25 October 2016
Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with his Czech counterpart Milos Zeman during an official trip to Prague late last month. Photo: AFP
Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with his Czech counterpart Milos Zeman during an official trip to Prague late last month. Photo: AFP

Sino-Czech relations: Is everything really hunky-dory?

After the fall of the Eastern Bloc in the early 90s, the Czech Republic became increasingly pro-western and pro-democracy, and turned critical of China’s human rights record.

The former Czech president, Vaclav Havel, even invited the Dalai Lama and the premier of Taiwan to visit his country during his term in office. Beijing was absolutely outraged by that.

However, times have changed and the current Czech president, Milos Zeman, has been putting a lot of effort into improving relations with Beijing, not least because his country has recently become the hub of “New Europe” and is looking aggressively for foreign investment and business opportunities.

Besides, China is now the largest trading partner of the Czech Republic apart from the European Union. Hence, President Zeman has every reason to make sure Beijing is happy.

Zeman’s goodwill towards Beijing has paid off.

Last month President Xi Jinping made an official trip to Prague, the first Chinese leader ever to do so, and concluded billions of dollars worth of bilateral business deals encompassing financial investments, infrastructure, energy, tourism and technological exchanges.

President Xi and Zeman also jointly announced that China and the Czech Republic had officially formed a strategic partnership.

Among all the major bilateral agreements on infrastructural investment concluded during Xi’s visit is the new Danube-Oder-Elbe canal, which, once completed, will give the Czech Republic direct access to the Baltic Sea, and which is therefore highly regarded by the Czech government.

The project had been put on hold for years due to lack of funding. But thanks to Chinese investment brought by President Xi, this project is now up and running again.

However, even though things might be going pretty smoothly so far between Prague and Beijing on diplomatic levels, there are still a lot of uncertainties and variables in the days ahead as far as the relations of the two countries are concerned.

That is because there remains substantial opposition to President Zeman’s pro-Beijing stance among the Czech public. Many Czechs are simply dismayed at Zeman’s radical departure from his predecessor’s policies, which used to emphasize democracy and human rights.

The defacement of dozens of Chinese flags hoisted along the main street of Prague by human rights activists ahead of Xi’s visit, and the clashes between sympathizers for the Tibetan independent movement and supporters of Beijing, indicate that the Czech public is split over its country’s policy towards the rising China.

To a certain extent, the Czech people’s ambivalence about China also reflects the overall complicated feelings that are prevailing among Europeans towards the Chinese at present.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 13.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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