Chinese influence at Czech universities

This article is shorter and edited version of Asia Explained interview with Filip Jirouš. Interview with transcript are available HERE
Chinese influence at the Czech universities and among Chinese scholars have been covered by the Sinopsis project team. Summary of the Sinopsis research and links to the sources in Czech language can be found here

Universities as important targets for Chinese influence operations

Chinese influence operations targeting universities abroad have several objectives. One of them is acquisition of technology and research data. Influence operations are also useful in building networks of people that are friendly towards the Chinese organizations involved in influence building activities. Another objective is gathering intelligence, for example on political circles . Researchers from social science and humanities are valuable targets as they can influence public opinion. They often give interviews, comment on various topics, write books about political issues including related to China. Plenty of targets of influence operations end up writing books about China that convey surprisingly positive description of the political and economic developments in China. Academics, especially senior scholars often have ties to political parties or to the government, which can be used by the Chinese organizations for building influence in political circles. Scholars are also a relatively easy source of information that is not available in the public domain.

Chinese actors involved in influence operations in Czech Republic

During the golden era, the honeymoon in the Czech – China relations, which dates back to 2013 to 2018, the influence operations conducted by various PRC actors targeted the whole society, from media, to universities, to companies, etc, and to politicians obviously. After 2018 people started being more suspicious about relations with China. Important reason for that change in perception was what happened with the CEFC group, key company that was behind Chinese investments in Czech Republic. Military intelligence was embedded in the company, which was basically running around with the whole elite society trying to co-opt anybody they could.

Obviously, the embassy has been also a place involved and has served mostly as launching platform for all kinds of influence operations. The entity that was significantly involved and continues to be involved in influence building activities, not only directly but also through its various covers such as think tanks, is the International Liaison Department of the Central Committee of the CCP. It an influence organ, which means that they are located in the area between doing propaganda and actual intelligence gathering. ILD was able to engage universities, especially Charles University, and it was able to invite to events politicians from all main parties. ILD was the main driving force of a higher level intelligence and influence operations that we are aware of between the year 2015 and 2020.

It’s hard to determine which party state actors are conducting influence operations in Czech Republic. We are aware that the Ministry of State Security (MSS), the main sibling intelligence agency in China, is involved in targeting academia. MSS also runs intelligence operations, using newspapers as covers for intelligence officers. Guangming Ribao (Guangming Daily) is one of those covers that has established cooperation with Czech newspapers, where the “several friendly” researchers make contributions.

Czech-Chinese Centre at Charles University

Czech-Chinese Center was established in 2016 and it was dismantled in 2019 after the discovery of the network of suspicious ties to Chinese influence organizations was revealed in Czech media and the university had to react. The rector of the university was one of the people who founded it, at least in a sense that he was behind the idea of the center’s establishment. It was set up during the honeymoon period of the Czech – Chinese relations, when various, “something something” China centers, were popping up like mushrooms all over the place. Quite often the driving force behind those initiatives was actually the Czech side trying to lure Chinese investments and Chinese money. In the case of Czech-Chinese Center it was supposed to attract Chinese students to summer schools in the Czech Republic, specifically at the Charles University. One of the reasons behind the establishment of the center was also the desire to get Chinese funding and Chinese money for the university and for the specific people involved. In the beginning it was not an influence operation conducted by the Chinese side. However, as it often happens with this kind of initiatives, that are set up in order to engage the willing Chinese actors, it was later involved with ILD, through one of its think tank covers and they tend to organize joint events etc.

The center was just a nameplate. It didn’t have much of substance itself, but it was useful, especially for its secretary Miloš Balabán, to be used as a nameplate whenever he tried to cooperate with the Chinese side. It is noticeable that Balabán not only wrote rather friendly publications about the PRC, but he also set up a course at the university that basically can be described as a propaganda course. During the course applauding Belt and Road Initiative was oddly combined with evil image of the US. Organizing course on the BRI can be beneficial if it’s done properly. However, in the course organized at the Czech – Chinese Center the Chinese state sources, like China Daily were the key literature and they were listed as reliable sources of information on the BRI. Moreover, Balabán was secretly funding the course with money provided by the Chinese embassy, which was obviously not known to the university. It was later revealed through a media investigation. Balabán was politically linked to the Social Democratic Party, which was a ruling party at that time. And he still continues being their defense expert, which says something about the party itself after such a scandal. The president of the university, who was also known for the involvement in the center’s establishment, was also linked to this party.

Confucius Institute at the Palacký University Olomouc

University in Olomouc was the first place in Czech Republic where Confucius Institute was set up. These institutions pretend to offer mainly the language courses and to organize courses and activities related to the Chinese culture. However, any cultural exchange with China is actually done by the state on this level, and is, by its definition, basically a propaganda and influence operation. There are also cases of Confucius Institutes being used as launching platforms for intelligence operations, for example they were used to transfer people from the MSS into the countries where CIs operated.

The most prominent person entangled in China influence operations in Olomouc University is Ondřej Kučera, who currently holds position of a deputy dean at the Faculty of Arts. It’s the faculty where the Chinese studies are located. He was one of the co-founders of the Confucius Institutes at the university. Earlier he received scholarships from Taiwan. When those scholarships ended and when China became the more prominent entity of the “two China’s”, the source of money coming to Czech Republic and when the Chinese side started engaging the Czech society in its fullness, then he switched sides. It seems that he started criticizing very much openly and in specific context the pro Tibetan movement that is unexpectedly strong in the Czech society. He also criticized the protests against the visit of Xi Jinping in 2016 in Prague. When he started acting this friendly and when the Confucius Institute was established, the Chinese embassy started giving them grants and books, etc. It was a very profitable relationship at that point. It is hard to say to say whether greed was the only motivation there, some of the people involved in those initiatives might actually really believed in what they said. It’s hard to determine reasons driving all researchers but definitely money was involved in the sense of grants and donations from the Chinese embassy.

Marek Hrubec and the Czech Academy of Sciences

Marek Hrubec is a political sociologist focused on global studies as he presents himself. He served as a director of the Centre of Global Studies in the Institute of Philosophy at the Czech Academy of Sciences till he was removed as a result of the scandal related to his relations with the Chinese actors. He still works at the Czech Academy of Sciences. He was actually the person teaching the propaganda course at Charles university, the course that was funded by the Chinese embassy and officially run by Mr. Balabán. Mr. Hrubec can be described as conservative leftist as he is friendly to all kinds of tentatively or ostensibly leftist regimes. He supported, not only in his works, but also in his comments anything that was against the US. He was involved not only in relations with the Chinese actors from the propaganda sector, ILD but also with Russian propagandists who were guests at his conferences.

There were two most problematic, the most traumatic things that in the end led to his removal from a a senior managerial position of the center’s director . First one was the book he had funded by the Chinese state owned publishing house, where he censored any contributions to the book made by his fellow scholars that were in some way critical of the PRC. The other thing was collaboration with the China-CEE Institute in Budapest, which, at least since 2021 has been actually run by the Ministry of State Security, the MSS. Hrubec and his assistant were actually working for the Chinese and were providing them open source information but also the knowledge and analysis. Chinese researchers or Chinese intelligence officer can do in-depth research, but they would miss key points, as they lack the understanding of the whole context that is necessary to properly assess political system and political situation in a specific environment. The institute in Budapes served as the platform to acquire such expertise form local scholars.

Finally in 2021 after the cooperation with institute in Budapest was revealed Hrubec was removed from the senior position of the centre’s director, which required the agreement on political level within the academy. He was part of the scandal with Mr. Balaban and the propaganda course, which happened in 2019 but nothing happened to him at that time. The new scandal brought more reputational damage to the academy and he was removed, rather swiftly. Whether individual scholars will be less inclined to do this kind of cooperation is hard to say but we have definitely seen a shift in the perception on what could actually be problematic. If you cooperate with the wrong people on the Chinese side, then you can get into trouble. I hope that this lesson has been learned learned.

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

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