Czech National Museum rejects allegedly opaque Chinese group’s gift ahead of Tiananmen anniversary

National Museum, photo: Ondřej Tomšů

Ahead of the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the Czech National Museum has rejected a gift of exceptional Chinese pottery worth some five million crowns. The museum also declined to send a representative at the weekend to an exhibition showcasing the pottery. While the museum rejected the gift on procedural grounds, the incident underscores concerns about opaque Chinese business practices and the communist country’s exercise of “checkbook diplomacy”.

National Museum,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů
The group which hoped to give the exquisite Chinese pottery to the National Museum is called the European Chinese Culture & Exchange Association, or ECCEA. It first appeared in the Commercial Register last year, with the stated aim of “carrying out educational and training activities in music, art, painting and culture in general, as well as in sport, in coordination with professional, semi-professional and amateur organisations”.

Filip Jirouš, coordinator of the think tank Sinopsis, a China-watching project cofounded by Charles University's Institute of East Asian Studies, says the ECCEA has taken part in events with high-profile Czech Communist Party members. But little public information about the non-profit group is available.

“I’m really actually glad the museum refused because after digging into it for a couple days, we haven’t been able to clarify who is really behind it, who is running the operation, and what was the purpose of this – that’s the other question. What was the point of giving a tea pot worth millions to the Czech National Museum, at the last minute, hastily done?”

“Also, there was no real description, so this was not a proper cultural event. And we are talking about a lot of money, to be fair. Usually, when you have these big, high-profile cultural exchanges, it’s done with diligence and kind of nice.”

And generally presented by an ambassador, with a ceremony turning over a collection, and the curators’ will have assessed whether it fits into their own collection well – and none of this happened…

“Exactly. And none of this happened. This was one of the reasons they [the National Museum] refused it, because there was not enough time for them to assess it, what the background is – what they sent was in gibberish Czech, so that was basically useless to the curators as well.”

Filip Jirouš,  photo: Věra Luptáková / Czech Radio
The timing of the exhibition at Prague’s Žofín Palace – coming just ahead of the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, thirty years ago – also raised eyebrows. Chinese authorities have managed to block any reference to the crackdown on pro-democracy protesters that left hundreds, if not thousands, dead, from appearing online within its borders.

I asked Filip Jirouš how much we should read into the timing of the staging of the exhibition and attempted gift, within the realm of China’s long-running checkbook diplomacy and exercise of “soft power”.

“Well, as with almost anything how the Chinese government operates, and especially weird events like this, it’s hard to narrow down whether there is a clear link or not. But, you know, it would be a great coincidence if it was really not linked at all. Maybe the idea behind it was to sort of bribe some people in change of cultural affairs in the Czech Republic not to mention it.”

“But at the same time it seems a rather ineffective way to do it. One, because it was doomed to fail from the beginning – maybe had they done it a month ago, done the proper homework, maybe it could have worked out. But this was just all wrong.”

According to the Czech contact, the event was co-organized by two entities, the ECCEA and another that Sinopsis believes in fact is the Czech National Pavilion at the Shanghai Free Trade Zone (SFTZ), which was established two years ago. Filip Jirouš again:

“It’s a weird entity on its own... What’s a bit disturbing about it is that although it’s the ‘Czech National Pavilion’, it’s actually a company linked to the infamous, notorious company CEFC, with one of the Shanghai CEFC executives actually at its head, at the same time, it was the Shanghai general consulate of the Czech Republic that gave permission to this entity to run this pavilion in the name of the Czech government.”

“It’s part of a wider phenomenon, where basically national governments actually give China the power to represent them in things that are in clear conflict of interest. So, this is, if nothing else, rather disturbing, maybe even dangerous.”