The Czech Republic’s richest man is at the centre of a suspected Foreign Influence Campaign by the Chinese Government after One of his Businesses Financed an attempt to boost China’s image in the Central European Country.

In a development that has taken even seasoned Sinologists aback, Home Credit, a domestic loans company owned by Petr Kellner that has lent an estimated US$13.1 billion to Chinese consumers, paid a PR firm to place articles in the local media giving a more positive picture of a country widely associated with political repression and human rights abuses.

Home Credit also funded a newly formed think tank, headed by a translator for the Czech Republic’s Pro-Chinese President Milos Zeman to counteract the more sceptical line taken by a longer-established China-watching body, Sinopsis, linked with Prague’s Charles University, one of Europe’s oldest seats of learning.

Experts have said the moves have the hallmarks of a foreign influence campaign by China that highlights its aggressive attempts to gain access to former communist central and eastern European countries through its ambitious “Belt & Road Initiative”, under which it offers to fund infrastructure projects in those States.

According to analysts, the Czech Republic has been more open to Chinese influence than most other European countries, a situation that has coincided with the burgeoning commercial relationship between China and Kellner’s sprawling PPF group, which boasts an estimated US$52.35 billion in assets, including Home Credit.

PPF began accumulating its vast wealth in the mass privatisation of state assets that followed the fall of communism in the former Czechoslovakia in 1989.

Currying Favour

Critics have accused Home Credit of currying favour with the Chinese regime in an effort to protect its interests after a series of political disputes between China and the Czechs that cooled previously warm bilateral relations.

Home Credit has acknowledged paying the PR firm, C&B Reputation Management, and backing Sinoskop to try to bring “greater balance” to debate about China.

Martin Hala, a lecturer at Charles University’s Sinology department and director of Sinopsis, said: “The bottom line is that Home Credit hired this company not to defend their own corporate interests per se, but rather to promote the narrative coming from the People’s Republic of China [PRC] and the Chinese Communist Party.”

“The first goal is to normalise China, presenting it not as a dictatorship, but as a country, like any other, that is opening up to reforms. I don’t think that’s an accurate picture,” Hala said.

The revelations coincided with a warning by the Czech intelligence service, BIS, that Chinese influence campaigns pose a greater threat to national security than alleged meddling by the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“The BIS considers primarily the increase in the activities of Chinese intelligence officers as the fundamental security problem,” the report said. “These activities can be clearly assessed as searching for and contacting potential cooperators and agents among Czech citizens.”

Czech ties with Beijing grew closer after 2014, when the regime granted Home Credit a nationwide license to offer domestic loans, the first foreign company to be given the right.

Experts said this would only have happened on the understanding that Home Credit would work to ensure favourable coverage of China in the Czech Media and Political Discourse.