Expert: China “very disappointed” following Zeman U-turn in support

Photo: Gaston Laborde, Pixabay / CC0

Previously a strong advocate of cultivating ties with Beijing, the Czech president has signalled a major U-turn. Miloš Zeman now says he will not attend an annual China-organised summit in April, citing disappointment with the level of Chinese investment in the Czech Republic. I discussed this shift and its implications with Jeremy Garlick, a China expert at Prague’s University of Economics.

Photo: Gaston Laborde,  Pixabay / CC0
“I was here in 2016 when President Xi Jinping visited from China and met Miloš Zeman and they signed a large number of agreements.

“And I think Mr. Zeman’s statement is clear that he’s disappointed with the unfulfilled promises.

“He wants to send a clear signal to Beijing that they need to change tack and be more constructive about fulfilling promises and fulfilling investments.”

How much lower have investments been than what might have been promised in the past by the Chinese?

“I think the problem with it has been that there was this scandal with the company CEFC that was leading the investments here.

“There was a corruption scandal with the head of it, a man called Ye Jianming, who has been detained in China since early 2018.

“So these investments that were made here… they went through.

“They bought Slavia Prague football club and they invested in some media companies.

“They invested in the Lobkowicz brewery and things like this – a travel agency, an airline.

“They did some of the investments that were promised.

“But the problem was the private company CEFC didn’t fulfil the investments.

“They were taken out of the picture and a Chinese state company, CITIC, came in and took over the investments.

“But from that point no further investment has really been forthcoming.

“They just did a sort of crisis management of the existing investments, which were all acquisitions of existing assets.

“There was nothing new. There was no setting up of factories or anything like that – it was just existing assets that they acquired stakes in.

“And nothing further was forthcoming.

Miloš Zeman,  photo: Michaela Danelová / Czech Radio
“As for the amount, the figure that I’ve seen is that the total Chinese investment in the Czech Republic is about EUR 1 billion total, accumulated over the last 20 years or so.

“It may sound quite a lot, but it’s not really that significant.

“When you put it in the context of how much has been invested into Western Europe, into countries like Germany or Britain, it’s really quite insignificant.”

Mr. Zeman has said that instead of him the deputy prime minister, Jan Hamáček, will go to the “17+1” [China plus Central and Eastern European countries] summit. But does it make any sense for the Czechs to go at all, if they’re not going to take it seriously? I know there have been some calls, including from the Green Party, for the Czech Republic to pull out completely from the “17+1” system.

“There is a heated debate on that in the Czech Republic.

“Some who say that the Czechs should just pull out and not cooperate with China – China’s a human rights abuser and the Czechs should send a clear signal to China that the country’s not willing to cooperate.

“There are others, such as me to be honest, who say that constructive engagement is still preferable to just cutting China off.

“China’s such a huge economic power in the world – to just simply cut off the option of cooperation with China would, in my view, be foolish.

“So I think to send a representative is necessary.

“The other 16 Central and Eastern European countries will be sending representatives, so if the Czechs didn’t send a representative at all it would just be cutting the Czech Republic out of this cooperation altogether.”

What does it mean for China that Miloš Zeman, who has been one of its European allies, now seems to be turning his back on Beijing?

Jeremy Garlick,  photo: archive of University of Economics in Prague
“I think there will be great disappointment among the Chinese about this.

“I have talked to some Chinese people in the last week or two and they are very disappointed about this.

“There was great hope that the Czech Republic, which was previously quite hostile to cooperation with China, was previously uncooperative, that this was really going to be a new dawn for Czech-China relations, it was going to be a new relationship.

“But they were aware that it all seemed to rest on President Zeman, that there were large parts of Czech society apart from him that are not pro-China.

“So they were resting their hopes on him and worried about what would happen next.

“Now I think they realise that the situation has deteriorated.

“So I would say there’s great disappointment on the Chinese side.”