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International relations

China influence aggravates Czech Republic's political war

Prague metro government drops its Beijing 'sister' ties as investment hopes fade

People reenact a protest march to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution in Prague on Nov. 17, when some protesters flew the Tibetan flag and harangued the political elite's close ties to Beijing.   © Reuters

PRAGUE -- China relations have deepened a political divide in the Czech Republic, where Prague's Charles University, one of Europe's oldest, earlier this month was forced to close its Czech-Chinese Center after staff members failed to disclose payments from the Chinese embassy.

The incident followed a series of political spats among parties in the central European nation.

Also in October, Prague Mayor Zdenek Hrib of the fledgling Pirate Party ended the capital's sister-city relationship with Beijing after the Chinese government refused to remove from the agreement a pledge to respect the "One China" policy, which affirms China's sovereignty over Taiwan. Hrib then offered sister-city status to Taipei.

The jockeying forced the Czech government to issue a statement saying the decision came from city leaders, not national politicians.

At this year's European parliamentary elections, the Pirates, who have taken the continent's strongest political stance against China, won 13.9% of the popular vote, the third highest of any party.

When Petr Pavel, a former Chairman of the NATO Military Committee, announced his possible candidacy for president in early November, he said his running would be to prevent the geopolitical shift toward Russia and China.

"China is a convenient and potent symbol because its economic role in the country is limited and it is highly mysterious," said Richard Q. Turcsany, a program director at the Central European Institute of Asian Studies at Palacky University Olomouc. Since Beijing is not a major economic partner, it is easy for some politicians to "argue for the prominence of human rights as they don't see any potential punishment coming."

Yet China does possess financial might, and "so many people can fall for the promise of economic benefits," Turcsany added.

On Nov. 16, as Czechs celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, which brought down communism in 1989, an estimated 300,000 protesters gathered in central Prague to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Andrej Babis, a billionaire populist accused of fraud, as well as of President Milos Zeman, who earlier this decade said the Czech Republic would become the "gateway" for Chinese investment into central Europe.

Some of the protesters flew the Tibetan flag and harangued the political elite's close ties to Beijing. The Czech political and business elite's coziness with China is seen by many as a symptom of the country's endemic corruption and recent turn from democratic norms.

China-stoked tensions are turning into "one of the major fault-lines in Czech politics," Turcsany said. Beijing's promises of vast investments in the Czech Republic have failed to materialize, and a yearlong dispute has ensued between the mayor of Prague and the Chinese government. The mayor has vocally supported Tibetan and Uighur rights, and publicly rebuked the Chinese Communist Party's human rights abuses. Beijing has responded by banning visits by organizations connected with Prague, like the country's philharmonic orchestra.

There is more to President Zeman's "gateway" comment. Chinese investment, he went on, would turn the country into "an unsinkable aircraft carrier of Chinese investment expansion."

But those words also came as something of a reversal and showed just how fraught the Czech Republic's relationship with China is. In 1996, Zeman said politicians wanting better relations with Beijing should be "ready to go under plastic surgery to slant their eyes."

More recently, Chinese tycoon Ye Jianming became the face of Chinese influence as his CEFC China Energy invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the republic, employed former government officials and bought a majority stake in one of the country's best soccer teams, Slavia Prague. Ye was even made a special adviser to Zeman.

"The CPP has been very active in co-opting not only politicians from several parties, but also business and academic elites," said Filip Jirous, a Chinese relations analyst at Prague-based think tank Sinopsis.

But optimism has faded. Ye was arrested in Beijing in 2018 for allegedly accepting bribes. And as of the end of last year, China's investments in the Czech Republic amounted to $960 million, half the sum it has put in Poland and a fifth of what it has poured into Hungary, according to the Heritage Foundation's China Global Investment Tracker.

In April, Zeman said the investment amount is "a stain on Czech-Chinese cooperation."

Now, political debate "seems to be returning to where it began after 1989 -- to seeing China as a morally bad, authoritarian, dangerous actor whose policies and initiatives need to be opposed, rather than welcomed," stated a report by the Association for International Affairs, a Prague-based NGO, published in March. The report also says that only 6% of Czech journalists working in the public sphere and 7% at private-sector news organizations hold positive views of China.

Naturally, the politics of Chinese relations has spilled out into Czech society. A recent survey by Pew Research found 27% of Czechs harbored favorable views of China, the second-lowest in Europe. Analysts say the China question has become shorthand for how Czechs express their political and social opinions: liberal vs. conservative, democratic vs. authoritarian, elites vs. the masses.

Said Jirous of the Sinopsis think tank, "While the CCP's propaganda and its local allies consistently refer to critical scrutiny of the People's Republic as 'anti-Chinese,' the expressions of support for Chinese dissent, Tibet, Hong Kong and other oppressed peoples are deeply rooted in the Czech fight for democracy."

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