Once one of the most vocal critics of China, the Czech Republic performed a diplomatic U-turn in recent years to forge closer ties with the Middle Kingdom. But years later, most of Beijing’s economic and business promises failed to materialize, leading many Czech decision-makers to feel they were let down and misled.
Czechs put up a fight
Despite its very best efforts, China’s influence strategy has failed to make a lasting mark in Czech society and politics. At the political level, critics of Prague’s pro-China stance had never died out, some arguing that Beijing’s propaganda was only seeking, as it does with ASEAN countries, to divide the EU and block any embarrassing resolution that might be contrary to its interests; others claiming more bluntly that China is simply trying to “plant some seeds for hypothetical future needs” and subjugate the Czech Republic. In any case, besides the rather limited circle of faithful China advocates, most of the main political parties have no clear stance on the issue and are divided, silent or openly critic toward Beijing – this is most notably the case of Christian-Democrats (KDU-CSL), TOP 09 and STAN. The most ambiguous stance on China comes from the ANO party of Prime Minister Andrej Babis, a former businessman and second richest man in the country notoriously discreet on China and who, as rumors have it, has kept a bitter memory of its attempts to do business there some decades ago.
Among the population, several indicators also suggest that China has failed to make a lasting impact. According to the Eurobarometer, only 25% of Czechs have a positive opinion of China, well below the EU average (32%). And as few as 10% of Czech citizens believe that China is “very important for the Czech Republic” within ten years. Even the number of young Czechs learning Chinese is in free fall, while the interest for learning Japanese and Korean is increasing.
Several factors can account for this lack of interest, or even outright rejection: the media coverage which, despite a banalisation of the pro-Chinese rhetoric favored by “alternative” media like TV Barrandov, remains highly critical toward Beijing – without even mentioning the think tanks specifically created to monitor Chinese influence in the country, like Sinopsis, Chinfluence or Asian.sk; the lack of visibility of the Chinese community (only 7.000 Chinese citizens live in the Czech Republic) coupled with a rather widespread xenophobia towards ethnic minorities – at the exception of the Vietnamese diaspora. In other words, buying a popular football club isn’t enough to win over the hearts and minds of Czech people.
The end of an era?
Moreover, a recent string of unfortunate misfortunes have highlighted the shortcomings of China’s influence strategy. The first – and rather significant – setback dates back to late 2017 with the arrest in China of Ye Jianming, CEFC chairman and President Zeman’s personal advisor, in an anti-corruption probe. At hearing the news, an obviously embarrassed Zeman had to urgently send some of his closest advisers to Beijing to seek assurances of CEFC’s continuous involvement in the Czech Republic. And despite, after many twists and turns and threats of judicial proceedings which turned the Czech-Chinese success-story in a diplomatic fiasco – CITIC’s promise to take over all of CEFC’s assets in the country, uncertainties remain in this affair which revealed the frailty of bilateral relations and the extent of the concessions that the Czech President had to make.
The latter, however, kept on striking the same chord and headed to China last November. But although this was supposed to create a new momentum for the Czech-Chinese friendship, the visit was overshadowed by the statements of the recently appointed Czech Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek who inconveniently brought back the human rights issue in official talks. At the same moment, a “Friends of Tibet” group was formed in the Czech lower house of Parliament in Prague.
And then, the Huawei sage came and ruined everything: a few days after the Czech intelligence agency highlighted a rise of Chinese espionage activities in the Czech Republic, the cyber-security agency warned against using Huawei products and technology, arguing it might present a security threat to government institutions and strategic infrastructure. This affair has been rocking the Czech political scene ever since, and included President Zeman’s relentless defense of the Chinese telecoms giant and Czech PM Andrej Babis publicly clashing with Beijing’s ambassador in Prague. And while every day brings a new development, Prague’s overall tough stance towards Huawei reflects a broader change of rhetoric in the Czech Republic when it comes to their dealings with China. Meanwhile, the sanctions against Huawei currently under discussion in Berlin and Brussels might also encourage Czech decision-makers to stick to an even tougher approach with the Chinese telecoms and electronics company, and with China as a whole.
You can also have a look at the previous articles of our series dedicated to Czech-Chinese ties: