China Ties Under Scrutiny in Prague
A recent controversy surrounding the Czech-Chinese Center, a program at the top university in the Czech Republic, is the latest in a series of "shenanigans" that have drawn public attention to relations with China, says Martin Hala.
In an article earlier this month for our "Guanxi Matters" series urging greater skepticism and closer scrutiny of engagements between China and European countries at various levels, we looked more closely at a recent news story about a seminar held at Charles University in Prague and attended by China's ambassador to the Czech Republic.
Our brief research showed that one of the Chinese partners involved in the conference, the "Shanghai Digital Silk Road Industrial Innovation and Cooperation Center," was not, as it seemed, an independent organization but rather was closely connected to an important Chinese government agency, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) – which is the macroeconomic management agency directly under the State Council.
Late last week, scrutiny by Czech media into the same Prague conference found that a private company registered by the center's director, Dr. Miloš Balabán, had received funding from the Chinese embassy to support the center's activities. In its report, Czech news outfit Aktuálně.cz asked "why a supposedly neutral conference sponsored by the university was funded by the Communist state, and why money was flowing through a private company."
The controversy has resulted in Mr. Balabán's resignation from all university posts.
For more perspective on the story, Echowall reached out to Martin Hala, the Prague-based sinologist and founder of Project Sinopsis, a joint research project between the non-profit AcaMedia and the Institute of East Asian Studies at Charles University.
Echowall: In the past week, a public controversy has emerged in the Czech Republic concerning the so-called Czech-Chinese Center at Charles University. I wonder if you could quickly bring us up to speed on what's happened?
Hala: It’s an unfolding story that erupted with an attempt by the Czech financial corporation Home Credit to establish a “partnership” with Charles University in Prague. Home Credit has huge business interest in the PRC and is generally considered to have driven the pro-Beijing turn in Czech foreign policy towards China five years ago. The “partnership” agreement had a clause that both sides would “refrain from damaging each other’s good name.” As much of the criticism of the company originated from Charles University, not least from our research project, Project Sinopsis, the clause was seen as an attempt to silence the company’s critics. This led to a wave of protests by both students and faculty, and the agreement had to be scrapped.
The incident, however, focused attention sharply on other pro-Beijing initiatives at the university backed by the current Rector, and the Czech-Chinese Center is one of them.
Echowall: What do we know about the center and its creation? What was the original mandate or agenda, and what role did the university have?
Hala: The Center was established in 2016 by the decree of the Rector during the China craze that was happening in some quarters right after Xi Jinping’s visit in Prague in March that year. There were expectations of a Chinese bonanza in various fields, including academia.
The acting director was named Dr. Miloš Balabán, a strange choice since he never had anything to do with Chinese studies [but rather is an expert on Czech and European security policy]. According to media reports, the Czech counterintelligence service BIS had warned against his activities explicitly even in their redacted public annual report in 2015 for promoting the agenda of authoritarian powers. This warning, like many others at that time, was ignored. In retrospect, it seems the Center was established chiefly to go around the established Chinese Studies at Charles whose experts have mostly been critical of the unconditional turn towards the PRC.
In retrospect, it seems the Center was established chiefly to go around the established Chinese Studies at Charles whose experts have mostly been critical of the unconditional turn towards the PRC.
Echowall: There were certainly concerns raised by sinologists at Charles, and by others, about the seemingly biased nature of the event hosted by the center last month. Before the controversy struck, we also published brief research showing that one of the parters was not a non-governmental organization but in fact state linked. How did these concerns come to light, and how have the media and policymakers responded?
Hala: There have been concerns about the Center since the very beginning. Ironically, this last conference was actually an improvement over the previous ones. The Center has hosted four annual conferences at Charles University, all of them under the auspices of the Rector, typically sponsored by the Chinese Embassy and Huawei, and in one case – that was last year – by Home Credit.
They fell short of any meaningful academic standards, and mostly only served to promote the party line of the Chinese Communist Party on topics important to the PRC at the given time, like the Belt and Road Initiative, cooperation with the European Union after the start of the trade war with the US, or the bright future for Chinese digital technologies.
But the biggest problem turned out to be Dr. Balabán himself. He operated out of an outfit called the Center for Security Policy within the Faculty of Social Science. At the same time, he registered a commercial entity under the same name, with the same logo, and the same personnel, effectively privatizing a chunk of the University. His private Center was apparently receiving financial support for the conferences from the Chinese Embassy, circumventing the university altogether. After this was revealed by local media, he had to resign from all of his university posts.
Echowall: I know this is a breaking story, and there may be much we still don't know. But what do you think are the lessons we might draw from this case?
Hala: This is but one part of a larger story, the looming backlash against the naive policies in the Czech Republic towards the PRC introduced five years ago. People now begin to realize that these policies have brought the Czech Republic embarrassments of the kind we saw with the fiasco surrounding the mysterious private conglomerate CEFC over the past two years. A lot of people feel cheated, and take a more critical stance.
Europe has to face up to the fact that the Leninist system in China is not just some kind of a local folklore, but a fundamental issue with very specific implications for the mutual relationship.
Echowall: This case raises a lot of issues about China's engagement with Europe on any levels. In your view, how should European societies, governments and the EU respond? What steps can be taken to ensure engagement with China is transparent?
Hala: The PRC does what it does in Europe, and it won’t change; at most, it will adjust its tactics. It’s up to Europe to put its act together. It has to face up to the fact that the Leninist system in China is not just some kind of a local folklore, but a fundamental issue with very specific implications for the mutual relationship. There’s too much complacency in Europe. People project onto China their own understanding of politics as basically a technocratic fiddling with various regulations and budgets. It’s hard for them to imagine that a political entity like the CCP could possibly harbor a bigger ambition – indeed, a geopolitical one.
Echowall: There seems recently to be a great deal of tension in relations between China and the Czech Republic. How do you assess relations? What accounts for the shift in attitude toward China? And is this general to society, or something we just see among experts and the media?
Hala: According to the latest Pew research, the public opinion in the Czech Republic is the most critical towards the PRC in all of Central and Eastern Europe. It is a response to the various shenanigans that befell us after the turn towards Beijing in 2013-14, of which this University scandal is but a tiny fraction. Things have become just too ridiculous. Even people who normally don’t care much about China one way or another started to notice the irregularities with rising concern.