The Czech Communist Party’s brazen siding with China worries parts of the political establishment and the security services, especially given it provides support to the minority government in return for influence on policy.
Facing a panel of stern officials backed by red flags in a cavernous chamber, a pudgy grey-haired man peers out from a screen, keen to assure them of his loyalty. “The vast majority of Czech people actively support the strengthening of friendship and cooperation with China,” Vojtech Filip pledges.
All involved know that this statement proffered by the chairman of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM) is false. But the important point seems to be for Filip to demonstrate his own fealty to Song Tao and his team at the International Department Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.
The deference shown to the Chinese officials by the party leader of the Czech Communists during a video conference last September is shocking. As Song Tao highlights Beijing’s fury over the high-profile trip to Taiwan taken by Milos Vystrcil, president of the Czech Senate, the previous month, Filip speaks of an act undertaken by a few political black sheep, which was out of step with the mood of the country.
In fact, although many top Czech politicians and government officials, including President Milos Zeman and Prime Minister Andrej Babis, condemned the delegation to Taiwan and its clearly provocative intent, the trip drew widespread praise from the rest of the country, as well as abroad. China’s clumsy threat that Czechia would “pay a high price” for the trip only provoked public fury.
This was not surprising. Despite a recent campaign by Beijing to procure influence in Prague’s political circles, Czech public opinion regarding China is among the lowest in Europe.
But the Chinese officials were not ready to give up the hunt. The Senate leader, the third highest constitutional official in the country, must be isolated, they told Filip during the video conference. “We hope that the mainstream in the Czech Republic will draw a clear dividing line with Vystrcil and others, adhere to the ‘One-China’ principle, and take concrete actions to safeguard the overall development of China-Czech relations,” Song Tao intoned.
President Zeman, the Chinese official noted, had already acted. The head of state, who has spent his time since taking office in 2013 promoting Chinese interests, announced while the delegation was still in Taiwan that he would no longer admit Vystrcil to top-level meetings.
The business of ideology
If Filip’s performance had been given by the head of KSCM at almost any other time in the past 30 years, it wouldn’t matter much. The party has spent the bulk of the time since the fall of communism ostracised by the rest of the political spectrum and far from the levers of power.
But since 2017, the party has had an official role in shaping government policy. Under an agreement with Prime Minister Babis’s minority coalition government, brokered by the China-toadying Zeman, KSCM provides support in parliament in return for influence on policy.
Given KSCM’s links to the Chinese Communist Party, that would appear to be a clear security risk for the small NATO and EU state. For instance, the Czech party in December exploited the fiscal pressure from the pandemic to get the government to trim defence spending, which given the current funding debate within the alliance threatens to challenge its unity.
It was this sort of policy pressure that Wess Mitchell, vice chair at the Center for European Policy Analysis and until last year Washington’s point man for Central and Eastern Europe, was thinking of when he reported: “We hear from various capitals that China is now actively undermining NATO cohesion in critical ways.”
Other policies that KSCM pursues apply even more directly to Chinese interests, often in the face of stiff resistance from the Czech security services. “We see no reason not to develop mutually balanced relations with China,” Jaroslav Roman, head of International relations at KSCM, told BIRN, asserting that “the record of the current government in this regard is contradictory.”
Babis’s policy mistakes, Roman lists, include a decision to block Huawei from participation in Czechia’s 5G rollout, and the ongoing government debate over whether to block Chinese and Russian bids in the upcoming tender to build a new unit at the Dukovany nuclear power plant.
Although widely pilloried for inviting KSCM closer to the centre of power, the billionaire prime minister works to keep it in check and has fended off many demands, notes Jiri Pehe, a political analyst and director of New York University in Prague.
Zeman and the groups around him prefer to conduct bilateral and direct business. This is why they prefer to do business with the likes of China, for whom transparency is not important.
– Vladimira Dvorakova, director of the Masaryk Institute of Advanced Studies at the Czech Technical University
In this resistance, the prime minister has been encouraged by the Security Information Service (BIS). Alongside increasingly urgent warnings regarding the efforts of Chinese intelligence to win influence over Czech political structures, BIS and the country’s other security services are lobbying hard to block China and Russia from these contracts.
This has infuriated Zeman, because these are exactly the sort of deals that form the basis of his relations to the east, argues Vladimira Dvorakova, director of the Masaryk Institute of Advanced Studies at the Czech Technical University.
“Zeman and the groups around him prefer to conduct bilateral and direct business,” Dvorakova told BIRN. “This is why they prefer to do business with the likes of China, for whom transparency is not important.”
However, for KSCM, its links to the Chinese Communist Party also appear to have a genuine ideological base. Officials from both parties use language that suggests they assume a realpolitik that limits Czechia’s sovereignty when dealing with a world power, points out Martin Hala of the Sinopsis think tank.
Hala relates how Filip stated on Czech TV, as he spoke about the trip to Taiwan, “that the Czech Republic, as a small country with a population of ten million, could not afford ‘similar adventurisms’.”
“This is an interesting variation on [former Soviet leader Leonid] Brezhnev’s doctrine of limited sovereignty – the formative political experience of the Czech communists of Filip’s generation,” Hala said.
According to Roman, “The achievements of China in building the economy, removing poverty and building a just society are worthwhile to study.”
Casting a wider net
However, it’s not only Czechia’s unreformed communists that are a concern. As BIS has pointed out, Song Tao’s committee also cultivates active contacts with the Social Democrats (CSSD), the junior partner in Babis’s governing coalition.
The party currently controls the Interior and Foreign Ministries, amongst others. As a former CSSD party chief, Zeman has helped cultivate those ties by inviting Chinese investors into the country and encouraging Chinese political influence in diplomatic affairs.
“The links between the Chinese Communist Party and CSSD are more worrying, and one of the main avenues through which Chinese influence reaches Czech power,” said Pehe, who was formerly an advisor to the country’s first president, Vaclav Havel, during which he strongly supported Taiwan and Tibet, and helped instil an instinct of suspicion towards Beijing in Czech society that endures today.
Lacking KSCM’s ideological motivations, CSSD’s Chinese contacts are suspected to be almost solely driven by financial concerns.
Many former party officials, including former prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka and former EU commissioner Stefan Fule, are now working with or for Chinese companies. Jaroslav Tvrdik, a former defence minister, now works for Chinese state fund Citic – a post he accessed via his continued role as an advisor to Zeman.
The hand of Petr Kellner, Czechia’s richest man, is also often seen at work in helping oil the wheels connecting China with Czech power. The oligarch’s PPF Group has recently become dependent on Home Credit in China, its consumer lending business, for a large chunk of its revenue. Tvrdik reportedly helped in 2010 to secure from Beijing the licence that Home Credit needs to operate in the country.
Researchers at ChinfluenCE, an international project mapping Chinese political and economic influence in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, suggest that under the Sobotka-led government that governed from 2014 to 2017 – which featured Babis’s ANO as a junior partner – Czech foreign policy “deviated from its previous course” that had been somewhat cool towards China. CSSD’s links with the Chinese Communist Party are now “personally guaranteed” by party leader, Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Jan Hamacek, they add.
Yet the economic approach means that the Chinese Communist Party can cross the ideological divide to also make friends on the right of the political spectrum. Questions have risen recently about the activities of Jan Zahradil, a veteran of the conservative Civic Democrats (ODS) who leads the Brussels-based EU-China Friendship Association. He is also vice chair of the European Parliament’s powerful International Trade Committee.
Critics in Brussels call the group and its Czech leader a threat to EU interests that pushes Beijing’s agenda. Zahradil denies any wrongdoing and says the accusations against him are pure speculation.
That cuts little ice with some. “For Zahradil the reason for his Chinese ties is economic,” said Pehe. “Although rhetorically anti-communist, members of ODS have shown themselves in the past to be quite opportunist. Corruption is how the Chinese operate. They’ve bought whole governments in Africa; they work the same way here.”