Hřib and accused him of damaging both Czech-Chinese relations and economic ties of many Czech companies. The Chairman of the Czech Communist party shares the same point of view.
The situation escalated when the Prague City Council decided to withdraw as there was no willingness to negotiate – but Beijing has reacted immediately and terminated it before the City Assembly could vote to do so. Ironically enough, Prague has recently signed a sister city agreement with the Taiwanese capital Taipei. A day after, Shanghai cut all the ties with Prague and suspended the official contract.
Prague argues that Taiwan is one of the major Asian investors in the country and Prague has been cooperating informally with Taipei since 2001. Some might say that it was a provocation, others that Prague just wants to follow its own path regardless impact on diplomatic relations. In any case, it is extraordinary that the capital city is able to influence foreign affairs to such an extent and there is no doubt that Hřib has pulled Prague into the sphere of international relations, where it did not belong.
Chinese Interests Under Scrutiny
The Prague-Beijing quarrel has raised the question of the Czech attitude towards China which was rather blurred in recent years. Chinese influence has aroused concerns among politicians and society and even the Czech Intelligence agency BIS warned about Chinese activities. The most discussed cases concerned spreading propaganda through the president office and academic institutions. Firstly, China managed to penetrate the group surrounding president Zeman through the CEO of CEFC China Energy who was appointed as his honorary adviser. Secondly, many questions are surrounding activities of a Czech investment group PPF, owned by the richest Czech Kellner, and particularly of its lending division Home Credit which is one of the Chinese top foreign lenders. Home Credit became a sponsor of Charles University which prevented the University from any anti-Chinese stands. The contract has been immediately terminated since it caused a wave of criticism. Information concerning Home Credit’s efforts to improve image of the Chinese communist regime among Czechs through a PR agency leaked out as well.
The situation has become even more ‘ambiguous’ when president Zeman, until then the only guarantor of Czech-Chinese relations, has unexpectedly criticized Chinese investors for their unfulfilled promises. Moreover, he refused to visit China although he was offered to be the main guest of the summit taking place in April of this year. It seems that Zeman is gradually deviating from his strict pro-China attitude and considering a prevailing opinion that the Czech Republic should seek a pragmatic relationship with China, based on a balance between values and business interests.