China is behind multifarious efforts around the world to tell the story of its rise to prominence in the 21st century; critics call it communist propaganda, supporters say standard public relations.
Whatever the view, the Czech Republic seems an unlikely venue for this clash of national narrative, but a local news report alleging a Czech billionaire was secretly funding a pro-China public relations campaign in the country has become the talk of Prague.
News outlet Aktualne says that leaked documents show that Czech-owned privately held consumer finance giant Home Credit is behind a campaign to promote Beijing in the Eastern European country, including setting up a China-friendly institute providing analysis and commentary. This is touching raw nerves in the country, which at one time looked to position itself as China's friend and gateway to Europe. Other events in recent months suggest that's not happening.
A Czech intelligence report published last month said that in 2018 "both the intensity and scale" of Chinese intelligence and influence activities had grown. Earlier in November, the Czech-Chinese Centre at Prague's Charles University was shut following reports by Aktualne that staff failed to disclose funding from China's embassy.
All this after Prague city council voted to pull out of a sister-city arrangement with Beijing in October when mayor Zdenek Hrib failed to get Beijing to remove an anti-Taiwan "one China" pledge from the agreement.
"(The country) is something of a battleground for views of China," said Richard Turcsanyi, a researcher at the Central and Eastern European Centre for Asian Studies at Palacky University in Olomouc, Czech Republic.
"It's very politicised and very sensitive, and people start questioning everyone, who is funded from where and who has what interests, it's a very delicate situation," he said, noting that the conversation reflects similar debate in other nations.
Just this week in Belgium, one of the country's leading universities decided to close the Chinese state-funded Confucius Institute on its campus. This followed accusations that the former head was a Chinese spy. China-backed cultural centres in the US, Canada and Australia are also in the spotlight as university officials raise concerns about Beijing's influence on free speech on campuses.
"The whole discussion (in the Czech Republic) reflects that of Australia and Canada and the US," Turcsanyi said.
A Pew research survey released earlier this month found that Czech public opinion of China was among the most unfavourable in Europe, ranking only behind Sweden and the Netherlands.
Into that atmosphere now steps Home Credit, headquartered in the Netherlands and owned by Czech billionaire Petr Kellner. The company has 25 per cent of the consumer finance market in China, which is its largest business. That's based on information in a filing made to the Hong Kong exchange for a potential US$1 billion IPO, which the company shelved last month citing market conditions.
According to the Aktualne report, Home Credit paid for Prague agency C&B Group to set up Sinoskop Institute for Contemporary China, a self-described independent group launched in June to publish China commentary from a network of experts.
"C&B secretly created and coordinated a network of politicians, economists and China experts. Many of these people did not even have to know what role they are playing in Home Credit's plan," Aktualneě said in its report. The news outlet said its information came from documents showing work done by the agency for Home Credit, which the newspaper said it obtained from an unnamed source.
However, for some Czechs the debate about China and its influence is becoming irrational.
"There is an increasingly polarised public debate about the allegedly rising Chinese influence, which is to my opinion overstated and inadequate to Czech international political and economic relevance in the context of European relations with China," said Rudolf FUrst, head of the Centre for EU-Asia Relations at the Institute of International Relations Prague.
FUrst did not agree with recent public characterisations of Home Credit as a "pro-China manipulator". He said the company was trying to "balance the mainstream strongly negative narratives about China" and that Sinoskop promoted "tame coverage of Chinese affairs".
That coverage by Sinoskop includes reports by Czech Republic consul general in Hong Kong Jan Juchelka and Czech ambassador to China Vladimir Tomsik.
The article by Tomsik marking 70 years of China-Czech relations and one introducing Hong Kong and Macau by Juchelka were among those Aktualneěsaid were named in the documents it obtained showing work coordinated by C&B Group.
Sinoskop founder Vit Vojta responded to the Aktualneěreport, saying his decision to set up the site was his own and not related to any attempt to improve the image of China's Communist Party. An honest assessment of his writing would show that was the case, he said on the Sinoskop website.
He said public relations agency C&B provided consulting to help the site succeed and that he had been transparent about that.
The Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in an email response to questions that government representatives were often asked to write articles about relations between the Czech Republic and their host country and that was part of their job.
Both articles written for Sinoskop by the ambassador to China and the consul general in Hong Kong were coordinated with the website founder and the ministry and no one else, said Zuzana Stichova, spokeswoman for the Czech Republic Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "Their impression, as well as the impression of the MFA, was that any kind of knowledge-based sites about China were needed and welcome," she said.
"It is not a mission of Czech diplomats and not even in their capacity to examine any kind of tacit involvement behind the numerous requests for their contributions about the nature of two countries' relations. Hence, neither our ambassador to China nor our consul general in Hong Kong had any idea about the involvement of C&B Group in Sinoskop initiative," she said in the email.
Home Credit communications head Milan Tomanek responded to the Aktualneěreport in a statement to the Czech News Agency and published on a local English-language site.
"Home Credit is convinced this is a case of a targeted, wide and long-term campaign that does not lack a criminal aspect. The published materials are evidently of a confidential nature and may have been manipulated. That is why Home Credit will further proceed and communicate in the matter only through legal means," he said.
Tomas Sazima, who leads the reputation management services at C&B Group, has said the agency's role was to moderate the debate about China, according to the Aktualneěreport.
The Sinoskop website includes commentary critical of China, including a recent article about document leaks revealing human rights abuses in Xinjiang describing the situation as "cultural genocide".
Home Credit, C&B and the Sinoskop institute did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Public goodwill for China has eroded in today's Czech Republic, which in addition to its own past of freeing itself from Soviet communism, had historically been sympathetic to Tibet and Taiwan, said Turcsanyi at Palacky University.
Relations were further complicated in a policy pivot towards China. That was driven by Czech President Milos Zeman, elected in 2013, who hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping in a 2016 state visit meant to herald billions of dollars in Chinese investment, Turcsanyi said. However, the money didn't arrive.
The lack of that major investment from China and the failure of private company CEFC, China's flagship investor in the Czech Republic, hurt Beijing's image, according to Alzběta Bajerova, a research fellow with the Prague-based Association for International Affairs think tank.
"There is a string of failures that are adding to the scepticism that was already there to begin with … the promises that were made have not materialised, while there are many issues that China can be criticised for," she said.
The publication of the report this week will "add another nail in the coffin" for public opinion about China, according to Bajerova. Researcher Turcsanyi tends to agree.
"The whole discussion is getting very black and white, and you either say that China is bad or China is good," he said, adding "any nuance and complexity is being looked at with suspicion that you might have some (vested) interest".
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