Attendance of top Chinese official at Prague forum reflects reset in relations

Over a thousand delegates from China, the Czech Republic and other European states gathered at Prague Castle on Thursday for the start of a China Investment Forum, the biggest event of its kind ever held in this country. It comes amid Czech efforts to boost relations and business with the world’s most populous state – some say at the loss of a principled stand on human rights.

Zhang Gaoli, photo: CTKZhang Gaoli, photo: CTK The Czech Republic’s relations with China have warmed up considerably since Foreign Minister Lubomír Zaorálek signed a declaration in Beijing in April that Prague respected China’s territorial integrity.

Four months later, China’s First Deputy Prime Minister Zhang Gaoli has become the most senior official from his country to visit the Czech Republic since its foundation.

The politburo member delivered an address at the start of a two-day China Investment Forum at Prague Castle attended by more than 500 business people and officials from China and another 700 delegates from the host country and elsewhere in Europe.

Mr. Zhang said Thursday’s signing of a memorandum on an association to foster cooperation between regional authorities in China and governments in Central and Eastern Europe had been a historical milestone.

He said China could help build roads, railways and other transport infrastructure in this part of the world; in turn, Central European technology could help Western China to develop.

Bohuslav Sobotka, photo: CTKBohuslav Sobotka, photo: CTK For their part, the Czech side are very keen to maintain recent friendly relations – and to increase trade with China. In his speech, Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka said steps would be taken to make it easier for Chinese investors to enter the Czech Republic.

“Our aim is to issue visas within four working days. We want not only to give those interested in investing in the Czech Republic a five-year, multi-entry visa but also to make available long-term visas with work permits in the case that applicants invest or create new jobs in the Czech Republic.”

The Czech Republic’s apparent reduced interest in the issue of human rights in China has been slammed by some NGOs.

Pro-Tibetan protesters gathered outside Prague Castle on Thursday, unfurling a poster showing the Dalai Lama and his late supporter Václav Havel.

Prime Minister Sobotka did mention human rights in his address – but kept the reference somewhat vague.

“The Czech Republic is a country that has for a long time placed a great emphasis on adherence to human rights. This is in part thanks to the historical experience that we carry within ourselves due to the complicated history of Central Europe in the 20th century.”

In any case, the reset of Czech relations with China is already well underway. Prague would no doubt welcome a visit by an even more senior Chinese official than Mr. Zhang, though that is unlikely before a visit to the communist state by Czech President Miloš Zeman planned for some time before the end of 2014.