President Miloš Zeman is in China for another working visit, along with a trade delegation hoping to carve out slices of the world’s biggest market. Topping his public agenda is the “Belt and Road” summit on Beijing’s trillion-dollar project to boost trade and build infrastructure across Asia, Europe and Africa. In private, though, President Zeman’s talks are likely to centre on the low level of actual Chinese investment after five years of fanfare.
Of the 37 world leaders due to attend Thursday’s “Belt and Road” summit in China, Miloš Zeman is without question among Beijing’s staunchest supporters. His political stance represents a ‘Long March’ retreat from the human rights-centred foreign policy of Czech leaders like Václav Havel, who rejected the “One-China policy”.
But has investing Czech political capital paid off in terms of incoming Chinese investment? Decidedly not, says Filip Jirouš, coordinator of Sinopsis.cz, a China-watching project cofounded by Charles University’s Institute of Far East Studies.
“We (Czechs) signed a Memorandum of Understanding on economic cooperation and in effect signed on to the Belt and Road project over four years ago. Basically, none of the promised billions in investment along with the project have been realized.
“At the same time, the project is increasingly seen as bringing with it considerable corruption, including the bribing of politicians in the case of Chinese conglomerate CEFC in Africa. So, the question is whether it is at all worth continuing.”
Before heading to Beijing, Zeman himself complained in an interview with China's CCTV about a lack of investors, calling it “a stain on Czech-Chinese cooperation”. Bright spots are the financial and airline sectors, he said, with Prague set to become a China “hub” for both.
It all seemed so promising. Back in 2014 – when China’s “Belt and Road” project, then known as the “New Silk Road” project, was announced with great fanfare – the Czech government proclaimed this country’s goal of becoming “China’s gateway to Europe”.
The next year, came a sweeping bilateral memorandum outlining initiatives in a wide range of sectors, public and private beyond the Belt and Road. CEFC emerged as the flagship for Chinese investments – with President Zeman even naming its chairman an honorary adviser.
Optimism was still running high in 2016, when the Czech president welcomed his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping to Prague Castle with a 21-gun salute – a tribute given no visiting foreign leader in over a half century.
But by 2018, the flagship CEFC had become embroiled in scandal and debt, its Czech assets taken over by another state firm, CITIC. Filip Jirouš says the president’s talk of a “stain” on relations show just how difficult his position vis-à-vis Beijing has come to defend.
“It seems a desperate step to force the Chinese to finally invest real money here. Most investment came before the Memorandum’ and didn’t create new jobs or support economic development. There have mainly been acquisitions – such as buying the airline Travel Service and football club Slavia Praha.”
That said, Czech companies hope to form and expand ties with China. And President Zeman’s chancellor teased the possibility of a $1 billion investment by CITIC. Meanwhile, Huawei will certainly push its case for rolling out 5G in the Czech Republic, despite concerns in Washington – and Prague – that letting the Chinese giant in represents a security threat.