Chinese President Xi Jinping's first visit to the Czech Republic didn't go completely smoothly. While his Czech counterpart is courting China for investment, the Czech population is divided, says Frank Sieren.
Czech President Milos Zeman did not beat about the bush when he said that the country's relationship with China had been "very bad" in the past, in part because it had "succumbed to pressure from the US and the EU". However, he made clear that this was over and that the Czech Republic would no longer interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. Moreover, he said it was an "independent country" that was once again pursuing a foreign policy based on its own interests. This was a blow directed at Brussels. Even though Prague lies further west than Frankfurt an der Oder or Vienna, Zeman feels that the Czech Republic has been labeled eastern European and neglected.
Zeman's comments were aimed at placating President Xi Jinping and his business delegation. It was the first time in over 50 years that a Chinese head of state was visiting Prague and the first time during Zeman's period in office that such an important guest was visiting full stop. Moreover, it was Xi's only stopover in Europe before traveling to the US for the nuclear summit. Xi's visit thus fulfilled Zeman's desire that the bilateral relationship be able to make a fresh start.
Prague is hoping for money from Beijing
The Czech Republic urgently needs investment to modernize its infrastructure. The fact that funding from the EU is exhausted or will not suffice to push the country forward has encouraged Zeman to look towards Beijing for money. A whole series of deals were made two years ago and Chinese money has since flowed into the Czech business sector and media, as well as into a Prague football club, a brewery and the aviation industry. Xi'an Shaangu Power, an engineering company from the province of Shanxi, paid 318 million yuan (43.5 million euros) for 75 percent of Brno Ekol, a leading Czech turbine manufacturer.
Over the past two years, Chinese investments in the Czech Republic have increased from about 180 million euros to 1.4 billion euros. And Czech investments in China amounted to over 1.6 billion euros at the end of last year. Many Czech companies have understood that the Czech Republic has an important role to play in central and eastern Europe thanks to China's "One Belt, One Road" initiative. The country's location makes it a key transport and logistics hub. Since last autumn, there have been direct flights between Beijing and Prague. The number of Chinese tourists traveling to Prague is rising by 30 percent each year. The Czech Republic is known to Chinese citizens largely because of the Volkswagen group's Skoda brand, which sold 270,000 cars last year in China.
Xi is only welcome in some parts of Czech Republic
Xi and Zeman have met each other four times in the past year already. Czechoslovakia was one of the first countries to start entertaining diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China - 67 years ago. In the 1950s and 60s, it was Czech engineers who helped to rebuild China at Moscow's behest. Brussels could observe the importance of China for Zeman last September when the People's Republic marked 70 years since its victory against Japan. Zeman was the only EU leader to travel to China, against Brussels' recommendations. Although there was annoyance in Brussels, it was kept in control.
For many Czech citizens and the former president Vaclav Havel, the Dalai Lama was a welcome guest. Supporters and opponents of Zeman's new course clashed on the streets of Prague. The high security measures brought the airspace above Prague to a semi-standstill. Xi will have understood that only part of the Czech population received him in friendly fashion but he took this in his stride. What's more important to him than the population's criticism of China is its criticism of Brussels, which is shared by the Czech government.
Eastern Europe has great significance for China
Annoyance towards the EU, whether justified or not, will help Xi to position China more firmly in Eastern Europe, without asking Brussels for permission. Eastern Europe has played a central role in China's economic expansion for some years now. In 2010, the trade volume between China and 16 Central and Eastern European countries amounted to $43.9 billion, by 2014 it had risen to $60.2 billion and by 2019 it is expected to have increased to over $120 billion. Thus, China - despite its stated preference for non-interference - is influencing European power relations. It's now Brussels' turn to deal with the insubordinate member of the EU family. Zeman is waiting expectantly. Here too, it's a question of a third party rejoicing when two others quarrel. As long as the Czechs do not position themselves more clearly against China.
Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for over 20 years.