China’s Mask Diplomacy Won’t Work in the Czech Republic

Beijing is trying to use the pandemic to regain lost influence. It won’t be that easy.

By Tim Gosling, a Prague-based freelance journalist and analyst covering Central and Eastern Europe.
Czech Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Jan Hamacek (third from left) speaks at Prague Airport in the Czech Republic on March 20. A China Eastern Airlines plane carrying 1.1 million respirators purchased by the Czech Republic from China is behind him.
Czech Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Jan Hamacek (third from left) speaks at Prague Airport in the Czech Republic on March 20. A China Eastern Airlines plane carrying 1.1 million respirators purchased by the Czech Republic from China is behind him. Xinhua/Yang Xiaohong via Getty Images

As China wages a public relations offensive during the coronavirus pandemic, the Czech Republic is getting special attention. Facing pushback from the Czech political establishment, which has sought to disrupt efforts to deepen ties with China, Beijing is keen to use the global crisis to claw back its influence—beginning with so-called mask diplomacy.

When a plane carrying Chinese medical supplies arrived at the Prague airport in March, a gaggle of Czech government officials including Prime Minister Andrej Babis crowded the runway. With criticism mounting over a lack of personal protective equipment for health workers, the shipment helped Babis out of a hole. It also offered President Milos Zeman, who has long sought closer ties with China, room to maneuver and the chance for a dig at the European Union. “China was the only country that helped us,” he said in a speech on March 19. Further supply shipments have followed.

Zeman’s comments likely played well in Beijing, but diplomatic sources suggest that regaining its lost ground in the Czech Republic may prove a tough task. Western allies view Prague as a “reliable partner,” while a “longer-term cooling in relations with China” is ongoing, according to a senior official at the foreign ministry.

China’s renewed focus on the Czech Republic has not gone unnoticed. In April, a leaked foreign ministry report warned that China was using the pandemic to accelerate efforts to boost its international position, promote its system of governance, and divide the West by obtaining support from EU member states, particularly those in Central and Eastern Europe.

The report explicitly notes Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 17+1 initiative, which pledges investment in Central and Eastern European countries—creating a new Silk Road that would link China with Western Europe. Analysts say that China’s end goal is not to gain access to the region’s small economies but rather to use its influence to destabilize Western multilateral institutions.

“Czechia is not so important on issues such as geopolitical position or innovation,” said Ivana Karaskova, an analyst at the Association for International Affairs, a Prague-based think-tank, using the government’s preferred moniker for the country. “We’re valuable as EU and NATO members. China wants to use us to influence these institutions.”

In the past few years, Czech-Chinese relations have gone into reverse. The corporation CEFC China Energy—which had pledged huge investment in the Czech Republic—collapsed in 2018 amid rumors of links to the Chinese secret services. Beijing’s influence in the Czech Republic then began to slide. The Chinese state fund CITIC took over CEFC’s Czech assets, followed by a high-profile spat with J&T Financial Group, run by local oligarchs that had partnered with the corporation.

When the mayor of Prague ended a sister-city agreement with Beijing due to pressure to honor the “One China” policy of recognizing Beijing’s territorial claims, China threatened economic reprisals. In November 2019, it was revealed that Chinese money had infiltrated one of the country’s top universities in attempt to build influence. Around the same time, Petr Kellner—the Czech Republic’s richest person—was found to be placing pro-China articles in the media.

These scandals have been accompanied by increasingly explicit warnings from the Czech security services that Chinese espionage and hybrid warfare are now some of the nation’s top security threats. Beijing’s response to these episodes has been bombastic, driving Czech public opinion of China to among the lowest levels in the EU. The mood pushed the populist Zeman to complain in January that the billions of korunas in investment promised by China have failed to arrive. From 2005 to 2019, Chinese capital flows to the Czech Republic totaled just $960 million, compared with $4.84 billion to Hungary in the same period.

In particular, Beijing now hopes to restart the discussion around the development of 5G networks in the Czech Republic. Last year, the government blocked the Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei from participating in 5G mobile communications infrastructure—perhaps the most damaging bump in the road for China in its cooling relations with the Czech political establishment. The move followed warnings from the National Cyber and Information Security Agency (NUKIB) that Huawei may be required to hand data to Beijing.

The warnings have influenced the wider EU debate over Huawei and 5G, and an EU security assessment report released last year echoed NUKIB. “NUKIB’s warning came early and was unique in Europe at the time,” Karaskova said. “That saw the EU take it very seriously.”

China’s influence strategy has worked better in some parts of Central and Eastern Europe than in others. Hungary’s autocratic regime embraces Chinese capital as a counterweight to the EU, which provides funds while demanding transparency and rule of law. In return, Budapest has resisted EU resolutions on disputes in the South China Sea and human rights issues, such as China’s alleged torture of human rights lawyers. Greece and Serbia—both recipients of Chinese investment projects—have also offered support to Beijing.

But in the Czech Republic, China has long fueled a foreign-policy debate between the controversial Zeman and the political establishment.

Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek has recently suggested a potential shift in Czech policy away from China, warning against dependence on Chinese medical supplies. Petricek is the public face of the pro-Western political establishment. But he hails from the weak junior partner in a minority governing coalition, giving him little political clout. Babis, the embattled prime minister, also emphasizes the Czech Republic’s EU and NATO membership, but he depends on Zeman and extremist parties linked to the president for political support.

Since his election in 2013, Zeman has tested the boundaries of his largely ceremonial post to pursue an alternative foreign policy, seeking deeper ties with China and Russia. The president’s patronage of Chinese interests has included the CEFC investment drive in 2015. Zeman’s high-profile visits to China and the remarkable market access granted by Beijing to businesses with links to the Czech president raised suspicion at home and abroad that Czech foreign policy was drifting from its Western orientation. When Xi visited Prague in 2016, much of the city was shut down, and organized groups attacked protesters, illustrating Beijing’s growing political influence. When three ministers met with the Dalai Lama shortly afterward, a joint statement from Zeman and then-Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka including a pledge of loyalty to Beijing’s One China policy, which includes recognizing Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, was quickly issued.

Now, the coronavirus crisis has revived the president’s encouragement of closer ties and Beijing’s push for influence. In April, a Czech consultancy disseminated a report to the media insisting that the pandemic made the swift development of 5G crucial and that excluding Huawei would raise costs dramatically. It quickly became apparent that the Chinese telecommunications company had secretly paid for the analysis. Ignoring Huawei’s view, on May 6 the government in Prague pledged to work with Washington on its 5G networks.

China’s clumsy lobbying efforts have proved effective in Hungary and other countries with illiberal governments that are receptive to its message. It will still have a tougher time in the Czech Republic, where political institutions remain robust and democracy has developed deeper roots.

Tim Gosling is a Prague-based freelance journalist and analyst covering Central and Eastern Europe. Twitter: @TGosCEE