After Miloš Zeman became President of the Czech Republic in January 2013, the bilateral relationship with China was promoted as a New Priority.
This turn in Czech Foreign Policy was executed first by the “Care-taking” Rusnok Government that had never obtained a vote of confidence from the Parliament, then by the coalition government led by the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD), sworn in in January 2014.
The Changes were quickly evident. Within just three years, the Czech Republic had bolstered its involvement in the emerging platform that would eventually be called “16+1”, comprising 16 Post-Communist Countries and China (now 17+1 with the addition of Greece).
It had subscribed to the Belt & Road Initiative, signing a Memorandum of Understanding with China on Xi’s Signature Foreign Policy Program. Finally, in April 2016, the Czech Republic had welcomed Xi Jinping in Prague, where a new strategic partnership with China was proclaimed.
All of these actions amounted to the Czech Republic’s rejection of its former human rights focus in foreign policy, and in a fervour of drawing closer to China, some of the country’s representatives even questioned its western alliances. And yet these changes were never written into the most authoritative government documents of the Czech Republic over this period.
They were not reflected in the “Policy Statement of the Government of the Czech Republic,” signed by coalition partners in January 2014, or in the “Policy Statement” of the next government signed in 2018.
Even in the medium-term policy planning document “Concept of the Czech Republic’s Foreign Policy,” adopted in 2015 when the turn in Czech-China relations was in full swing, China remained peripheral to the European Union and the transatlantic relationship.
The document envisions nothing more than “regular political dialogue with China, enabling it to foster cooperation in a number of areas, including the economy, the health sector, environmental protection, science and research, culture and human rights.”
If the official foreign policy documents adopted without much fanfare by the Czech Republic are set alongside the flashier public statements suggesting policy shifts that prioritize the China relationship, a strange contrast emerges.
There seem to be two faces of Czech Foreign Policy torn between East and West, between a more sober, EU-Oriented Policy on the one hand, and an almost theatrical adherence to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the other.
Such a discrepancy suggests that the new China policy of the Czech Republic resulted from the under-the-counter dealings of certain actors, including private business. This policy was accepted due to assumptions among the Czech political elite that economic exchange is value-free, forgetting the fact that China on a regular basis uses trade and investment as a tool to achieve its foreign policy, and even its broader geostrategic objectives.
As this article will discuss, on the Chinese side ideology and political goals, not the economy, were the primary objectives in strengthening relations with the Czech Republic.
On the Czech side, disappointment has brewed for several years over the fact that China has been slow in delivering on its promises, and this has more recently brought mild criticism from the Czech President.
For their part, however, Chinese officials can be content with the outcome of the strategic partnership.
They have succeeded in leveraging promises of economic opportunity to further legitimise China’s undemocratic political system, and they have brought the Czech Republic into the Network (including BRI) on which the Chinese Party-State intends to build the architecture of a new international order that Xi Jinping has envisaged as “the community of shared destiny for mankind.”
The Post-Communist Experience
The Velvet Revolution in November 1989 brought a rapid process of democratic and economic transformation in the Czech Republic (until 1993 Czechoslovakia). Human rights and democratic transition, the values on which the legitimacy of the New Country was founded, became also the hallmark of the country’s new foreign policy, best represented internationally by Václav Havel, the writer and former dissident who served as President from 1989 to 2003.
Czech representatives repeatedly criticised human rights abuses in China and expressed support for a democratic transition in Taiwan. The cause of human rights in Tibet was widely supported by Czech Civil Society, and Václav Havel was known to be a close friend of the Dalai Lama, who was present with Havel in Prague just a week before the Former President’s death in 2011.
In China, meanwhile, the Czech example of peaceful democratic transition resonated among liberal intellectuals, and in 2008 inspired the drafting of Charter 08, a manifesto demanding political reforms. Václav Havel was among those who in 2009 backed the successful nomination of Charter 08’s chief drafter, Liu Xiaobo, for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Under these circumstances, ties with China were not particularly warm. Nevertheless, regular diplomatic relations were maintained. Negotiations were ongoing over the improvement of the foreign trade imbalance caused by the unreciprocated openness of the Czech economy, and bilateral trade agreements were signed.
Czech exports to China modestly grew and there was some investment coming from China, but China remained a minor partner in terms of Czech international business relations.
After a Political scandal engulfed the coalition government in 2013, resulting in the resignation of Prime Minister Petr Nečas and his cabinet, there was a shift in Czech Foreign Policy.
The situation empowered the recently elected President, Miloš Zeman, who nominated an interim government under Prime Minister Jiří Rusnok that was more amenable to his political wishes.
After meeting in November 2013 with China’s deputy foreign minister, Song Tao, who at the time was in charge of the so-called China-CEEC Secretariat established for cooperation between China and the countries of Central and Eastern Europe (the previously mentioned 16+1) and later went on to head the CCP´s International Liaison Department, Rusnok issued the first public statement about the “restart” in Czech–Chinese relations. The “restart” has since become a cliché used ad nauseam to describe the new relations.
Zaorálek´s short and hastily arranged “working visit” in April 2014 yielded a statement from both foreign ministries declaring the intention of both countries to collaborate on bilateral exchanges, as well as at the United Nations.
Along with a general declaration of future broad collaboration and exchanges, and an agreement to “mutually respect each other’s paths of development,” the joint statement included multiple reassurances in line with Chinese interests, including that the Czech partner respects the “One China” policy, and pledges that “the Czech Republic does not support Tibetan independence in any form whatsoever.”
The document aroused criticism from the opposition in the Czech Parliament as well as media and civil society, with many viewing it as erratic and unnecessarily submissive.
Prime Minister Zaorálek later admitted that the unusual wording of the statement from the “working visit” was forced upon him by the Chinese Partners.
In the period after the Zaorálek visit, bilateral exchanges intensified through delegations from, but mainly to, China. These were presented in the Czech Republic as “economic diplomacy,” but the real economic results remained intangible.
Among top representatives of the Czech state, the most active Czech visitor to China was President Zeman. His first state visit to China came in October 2014, after which he made a return journey, quite contrary to diplomatic convention, on a private jet hired by the Czech Republic’s richest man, Petr Kellner, who has substantial business interests in China.
By April 2020, Zeman had visited China seven times, including a presence in 2015 as the only incumbent head of state from a Western country to attend the military parade in Beijing to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
“Now we are again an independent country and we form our foreign policy which is very based on our own interests. National interests. And we do not interfere in the internal affairs of any other country. And that is my explanation of ‘restart”
The “restart” of Czech Chinese relations culminated with Xi Jinping’s 2016 visit to Prague, during which he and Zeman signed the Memorandum on Strategic Partnership.
On that occasion, President Zeman proclaimed in a video clip posted to Facebook that the partnership with China had in effect liberated the Czech Republic from “the pressure from the United States and the European Union.”
In case anyone still wondered what Zeman meant by a “restart” with China, the President said: “Now we are again an independent country and we form our foreign policy which is very based on our own interests. National interests. And we do not interfere in the internal affairs of any other country. And that is my explanation of ‘restart.’”
Actors in the Shadows
This chronology of events, the absence of new China policy in basic strategic documents of two consecutive Czech governments, and the identity of the main players in the new Czech-China game, reveals that the change in Czech foreign policy was not the product of a transparent political discussion, but rather a result of behind-the-scenes bargaining.
There was evident collusion between certain Czech political leaders and private business interests, both Czech and Chinese, and this played into the hands of the Chinese Communist Party’s global strategy.
One of the most bizarre figures in this Foreign Policy change in the Czech Republic was Ye Jianming, the Chairman of CEFC China Energy, a nominally private Chinese company trading in oil which presented itself as serving the national interest and the Belt and Road Initiative.
Ye, a “secretive tycoon” who has since been detained by Chinese authorities in 2018 and faces as yet undisclosed charges, was named by President Zeman as a “Special Economic Adviser” in 2015. Ye and CEFC began drawing attention in the Czech Republic that year with an unprecedented buying spree in which the company snatched up a cluster of properties and businesses, including Slavia Praha (one of the country’s best football clubs with a history of over one hundred years), a brewery, several historic buildings in Prague, and a stake in the Central European Investment Group J&T.
Ye was a complete mystery. When he became Zeman´s adviser, little was known about him and his company even in China.
A year later he emerged as No. 229 on the Fortune Global 500, described as “a rare powerful private player aligned with the Chinese government.” Ye Jianming´s CEFC was active around the globe (Central Asia, Georgia, Israel, Portugal, Some Countries in Africa) always doing business through political contacts.
In 2018, three years after Ye’s appointment as an adviser, it turned out that CEFC was a fraud built on unsustainable liabilities. Things began unravelling when Ye Jianming´s close collaborator Patrick Ho, a former Hong Kong Home Affairs Secretary & Director of a CEFC-Financed NGO registered in Hong Kong, was arrested in New York and indicted on bribery in the UN and money laundering charges.
The Hong Kong NGO, the China Energy Fund Committee, which had managed to gain “Special Consultative Status” with the United Nations Economic & Social Council (ECOSOC), was found to have been directly involved in bribes paid to Ugandan Politician Sam Kutesa, at the time the Country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.
In March 2019, Ho was sentenced to three years in prison in the US for money laundering and for bribing politicians at the United Nations and in Africa.
The group collapsed and Ye Jianming disappeared, presumably within China’s shadowy shuanggui discipline inspection system, which works outside the country’s criminal justice system.
As CEFC crumbled, China stepped in, which put former Czech assets in the hands of the state. This included shares in Médea, the Czech Republic’s largest advertisement company, which were taken over by the Chinese State conglomerate CITIC.
By 2020 CITIC had managed to obtain a majority stake in Médea through a subsidiary called Rainbow Wisdom Investment. The Chinese government is now in a position to influence Czech media by controlling access to the advertising market.
Other important agents of the Czech policy change were former ČSSD politicians turned lobbyists. The most remarkable among these was Jaroslav Tvrdík, former Czech Minister of Defence, who was working for both Czech and Chinese private businesses.
Tvrdík advised Rusnok on China policy during his tenure as Prime Minister (2013-2014), and after him Prime Minister Sobotka (2014-2017), as well as President Zeman throughout this period, even though he did not have authorisation from the Foreign Ministry to represent the Country.
A Story on China’s on of Official English language News Portal ahead of Xi Jinping’s March 2016 trip to Prague quoted Tvrdík referring to the visit as a “Dream Moment.”
All of these figures were involved with another prominent actor in the “restart” drama, the “Mixed Czech China Mutual Cooperation Chamber,” an organisation close to the financial and investment group PPF run by the same Petr Kellner who hired the jet to return President Zeman to Prague after his first state visit in China in October 2014.
The Chamber, itself run by Mr. Tvrdík, who was originally hired in 2010 as a lobbyist for PPF, organised so-called Chinese Investment Forums (CIF) in Prague bringing together representatives of politics and business from both the Czech Republic and China.
In retrospect, PPF has been the only Czech company (albeit registered in the Netherlands) to truly profit from the political change toward China, as the group succeeded as the first international company in China to get a highly profitable countrywide licence for consumer loans.
United Front, Private Business
Despite the involvement of prominent private subjects in the shift in Czech-China policy, changes were not purely a matter of lobbyists holding Czech diplomacy hostage for the benefit of private interests.
There has been a sustained effort on the side of the Chinese Party-state over the past decade to influence Czech political elites through means referred to by the CCP as “United Front Work” (UFW), essentially the co-opting of “politically non-communist forces at home and abroad” through such tactics as the building up of a “friendship circle”.
Such tactics applied through the CCP International Liaison Department (ILD) in the Czech Republic and elsewhere have been described in official Chinese reports as a successful application of the ILD thought work, particularly with political parties.
The Mixed Chamber, rather than providing a regular chamber of commerce services and information for businesses, was involved in promoting Chinese policies and Chinese culture in the Czech Republic. Aside from organising the annual CIF, hosted by President Zeman at the Prague Castle, it helped to promote Chinese cultural events, such as celebrations for the Chinese New Year.
These activities, which happen in the spirit of “friendship,” correspond well to the Chinese language version of the Chamber’s name, literally the “Czech-China Friendship and Cooperation Association”, which implies a friendship association of the type managed by the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC).
Despite the frequent suggestion that the CPAFFC is “non-government” in nature, its association with United Front Work is well-documented.
In 2013, the Chinese Investment Forum was also included in the “Bucharest Guidelines for Cooperation” within China’s then 16+1 platform, and the International Liaison Department (ILD) of the CCP’s Central Committee has been a co-organiser of CIF since at least 2015.
Despite the stated focus on business and trade, senior Chinese figures invited to Prague as guests of honour for the CIF and other events related to the new “business diplomacy” have not generally occupied themselves with such matters.
The vast majority instead represent various organs of the CCP tasked with achieving Foreign Influence and gathering information. These include the United Front Work Department, the ILD (2013 guests included Song Tao, who has since become Director of the ILD), and the CPAFFC.
Since 2017 the Chamber has even been entrusted by the Czech Ministry of Industry and Commerce to represent the Czech Republic in the Chinese-Czech Center for Belt & Road Cooperation a platform to coordinate economic and other BRI Exchange between the PRC and the Czech Republic.
On the Chinese side, the operation of the centre is handled by the National Development and Reform Commission, the macroeconomic management agency of the Chinese government.
The result of this arrangement, which was only made public through a freedom of information request after its existence was revealed by the aforementioned project Sinopsis, is that Czech national interests are now represented in bilateral negotiations by private individuals whose roles partly overlap with private Chinese Companies.
Since CEFC’s demise, as CITIC Europe has taken over, former vice-chair of the CEFC Europe Board and at the same time, the President of the Mixed Chamber Jaroslav Tvrdík has become a member of the board of the state-owned CITIC Europe.
The CCP: Just Another Party?
In several recent Chinese publications on international relations and the shift in China policy in the Czech Republic, the radical changes in Czech-China policy have been presented as a case of the successful application of Xi Jinping´s so-called “major-country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics”, and particularly the concept of “party-to-party diplomacy”.
The new type of diplomacy, in which the organs of the CCP, foremost being the ILD, play a prominent role, is regarded as playing a special role in advancing Xi Jinping’s foreign policy notion of “building a community of common destiny for mankind”, tied up with promoting the reform of global governance and the construction of a new international order in which China has much greater “discursive power.”
This policy change in the Czech Republic has been cited in China as an example of successful application of these foreign policy concepts. Special credit is given to the ILD, which “through targeted communication and persistent contacts constantly emphasised that the efforts of CCP and Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) to move further the development of relations will secure and benefit the interests of both countries.”
The CCP and the ČSSD concluded an inter-party collaboration agreement in 2012, this coming before ČSSD rose to power. Thus Chinese sources have praised the foresight of this “new type diplomacy” as it has, in their understanding, enabled engagement with allies both within the standing government and among the opposition, meaning that Chinese interests are secured whatever the result of elections.
Party to party diplomacy is nothing new for the CCP. Originally part of the United Front strategy to ally with democratic parties within China to defeat the KMT, it has been developed since 1951 internationally through the “friendly contacts” of the CCP’s International Liaison Department (ILD) with like-minded Maoist parties all over the world.
As China’s reform and opening policy took root in the 1980s and China’s international position changed, the CCP abandoned its former “friendship circle” consisting exclusively of its ideological allies, and started instead to apply the United Front work principle internationally among major political parties and this soon included even right-wing and centrist political parties approached by the CCP.
Since the 1990s, the CCP has formalised relations with more than 400 political parties, left and right, all over the world. CCP international relations belong to the ILD, but in 1993, the ILD also set up a new “China Economic Cooperation Center” through which it has engaged both political parties and businesses internationally. The CECC has been involved in co-organizing the Chinese Investment Forums in Prague together with the Mixed Chamber, along with other Chinese partners.
Since the 1990s, the CCP has formalized relations with more than 400 political parties, left and right, all over the world.
According to Chinese sources, the CCP sought partnership with political parties in the West in order to influence foreign policy decisions in their respective countries for example, the breaking of sanctions against China in the wake of June 4, 1989. Another goal was to create a favourable environment for Chinese economic development, easing China’s path for entry into the World Trade Organisation, and so on.
The achievement of these tasks opened the way for what Chinese commentators have called a “second stage” of CCP international relations, which involved representatives from the International Liaison Department penetrating other nominally government exchanges. In this process, gradually institutionalised links to political parties abroad enabled China to negotiate all kinds of issues, both bilateral and global.
The success of this approach eventually encouraged the CCP to integrate party-to-party exchange into regular diplomacy and it has become an organic part of China’s international relations.
These earlier practices, regarded as great successes, were re-conceptualised by Xi Jinping, who made them part of his Belt & Road Initiative. In 2017, on the occasion of the so-called “CCP in Dialogue with World Political Parties High-Level Meeting ” Xi Jinping presented the concept of party-to-party diplomacy to delegates from more than 120 countries.
Inter-party consultations are understood by Chinese authors on international relations as having a positive role in generating support for “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” the general phrase used to describe the CCP’s set of political theories and policies presented to the world as a new governance model and an alternative to liberal democracy.
They can, according to a most recent article by Dan Hudong and Wang Wenyu, two scholars writing for the official journal of the CCP’s Party School in the city of Xiamen, “deepen understanding, and endorse the thought and ideas of our Party.” And they can enable the CCP to “actively and efficiently participate in global governance.”
Inter-party consultations can, in other words, assist China in obliterating the essential difference between democratic parties worldwide and the CCP, which becomes in this context just another “party in power”.
In official statements in the Czech Republic about party-to-party engagement, links to the CCP are elided, as this would certainly be unpopular with many Czech voters due to the party-state past in Czechoslovak history. The CCP-ČSSD party agreement was not made public even to all ČSSD party members for this same reason.
And in the same spirit of concealment, Chinese official visitors to the Czech Republic are generally presented publicly with reference to their state-level rather than party-level positions. It is difficult to know whether such negligence on the Czech side is the result of ignorance about the hierarchies of the power structures in China, or whether this is conscious suppression of information to avoid controversy.
The suppression of information about a high-ranking CCP visit can be confirmed without any doubt in at least one case. In the summer of 2017, Liu Yunshan, then a member of the CCP Politburo Standing Committee and in charge of propaganda and ideology, visited the Czech Republic after attending the “2nd Dialogue of Political Parties between China and Central and Eastern European Countries,” held in Bucharest.
According to Chinese sources, this was “an official visit upon the invitation of Jan Hamáček, vice chairman of the ČSSD, and Speaker of the Parliament.” Despite the very senior position of Liu Yunshan within the Chinese leadership, his visit was under reported in Czech media and Jan Hamáček attempted to disguise it from the public.
He even took the step of not having the visit registered in his on-line calendar of activities in Parliament. Nor did he include the visit on his regular calendar as ČSSD vice-chair.
The asymmetries and concealments, in fact, reveal a great deal about the Czech-Chinese relationship in general. While Chinese official reports present Mr Tvrdík and the Chamber as officially representing the Czech Republic in bilateral negotiations, from the point of view of Czech policymakers they are private subjects and the Czech side tries to avoid mentioning them.
In Czech discourse, likewise, the “restart” of the Czech-Chinese relationship is characterised as purely a strategy of “economic diplomacy” language that differs appreciably from the Chinese preoccupation with “strengthening traditional friendship, deepening political trust, building a good political and public opinion basis for the overall development of bilateral relations,” as well as “coordination and collaboration in global and regional matters.”
The Czech-Chinese strategic partnership tempered by formalised party-to-party collaboration, and the hyper-submissive position of the Czech government in matters of Chinese “core interests,” did not, in the end, bring any benefit whatsoever for the Czech economy. Moreover, they demonstrated remarkable blindness to the much more profitable economic collaboration between the Czech Republic and Taiwan.
According to Czech economist Lukas Kovanda, Taiwan´s direct investment in manufacturing in the Czech Republic as of March 2019 was 14 times greater than China’s.
The most persistent outcome of the newly coined friendship seems to be the growing assertiveness of the Chinese embassy in Prague. Unrelenting pressure from the embassy demanding explicit support of the “One China” policy has become a leitmotif in the new strategic partnership.
This began in 2016 as a visit by the Dalai Lama to Prague during the Forum 2000 conference, founded in 1996 by Václav Havel as a platform to “come together somewhere in calm discussion,” prompted fierce recriminations from the Chinese government. Under pressure from the Chinese ambassador, a hasty statement was prepared overnight and signed by President Zeman, Prime Minister Sobotka, and the chairs of both chambers of the Czech Parliament (all three from ČSSD).
The statement met with broad criticism in the Czech Republic as a case of shameful servility, and the Chairman of the Supreme Court called it an unprecedented document, adopted “in a manner adequate for only the most critical moments in the life of a nation, such as war.”
Harsh denunciations have followed in many other instances. After the Czech National Cyber and Information Security Agency (NCISA), the country’s cyber watchdog issued a warning about the risks of using network technology provided by Chinese suppliers Huawei and ZTE, the Chinese ambassador not only protested but took the extra step of brazenly manipulating a statement by the Czech prime minister, incorrectly quoting him in a notice on the Chinese embassy website as saying that the NCISA had “made a mistake and the Czech government would correct it.”
Even after the Czech Prime Minister demanded the statement’s removal it widely circulated in China and remained on the embassy website.
Chinese embassy pressure also came swiftly after the new city government in Prague decided in 2019 to remove from the sister city arrangement with Beijing a controversial article included in the original partnership agreement stating that “Taiwan is an inalienable part of Chinese territory.”
The agreement had been signed by the previous mayor shortly before Xi Jinping´s 2016 visit, and already at that time met with opposition in the city council. In response, the Beijing government cancelled the whole agreement. In retaliation for the Prague city decision, of which the crowning insult was Prague’s establishment of sister city ties with Taipei, China cancelled the planned tour dates of several Czech musical performance groups that had some link to Prague.
Taiwan became the centre of another controversy in January 2020 when the Chinese embassy sent a letter to the Czech President’s office written in undiplomatic language threatening retaliation against Czech companies operating in the PRC they “will have to pay,” said the letter, if the President of the Czech Senate, Jaroslav Kubera (Civic Democratic Party), went ahead with a planned visit to Taiwan as a head of the business delegation. Adding to the drama, Mr Kubera died of heart failure shortly after he was informed about the letter to him, on the eve of his trip to Taiwan.
According to statements made by Kubera’s widow and daughter, he was under extreme pressure from the Chinese embassy in Prague at the time of his death. Most recently, the Chinese ambassador in Prague protested yet again over the affirmation of the “One China” policy after agreements were concluded in Prague with Taiwanese donors and research institutions to work together in efforts against the coronavirus epidemic.
How can the two faces of Czech foreign policy toward China be explained? One might suggest, given that core Czech foreign policy documents remain firmly oriented toward the EU and the transatlantic alliance, that the apparent U-turn in Czech China policy is simply a manoeuvre done for the sake of business whatever the splashy rapprochement with China may seem to indicate.
As such, according to this argument, the shift might not constitute a challenge to the Czech commitment to liberal democracy and the EU. Likewise, one might dismiss the Chinese perception of the events, conditioned by domestic ideology, as simply an irrelevant piece of empty propaganda.
However, all of these would be short-sighted judgements missing the point behind the new forms of Chinese diplomacy, which have already been ably described by scholars researching China’s United Front Work. Xi Jinping´s thought on “new era major-country diplomacy with Chinese characteristic” is all-inclusive and accommodates party representatives across the political spectrum and national divisions – as is the case, for example, with the European Parliamentary China Friendship Cluster.
The Czech case reveals how CCP’s “new era” diplomacy conducted through opaque practices and proxies with questionable backgrounds can, in fact, be successful in gradually channelling decision-making on bilateral and multilateral issues into new mechanisms and institutions outside existing conventions and regular international rules.
The end result is to undermine these rules and conventions and appropriate them in a manner that converges western institutions with China’s non-transparent authoritarian political system.
Nearly 20 years ago, the EU–China dialogue was established in the hope that closer engagement would benefit greater democracy, openness and transparency in China, transforming it into a country “more likely to be a reliable partner for the EU on a range of issues of mutual concern.” Up to now, however, China has successfully avoided compromise on most wishful demands from the EU, including the opening of its market and respect for human rights.
It now has its own proposition, which involves the institutionalising of its own mechanisms for European engagement to promote a Chinese vision of the future for the rest of the world, one in which China will define the norms and the agendas, and as the Czech case demonstrates, will not shy away from corruptive practices.