China Hopes Its Dream Will Come True in Czechia
The Czech Republic as an economic and political lightweight is valuable to the PRC largely as a gateway for future activities in the EU. At the moment, the gateway is being opened by the servile Czech political representation and their business partners hoping for deals with Chinese enterprises connected within the authoritarian party-state.
On Easter Monday of March 28 of this year, the Czechs could watch live on national TV the President of the People’s Republic of China disembarking on Prague airport and starting the historically first visit by a Chinese head of state. The bizarre coverage on a religious holiday – of a visit by the head of a communist dictatorship where religious freedoms are repressed and which does not have diplomatic relations with the Vatican was an apt visual shorthand for a thaw in Czech-China ties pushed through by the Czech President Miloš Zeman and sympathetic political and economic elites. While Czech domestic debate has concentrated on whether or not the country should be friends with the regime, it largely missed the motives behind China’s interest in Czechia.
China’s diplomatic efforts in Czechia and in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) are a part of a recent shift in diplomacy and international strategy. Since its founding in 1949, the People’s Republic of China saw itself as a thirdworld developing country concerned mostly with relations with the two superpowers. In the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping specifically urged reforming China to “hide capacity and await the time” [taoguang yanghui]. China kept its low international profile throughout Jiang Zemin’s period (1989–2002) when the country gradually became an increasingly stronger player in the global economy. The low key was also embodied in the concept of “China’s peaceful development” [Zhongguo heping jueqi] during the Hu Jintao era (2002–2012) , which sought to persuade the world that China’s rise did not pose a threat.
China’s modesty is now over. With Xi Jinping heading the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the entire party-state apparatus since 2012, the regime has been pursuing a much more self-confident international strategy. China now perceives itself as a “major developing country” [guangda fazhanzhong guojia] and pursues “diplomacy of a power” [daguo waijiao], seeking to establish its position in the global order and to increase its ability to project its influence abroad. Through “peripheral diplomacy” [zhoubian waijiao] and initiatives such as the One Belt One Road (OBOR), China aims to forge a “community of common destiny” [mingyun gongtongti], a sphere of influence instrumental to China’s strategic interests. Besides trade, finance, investment, energy security, and infrastructure building, China also strives to improve its international image and to create a favorable international opinion on its domestic politics and “core interests” [hexin liyi], e.g. claims in the South China Sea dispute or annexation of Taiwan to the PRC.
The PRC´s interest in Czechia and other CEE countries should therefore be firstly seen as a part of the new, more ambitious international strategy. After decades of absence in the CEE, China initiated the 16 + 1 platform of cooperation with the CEE countries in 2012. Sino-Czech economic cooperation remains meagre with Chinese investment at mere 3 percent of total investments in Czechia in 2015. The greatest asset for China, is Czechia’s central geographical position in the Eurasian landmass and membership in the European Union (EU), which make the country apt to serve as China’s bridgehead for forwarding its strategic interests in Europe. This explains Beijing’s signing of a strategic partnership agreement with Prague during Xi’s visit and Chinese interest in Czechia’s strategic sectors – banking, telecommunications, airlines, aviation industry, and media. For instance, according to several memoranda of understanding between Czech and Chinese institutions, the branches of Chinese banks to be established in Prague would enable easier financing of Chinese activities both in Czechia and in the EU. Similarly, newly established direct flights or easing Czech visa procedures for Chinese nationals would enable them to travel more freely within the Schengen zone.
China’s simultaneous interest in a wide portfolio of Czech segments stems from the inherent characteristic of the PRC’s political system, where major economic subjects are coopted by the party-state. The CPC manages to maintain total or majority ownership in strategic enterprises, as well as supervision over significant non-state players. The Party thus has various means to pressure the economic subjects to act the way the Party wants. The companies in exchange receive necessary political backing of their business and access to tangible benefits, such as cheap loans or state deals. The close alignment of politics and business means that in China it is often impossible to clearly distinguish whether an enterprise is acting as a state or non-state subject. Even the expression “privately owned” is often avoided in Chinese, the politically correct term in communist newspeak being rather “people-owned enterprise” [minying qiye].
The symbiosis often extends to foreign policy, in which the coopted enterprises pursue their business interests while being at the same time instrumental to the CPC’s international strategy. The model example is CEFC China, allegedly privately owned, but in fact non-transparent entity close to China’s military, whose business is in finance, oil, gas operations, and also industrial processing, for instance in storing or purchasing oil abroad and selling it to Chinese state enterprises licensed to operate on domestic market. The company vows to help implementing the CPC’s policies and initiatives, including the OBOR. In Czechia, the CEFC China is so far the most active Chinese subject, using Prague as its European headquarters to construct storage and logistics facilities to bring oil to China from Europe and the Middle East.
Czechia’s participation in the 16 + 1 initiative and its enthusiastic response to seemingly purely economic deals with Chinese enterprises thus concord with Beijing’s international strategy and diplomatic interests. Official media have therefore called Czechia a “sample room” [yangban fang] of 16 + 1 cooperation, an exemplary case of willingness to take part in China’s initiatives with potential to become a “dream-building space” [zhumeng kongjian] within CEE, with the OBOR posed to connect the “China Dream” [Zhongguo meng] with the “Czechia Dream” [Jieke meng]. Indeed, for China’s officials it is easier to build bilateral ties and to promote regional platforms in post-communist countries than to deal with EU institutions and developed democracies.
Chinese media’s references to Czech and Chinese dreams convey that China’s diplomatic efforts in general are strongly driven also by legitimization efforts of the CPC. With nationalism and economic growth replacing Marxism as the key ideational pillars of the CPC-engineered social and political order, in the new millennium the Party has to increasingly deliver to domestic demand of China’s international prestige. These aspirations are well embodied in the idea the “China dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” [Zhonghua minzu weida fuxing de Zhongguo meng], a long-term objective formulated by Xi Jinping shortly after his assumption of power at the top of the party-state apparatus in November 2012. Rather than to hopes of China’s citizens, the concept refers to the aspirations of the CPC to make China a major and prosperous global power with the Party managing all walks of life in China.
The CPC’s international strategy therefore has a nationalistic overtone as the Party vows to rectify the alleged anti-China bias of the West and to forge an alternative world order with China becoming a global power and a regional hegemon. Czechia and other countries’ willingness to take part in the OBOR and other visions are thus easy to be domestically presented by Party-managed media to Chinese subjectizens as an international recognition of the CPC’s policies. This in turn increases domestic support of the CPC rule. Preserving the power monopoly has been the top priority for the CPC since 1949, and since Xi Jinping’s ascent to power in 2012 the Party has cracked down in an unprecedented manner on dissidents, minorities, lawyers, activists, and other proponents of civil society. This signals the CPC’s growing concern about its “political security” [zhengzhi anquan], and reveals that while the Party is still in charge, it has growing difficulties to rule.
Under Zeman, Czechia has become one of the many countries courting the People’s Republic. Similarly to other Soviet satellites in CEE, communist Czechoslovakia has been among the first countries to establish diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic in the first days after its founding on October 1, 1949. The cordial relations continued until the Sino-Soviet split in late 1950s, which froze ties almost until the fall of communism in CEE in 1989. Yet the diplomatic chill continued due to human rights agenda pursued by the diplomacy of the independent Czech Republic during Václav Havel’s presidency until 2003.
The gradual shelving of human rights agenda under the presidency of Václav Klaus (2003–2013) was taken to a much higher level after Zeman, known for his sympathies to Putin's Russia, became Czech president in 2013. His first visit to the PRC took place in 2014, when he specifically endorsed the CPC’s dictatorship by stating on China’s national TV that the Czech Republic did not intend to lecture China on market economy or human rights but instead to learn “how to increase economic growth and how to stabilize society.” Zeman was also the only head of a Western state to participate at the PRC’s celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in September 2015, when he observed a pompous parade of the CPC-controlled People’s Liberation Army – a gesture of support at a time of growing tensions in the South China Sea. Chinese official media therefore specifically called Zeman “a good friend who gives the most face.”
On his Easter 2016 visit to Prague, Xi Jinping was granted an unprecedentedly high profile, with Zeman inviting him as the first head of state to the summer presidential residence and the police allowing scores of Chinese citizens to welcome the PRC delegation with Chinese flags while blocking Czechs from demonstrating against the visit. The PRC also managed to initiate several propagandistic events, such as a seminar in the Czech Parliament on the CPC’s governance or a propagandistic pseudo-event on the OBOR organized by a department of a top Czech university.
In China’s political culture and social interaction, where gestures and symbology play an extremely important role, such obsequiousness by a Western democratic nation is a clear acknowledgement of the PRC’s growing international status and a sign of support for its international strategy. The Czech Republic’s ridding of Václav Havel’s focus on democracy and human rights orchestrated by Zeman and his allies is however a satisfaction for the CPC officials after the years of distance. The Czech thaw can thus be seen by China’s leaders as a triumph march into a previously off-limits territory. Yet what is the main gain for China’s leaders is not the amicability coming from a head of a particular state, but rather from a president of another democratic country kowtowing before the regime.
Czechia as an economic and political lightweight is therefore valuable to the PRC largely as a gateway for future activities in the EU. At the moment, the gateway is opened by servile Czech political representation and their business partners hoping for deals with Chinese enterprises connected within the authoritarian party-state. This “new melody” (xin xuanlü) in Sino-Czech ties, as Chinese media termed the situation, surely sounds pleasant to the ears of Chinese apparatchiks. But as friendship cannot be bought with money, the long-term success of PRC´s diplomacy towards Czechia awaits future assessment. And, perhaps most importantly, coups scored in insignificant countries can hardly solve the CPC’s lasting dilemma – how to legitimate an authoritarian regime and become a respected global leader.