Chinese influence at Czech universities – interview with Filip Jirouš

Researchers and scholars from social science and humanities are valuable targets for Chinese influence operations as their views can have significant impact on public opinion. They give interviews, comment on various topics, write books about political issues. Multiple targets of influence operations end up writing books and articles that convey surprisingly positive description of the situation in China and benefits from cooperation with Beijing. Academics, especially senior scholars, often have ties to political parties or to the government which also can be used to influence politicians and state officials.

Czech-Chinese Centre at the Charles University in Prague and Miloš Balabán, Faculty of Arts at the Palacký University Olomouc and Ondřej Kučera, Centre of Global Studies in the Institute of Philosophy at the Czech Academy of Sciences and Marek Hrubec, presented in the interview are only several examples of Czech academic institutions and Czech scholars entangled in cooperation with the Chinese influence organizations. In our interview with Filip Jirouš we talk about the factors behind Czech scholars’ cooperation with Chinese party-state apparatus, models of cooperation and consequences some of them faced after their ties to Chinese organizations have been revealed.

You can play and listen our interview in the Mix Cloud player or you can download it here
Full edited transcript of the interview is available here
You can also read articles covering the interview: in English oraz w języku polskim

Chinese influence at Czech universities and among Czech scholars have been covered by the Sinopsis project team. Summary of the Sinopsis research and links to sources in Czech language can be found here

In a nutshell

“Influence operations targeting universities abroad have several objectives. One of them is getting technology, getting information from the research. Influence operations usually help build networks of people that are friendly towards the entity that is actually doing the influence operations. It is basically about building networks that can then be used for something more specific.”

“In general, especially in humanities, it’s the researchers, and universities who are good targets, if you want to influence the public opinion in a country. They are people who often give interviews, comment on various topics, write books about political issues, even for example, about China itself.”

“During the golden era or the honeymoon in the Czech – China relationship, which dates back to 2013 to 2018, the influence operations by various PRC actors targeted the whole of society, from media, to universities, to companies, etc, and to politicians obviously. So at that point, you can say that everybody was targeted, but some resisted or some were not willing to accept whatever the offer was.”

“Around the year 2013, through, let’s say, 2015, when you read the annual reports of our country’s intelligence agency BIS on situation in Czech Republic, you can see that the military intelligence was the most active in general in most of these operations. That is because military intelligence was very much embedded in the company called CEFC was the vanguard of the Chinese investments in the country.”

“Embassies are mostly just like a launching platforms for all kinds of operations. The real entity that was very much involved and continues to be involved, not only directly but also through its various covers and think tanks, was the International Liaison Department of of the Central Committee of the CCP, which is basically an influence organ. It means that they are somewhere between doing propaganda and actual intelligence gathering.”

“Ministry of State Security, also runs intelligence operations, using cover of a newspaper. Specifically, in this case, we have Guangming Daily as one of the most favorite.[…] It’s one of the most favorites newspapers for the MSS officers to use for themselves as a cover. Guangming Ribao (Guangming Daily) is actually the one newspapers that has established some level, and in one case rather deep level, of cooperation with Czech newspapers, where you have several friendly researchers that contribute. So we could say, basically, military intelligence in the beginning then ILD and MSS sort of doing separate kind of work but in the end targeting sometimes even the same people.”

“Quite often, I would say the driving force was actually, let’s say, the Czech side of the relationship trying to lure Chinese investments, Chinese money. In the case of Czech – Chinese Center, it was also about Chinese students to attend summer schools in the Czech Republic, I mean, Charles University specifically. So it’s more about getting Chinese funding and Chinese money for the university and for the specific people involved, rather than being from the beginning an influence operation by the Chinese side.”

“Miloš Balabán [secretary of the Czech – China Centre] not only wrote rather friendly publications about the PRC, but he also set up a course at a university that basically can be described as a propaganda course, that went on describing how the Belt and Road Initiative is great, combined somehow, weirdly, with how the US is evil.”

“Mr. Balabán was very much politically linked to the Social Democratic Party, which was a ruling party at that time. And he still actually continues being their defense expert, which says something about the party itself after such a scandal. And to be fair, the president of the university, who was also known for the center, was also linked to this party. So it was sort of a mix of politic and the greediness that in the end led to having a propaganda course on the grounds of one of the most prestigious universities in the Czech Republic.”

“We have known cases of Confucius Institutes being used, basically, as a launching platform for intelligence operations, for example for getting people from the MSS into a country through the institute itself. And it also does anything that increases the pressure to self censor, and censor students and the teachers of the university.”

“When Ondřej Kučera, [currently deputy dean at the Faculty of Arts at Olomouc University] started acting friendly and when then Confucius Institute was established the Chinese embassy started giving them grants and books, etc. It was a very profitable relationship at that point, I think. Hard to say whether greed was the only motivation there. From what I understand, and especially from other writings, it’s clear that some of the people involved might actually really believe in what they say and that actually makes sense. It’s hard to say but definitely money was involved in the sense of grants and donations from the Chinese embassy.”

“Marek Hrubec had a book funded by the Chinese state owned publishing house, where he actually censored any contributions to the book made by his fellow scholars that would be critical of the PRC in any way… he collaborated with the China-CEE Institute in Budapest, which, at least since 2021 has been actually run by the Ministry of State Security, the MSS. As far as we understand, he and his assistant basically were actually working for the Chinese and were giving them this kind of sort of still open source information to some degree, but they were also providing a knowledge that you only acquire if you actually are in the context, in the environment.”

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