Sunday

16th Dec 2018

Opinion

The curious case of the Czech president's missing advisor

  • Czech president Milos Zeman with Chinese president Xi Jinping. Zeman previously boasted of their 'special relationship'. (Photo: Czech president office)

The disappearance of Ye Jianming, chairman of China Energy Company Ltd (CEFC), and news of his investigation by China's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection has sent shock waves across the Czech media.

Ye has been a honorary advisor on economic cooperation with China to the Czech president Milos Zeman - who on many occasions welcomed Chinese investment to the country and has sometimes been criticised for his openly pro-Chinese attitude from by various political parties and journalists.

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Clueless as the Czech media have been on Ye Jianming's fate, the most surprising announcement came from the president's office.

After Chinese ambassador Ma Keqing's visit to Zeman, his spokesperson only tweeted that "Madam Ambassador did not confirm the speculations on detention of president's honorary advisor".

Meanwhile, CEFC Europe, in an apparent attempt to calm down the situation, was busy spreading the news that it did not, in fact, have anything to do with Ye, a move which replicated similar announcement by other branches, including CEFC Hong Kong Financial Investment Company Ltd.

Speculation rife

One can, and many did, speculate whether the detention of Ye was a result of an alleged power struggle between Xi Jinping and Jiang Zemin's clique in the party's leadership.

Or an exemplary punishment of a company who borrowed too much from state banks and the development bank.

Or a result of a bribery scandal involving Patrick Ho, former senior Hong Kong home secretary and president of CEFC's NGO branch, president of Chad and minister of foreign affairs of Uganda.

We may find out if and when Xi refers to the case at the National People's Congress meeting, but until then an interesting question arises for Czech-Chinese relations watchers: how will Ye's detention affect the Czech Republic and Zeman?

CEFC Europe, a branch of CEFC company, is not only one of the most important vehicles of Chinese investment in the Czech Republic, it is also widely considered to maintain close links to the Chinese state, especially through the arrested chairman Ye.

Tellingly, Ye was named a honorary advisor by president Zeman at the height of the surge of Czech-Chinese political and economic courtship in 2015 and CEFC was the company which led the 'investment spree' in the Czech Republic in the immediate aftermath.

Besides other companies, it invested in Travel Service, a company which owns Czech Airlines, bought the Slavia soccer club and the Lobkowicz brewery and owns properties in Prague city centre.

It also invested (from 2015 to 2017) in Empresa Media, a company which owns TV Barrandov, one of 'alternative' Czech media outlets whose bias for Zeman has since become notorious and played some role in his reelection to the office in January.

The Chinese state will most likely not let CEFC fall.

Some of its assets are too important and sensitive, like the deal with Rosneft which was promoted jointly by Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin.

If the Chinese state takes over CEFC, it will probably run an audit of CEFC's assets.

Football, beer and TV?

While none of those in the Czech Republic seem dubious per se, it may come a little strange that a company which focuses on energy, invested in a soccer club, a brewery and a TV station.

President Zeman will not be affected domestically - after all, he has just won his second term in office, but the affair sheds bad light on the alleged special relationship with President Xi Jinping about which he boasted.

Xi apparently failed to tip off his arguably firmest supporter in Europe on his honorary advisor's alleged wrongdoing and its implications.

While Zeman's electorate does not care, his supporters in business circles who invest in China and depend on Zeman's alleged good terms with Xi might as well take notice.

Even if Zeman had Xi's ear, as he claims, apparently that does not extend to Chinese leader's mouth.

This time the trouble came to a Chinese company, but what happens when a storm hits one of the Czech investments in the Peoples' Republic of China? In that case supporting the Czech president hardly seems to matter.

Ivana Karaskova is a China analyst and chief coordinator of ChinfluenCE, international project mapping Chinese influence in central Europe run by the Association for International Affairs (AMO)

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