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16th Nov 2018

Chinese hangover in Prague

  • Czech and Chinese presidents Zeman (r) and Xi (l). The two leaders signed off agreements worth of €7.4 billion. (Photo: Czech president office)

The Czechs woke up to a kind of Chinese hangover on Monday (4 April) after a week that marked the first ever official visit by a Chinese leader, a diplomatic tour made possible by president Milos Zeman dropping long-standing habit of Czech leaders of openly criticising China's human rights record.

Demonstrators took to the streets of Prague during the three-day stopover of Xi Jinping, on 28-30 March, on his way to a nuclear summit in Washington, both in favour and against the Chinese leader. The pro-Xi camp, composed of Czech citizens of Chinese background, were aggressive – they pushed others around and tore down critical banners. Yet most of the 23 people arrested were those peacefully handing out Tibetan or Taiwanese flags.

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  • Chinese New Year celebrations in Prague. (Photo: EUobserver)

The Czech police even went into private spaces and university grounds to question the presence – and in many cases to snatch – Tibetan flags hanging out of buildings or stuck on to windows.

In one of the most serious cases, two undercover police officers knocked on the door of the dean of the FAMU, the renowned film and photography faculty in Prague.

They wanted to know if two Tibetan flags on the facade of the school, which faces the palais where Xi Jinping was meeting Czech officials, were there with the consent of the school or if it was only a “student action”.

After the secretary of the dean confirmed that the dean himself gave it the green light, the officers said “well the Chinese still don’t like those flags”. The officers left a few minutes later.

The next day the school issued a statement calling the police visit an “unprecedented violation of the constitutional right of expression” and requested that the minister of interior and the chief of police investigate the lawfulness of the event and explain it publicly.

Suppressed freedoms

The government has not publicly criticised the police over the incident, fuelling speculation that the officers were acting with the consent of the ruling parties. The interior minister said only that he was unaware of any instruction to confiscate Taiwanese or Tibetan flags.

This and the other cases have left most Czechs feeling that their freedoms have been deliberately suppressed. The feeling was too reminiscent to many of 27 years ago, when during the final days of communism the streets were filled with the red flags of the Soviet Union, and many of those who protested were silence or arrested.

Most of all, the Chinese visit was the culmination of the foreign policy direction mapped out by president Milos Zeman. He has taken the lead in foreign policy since the beginning of his mandate three years ago, fervently opposing sanctions on Russia and publicly endorsing Vladimir Putin’s policies - from the arrest of Pussy Riot to the annexation of Crimea.

In an interview for state-run Chinese television channel CCTV before Xi Jinping arrived, Zeman said previous Czech governments had “succumbed to pressure from the European Union and the US”, but the current cabinet had “managed to extricate itself from such influences”.

“We are finally leading our sovereign foreign policy,” he said.

In a rare display of unity, the government and the opposition – with the exception of the Communist Party – rejected Zeman’s words.

“It was our independent decision to join Nato and the European Union and we’re taking our full part in the decisions of both organisations,” said social democrat prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka.

Chinese hub in Europe

However, the ruling coalition fully endorses Zeman’s push for unconditional business ties with the communist superpower, and his ambition to turn the Czech Republic into some kind of Chinese financial hub of central Europe.

The political declaration signed off in Prague by Zeman and Xi didn’t raise any eyebrows. It contains two mentions of human rights, and the text is almost identical to German and British Strategic Partnership agreements with China. The business deals, however, were another matter.

The two leaders oversaw some 30 agreements worth €7.4 billion. Spin from the Czech president and government sounded great – billions in investment, funds for infrastructure, new jobs for Czechs. But the lack of detail and only tentative partnerships – in the form of memorandums of understanding in most cases – raise the suspicion it may not materialise in the way they say.

The vast majority of the sum, €5bn, would go into a fund set up jointly between J&T Finance Group and Chinese Ping An Bank. It was announced the fund would finance infrastructure projects in the Czech Republic, but the J&T group mostly buys existing companies – it does acquisitions, not investment.

The Chinese company CEFC also intends to acquire a 50 % stake in J&T Bank for €420 million. But since the J&T group is mostly a Slovak firm – it owns the 5th biggest Slovak bank – “most of the investment (signed off in Prague) will actually help to stabilise the Slovak banking sector,” writes Konstantin Cikovsky, economic correspondent of Slovak daily Dennik N.

For the second biggest deal, the Czech car maker Skoda, owned by Germany’s Volkswagen, will build a new factory in China worth of €2.1 billion. It means German and Czech money will pour into China rather than the other way round, at least at the beginning.

There are dozens other deals - for example, the Czech plane maker Aircraft Industries delivering 20 aircraft to China, but it’s for petty money €111 million – when compared with the initial spin that “billions rain from China".

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