In the eyes of many Czechs, as Chinese investment has increased, so has corruption. The new pro-China direction has sparked a backlash from Czech opposition, as well as large sections of Czech society.


London: The Czech Republic doesn’t figure highly in most people’s consciousness; but then why should it? After all, it’s only a tiny, hilly Central European country with a population less than Delhi. But something really interesting is going on there, which should be of concern to Beijing.

To understand why and what is happening, a little history is necessary. So bear with me.

Czechoslovakia came into existence only after the First World War, following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The country was the only democracy in Central Europe in the inter-war period, during which its population enjoyed freedom until Nazi Germany took control in 1938. It then disappeared, becoming the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, before reappearing again in 1945 with the arrival of Soviet and American troops. In the immediate post-war period, the population favoured the Communist Party, largely because of their revulsion of the Nazis, and the communists duly gained 38% of the vote in the 1946 elections. The inevitable then happened, carefully contrived by Joseph Stalin: a coup d’état. For the next 41 years, Czechoslovakia was a communist state, controlled by Moscow and part of the Soviet Empire, before returning to a liberal democracy after the fall of the Soviet Union. Finally, because of the different Czech and Slovak nationalist aspirations, in 1993 Czechoslovakia peacefully split into two independent countries: the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The famed anti-communist dissident, Vaclav Havel, became the Czech Republic’s first President and returned the country to liberalism and democracy after more than 50 years of Nazi and Communist domination. His foreign policy looked to the West, a symbolic “return to Europe”. Under Havel, the Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999 and the EU five years later, playing a key role in the subsequent eastward expansion of the bloc. Significantly, with a foreign policy rooted in liberal values, he never formally met a senior Chinese official, instead forming a close relationship with the Dalai Lama.

This values-led foreign policy continued under Havel’s successor, Vaclav Klaus, but was upended in 2013 when Milos Zeman was elected President and began forming closer ties with Russia and China. Zeman defended Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, and the following year he announced that the Czech Republic would be “China’s gateway into Europe”. He even mocked Havel’s foreign policy as “dalailamism”, calling it “just a trend”. Zeman proposed developing a strong relationship with China which he claimed “should not be restricted just because of human rights issues”!

In 2017, President Zeman named the Chinese tycoon Ye Jianming as a personal advisor. Ye’s firm, CEFC China Energy, had recently embarked on a spending spree in the country, which included the purchase of the historic football team, Slavia Prague. Fans appreciated the money Ye poured into the club, but knowing that their beloved team was in hawk to the Chinese, the purchase incited more hatred than gratitude. There was little sorrow or grief when Jianming, who sat atop a business empire worth more than $44bn and was known as a “Belt and Road” billionaire, suddenly disappeared in 2018. He is now believed to be sitting in a Chinese jail on corruption charges.

For many Czechs, closer relations with Beijing symbolise the Czech Republic’s drift away from democracy and liberalism at home, values which are in the DNA of older residents, values which were crushed during the Nazi and Soviet years of occupation. The largest street demonstrations since 1989 took place last year, chiefly against what demonstrators saw as Zeman’s autocratic instincts, his illiberal rhetoric and support of China. Just as many Czechs during the Cold War mythologised their First Republic as a democratic and progressive golden age, many today mythologise the post-communist 1990s, symbolised by Havel, for the same reason.

Few Czech politicians personify the country’s problems with corruption and links with China more than Prime Minister Andrej Babis, one of the country’s richest men. Ironically, he led his populist party to victory in the last general election, in 2017, by campaigning on an anti-corruption platform while under investigation by the EU for misusing subsidies for his private businesses, accusations which he denies. Babis, a strong supporter of China, has also been dogged by reports that he worked as an agent for the Czechoslovakian secret police during the Soviet period.

Anti-Beijing sentiment is high among Czechs, who hold the fourth-worst opinion of China (57% against, 27% for) among Europeans, according to a Pew Research Centre survey conducted last year (India recorded 46% against and 23% for). In the eyes of many Czechs, as Chinese investment has increased, so has corruption. The new pro-China direction has sparked a backlash from Czech opposition parties, as well as large sections of Czech society who are demanding a return to Havel’s values-based foreign policy. The mayor of the capital city, Prague, Zdenek Hrib has led the charge. Last year he ended Prague’s “sister-city” relationship with Beijing and agreed a new one with Taipei. Cutting off Beijing and linking Prague with the capital of Taiwan did little to improve Hrib’s relationship with Xi Jingping. Twisting the knife, Hrib even flew the Tibetan flag over Prague’s City Hall last year to mark the anniversary of a failed Tibetan uprising. On cue, during his visit last month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo commended Hrib saying that he has “continued President Havel’s good work in supporting Tibet”.

Although Chinese foreign direct investment in the Czech Republic is modest by comparison with the rest of the EU, with a cumulative value of about 1bn euros between 2000 and 2019, the growing anti-Chinese sentiment will be of concern to Beijing. In other countries, such as Italy and Greece, which have been seduced by vast amounts of Chinese cash, murmurings against a “Chinese takeover” are more discreet. However, after years of courting closer economic ties with China, the EU appears to be ratcheting up its rhetoric against Beijing’s heavy-handed approach to the economy and human rights, with many officials describing what they once saw hopefully as a partnership now more as a rivalry. Relations between Europe and China became frosty in June after a long-delayed leaders’ summit ended with no joint communiqué. For years, much as the US did in the past, the EU has sought to nudge China to make reforms in how it trades and does business, but has been met with deaf ears. Now, EU officials openly talk of China as a rival, which has to make changes or face restrictions from Beijing’s biggest trading partner.

There’s an old English saying, “from little acorns, oak trees grow”. Could the Czech Republic’s anti-Chinese “acorn” grow into a European “oak tree”? After all, as Pompeo said in Prague last month “China’s world dominance is not inevitable. We are the authors of our own fate.”

John Dobson is a former British diplomat and worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.