A Swiss-based entity contacted the Czech news website Aktuálně.cz suggesting they publish accusations that Miloš Vystrčil, the chair of the Czech Senate, had received millions from Taiwan in exchange for his recent visit to the country. The obscure entity was in fact well-known to Sinopsis: a forthcoming Sinopsis report by Ralph Weber explores its links to united front organisations, notably the UFWD’s propaganda arm; its Czech contacts occur in Filip Jirouš’s research on united front work. This proved fatal to the smear attempt. Aktuálně reacted by exposing the organisation’s links, relating to fresh intelligence warnings on CCP-linked attempts to influence media in the country.
Although the organisation’s “tip” was ostensibly spontaneous and disinterested, it happened to match CCP propaganda goals and talking points on the Senate chair and his Taiwan visit. The timing was serendipitous: it came as Vystrčil stood for reelection (he won unopposed). A favourite CCP interlocutor, local Communist leader Vojtěch Filip, was recently told by the head of the International Liaison Department to “draw a clear line” (划清界限) to ostracise Vystrčil. Another CCP-friendly figure, President Zeman, drew that line: he announced he would no longer invite him to official foreign policy meetings. The PRC foreign minister warned Vystrčil would “pay a heavy price” for daring to make the trip.
The Senate chair need not worry if the “heavy price” is missing Zeman and the Communists’ company, or watching as clumsy smear campaigns backfire. The incident does, however, highlight the role united front-linked diaspora organisations can be incentivised to play in propaganda and influence efforts. A case where a Swiss united front group bothers to attack a Czech politician illustrates the transnational dimension these efforts reach in Europe.
Below we provide a full translation of the Aktuálně story.
“Four million dollars for Vystrčil”: A Chinese attempt at disparaging the President of the Czech Senate
by Lukáš Valášek and Helena Truchlá, Aktuálné.cz
According to an investigation conducted by Aktuálně.cz, a Swiss organization that experts say has ties to China is trying to discredit the second-highest ranking politician in the Czech Republic, Miloš Vystrčil. The Senate president infuriated the Chinese government, when in August, despite warnings from Beijing, he visited Taiwan. A disinformation network is spreading false information that the democratic country offered 4 million dollars to Vystrčil for his visit.
Beijing spent months trying to prevent the second-highest-ranking Czech politician from making an official visit to Taiwan, an island that China claims to be part of its territory. Aktuálně.cz has already published a threatening note sent by the Chinese embassy that Prague Castle delivered to the then-president of the Czech Senate, Jaroslav Kubera (ODS). After his sudden death, Chinese officials began putting pressure on his successor, Miloš Vystrčil (ODS). Nonetheless, in late August, Vystrčil visited the island nation.
China threatened that Czech businesses would “pay” for the visit. According to information obtained by Aktuálně.cz, foreign organizations with connections to Beijing have begun attacking the president of the Senate. They are trying to spread disinformation in the media and on social media, claiming that Vystrčil received a clandestine payment of 4 million dollars for his historic visit from the Taiwanese to be used for a future presidential campaign. “This is a blatantly absurd lie. This disinformation that is about me, it’s the first time I have heard about it. I want to consult with experts about how to protect myself,” Vystrčil informed Aktuálně.cz.
The editorial offices of Aktuálně.cz received an appeal to publish this disinformation that included a link to a related French news site. It was sent by the heads of organizations that have connections to Communist China’s propaganda organizations. This happened at a time when BIS, a Czech intelligence agency, published an annual report in which it warned against attempts by Chinese agents to influence Czech media.
The emails are signed by Michael Winkler, the director of RefinSol Advisory Services, a Swiss consulting agency, and his assistant, Robert J. Mojzes. Aktuálně.cz has determined that both men hold similar functions in other organizations. They are also behind the EurAsia Info news site, which regularly provides information about the activities of the Chinese embassy in Switzerland.
The site, for example, published a commentary piece by Michael Winkler titled “Xi Jinping: A Responsible Leader in Switzerland” in which he admires the Chinese president for “the depth of his knowledge on the historic connections between” China and Switzerland and “the clarity and soundness of his objectives” in visiting Switzerland.
Ralph Weber, a professor at the University of Basel, has long studied the connections between Swiss citizens and the Chinese government. “I am convinced that EurAsia Info has very close ties to the Chinese Communist state,” says Weber, who shared with Aktuálně.cz some of the findings of his research, conducted in cooperation with Czech experts from the Sinopsis organization.
Overseas Chinese and influence abroad
China is known for its extensive network of diaspora organizations in the West, associated with individual provinces. These organizations, like similar ones associated with other countries, closely collaborate with embassies and diplomats, are in close contact with the Communist government in China, and serve as a tool of influence.
BIS, a Czech intelligence agency, has warned about operations involving Chinese diaspora organizations. In the spring, the agency informed the government that the Chinese embassy in Prague, with the help of Chinese citizens in the Czech Republic, had bought up facemasks and sent them to China before the coronavirus pandemic exploded in the Czech Republic. As a result, the Czech Republic had to spend hundreds of millions USD purchasing scarce protective equipment from China.
A network of diaspora organizations, which reaches from Switzerland to the Czech Republic, played a role here. According to Weber, the headquarters of the above-mentioned consulting agency and media house are located at the same address and share the same offices as an organization for overseas Chinese from Jiangxi province. All these organizations are chaired by Zhu Ailian, who, alongside Winkler and Mojzes, runs the EurAsia Info site.
In Switzerland, Zhu Ailian heads, besides the diaspora organization, the European Jiangxi Chamber of Commerce. On its website, she boasts that 140 people from across Europe, including from the Czech Republic, have supported her activities. In addition to letters of congratulations from the regional government in China, she also presents a photograph of herself with Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan. In an interview for China Daily, a Chinese newspaper that is under the direct control of the Propaganda Department of the Communist party, she expressed support for the Belt and Road Initiative.
This enormous project focused on building trade and transport infrastructure around the world is the flagship of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s foreign policy. In Central and Eastern Europe, China is trying to use this initiative to convince governments of the benefits of working with Beijing. One of its Czech proponents is President Miloš Zeman. Critics, however, warn that in reality this Asian superpower may be trying to fracture the European Union.
“European countries need initiatives like those from China to promote peace, prevent wars, promote the development of the world economy and cooperation, [and] seek cultural diversity and common prosperity,” stated Zhu Ailian, in the mentioned interview for China Daily.
Her colleague Robert J. Mojzes denies any connection to organizations close to the Chinese government in his sending out of information about Vystrčil’s alleged acceptance of 4 million dollars. “We are neither personally nor professionally involved in this case. We are mere observers with an anti-corruption mindset and do not want to be quoted as the source of this information. However, should you find the contents of the article to be plausible and newsworthy, and should you decide to publish it in one form or the other, we would be very interested in receiving a link to the potential article in question,” wrote Mojzes to Aktuálně.cz.
A Czech footprint: A Chinese businessman from the Association for the Promotion of the Peaceful Unification of China
One of the founding members of the Swiss-based European Chamber of Commerce, headed by Zhu Ailian, is a Chinese businessman active in the Czech Republic, Li Rujiang.
“Besides conducting business activities, Li is in relatively intense contact with Chinese influence organizations and part of the local Chinese diaspora with links to the embassy and Chinese state and party institutions. The most direct link is his position as the as vice chairman of the Czech Association for the Promotion of the Peaceful Unification of China, a political organization whose proclaimed goal is the annexation of Taiwan by the People’s Republic of China [mainland China],” says Filip Jirouš from Sinopsis, an organization that has long endeavoured to expose Chinese influence in the Czech Republic. Jirouš has researched the Chinese community in the Czech Republic and its links to the Chinese government’s influence apparatus.
Whether Li Rujiang knew about the Czech activities of the two men close to his colleague in Switzerland is not clear. The editors were not successful in contacting him.
The Association for the Promotion of Peaceful Unification of China is part of a global network, whose American branch has been officially designated by the Department of State as a foreign mission of the Chinese government. The association regularly issues declarations supporting Chinese policies, for example, about territorial conflicts in the South China Sea or about events in Hong Kong. It also co-organizes various events and meetings, including the Chinese New Year celebration in Prague that was attended by Vystrčil’s predecessor, Kubera, when he was deciding whether or not he would make a trip to Taiwan. Before the celebration, he met with Chinese ambassador Zhang Jianmin, who had put much effort into making sure that Kubera did not make the trip. The former Senate president died three days later, and his wife, Věra, has blamed his death on the pressure he was under due to his planned visit to Taiwan.
Because of these activities, Li Rujiang is a key figure in the Chinese community in the Czech Republic. He organizes Chinese New Year celebrations together with his colleague, Zhou Lingjian, who found himself at the centre of a disinformation controversy this past spring, when Italian media reported that the Czech Ministry of the Interior had confiscated facemasks headed for Italy as Chinese humanitarian aid.
An investigation by Aktuálně.cz discovered that the protective equipment was being stored in Lovosice by one of the most influential members of the Chinese community in the Czech Republic, Zhou Lingjian. Zhou claims that he was sending the facemasks as a form of aid from China to Italy. How they ended up in his Czech warehouse, which lies far away from the transport route to Italy, is still not clear today. What is certain is that hundreds of thousands of facemasks ended up in the hands of a Czech middleman, who unsuccessfully tried to sell them to the Czech government with an exorbitant mark-up.
An “urgent and important” news tip — from a PRC-linked organization
At first glance, it seemed like an ordinary news tip that came into the Aktuálně.cz editorial office last week from Switzerland. “We have come across the following article, […] which might be of interest to you and your readers as it concerns the political leadership in the Czech Republic. We would be curious to find out what you eventually have done with the information and would very much appreciate a link to a potential corresponding article,” reads an email written in English signed by one Michael Winkler.
Winkler included a link to a French news site that falsely claims that the president of the Czech Senate, Miloš Vystrčil, visited Taiwan in August because the democratic country had promised to contribute 4 million dollars to his presidential campaign. The article relies on very dubious sources – Reddit and Twitter posts that have since been deleted – and, in defiance of good journalistic practice, lacks comments from Vystrčil or the Taiwanese government.
On Monday, a second man wrote a follow-up email inquiring whether the editors had received the information and were doing something with it. “Because we haven’t heard from you, we are concerned our message might have ended in your spam folder. Therefore, I am forwarding this relevant article about your Senate president, Miloš Vystrčil, to your personal email address. Unfortunately, we failed to reach you by phone this afternoon,” wrote Robert J. Mojzes, who presented himself as Winkler’s assistant. He stated that the issue was urgent and important.
A warning from BIS: China is trying to influence Czech media
BIS, a Czech intelligence agency, warned against attempts by Communist China to influence the media in its last annual report. “Chinese actors – agents, diplomats, members of party organizations, and others – have sought out ways to influence public opinion in the Czech Republic, spread Chinese propaganda, and improve the PRC’s image by both openly and covertly influencing the media,” writes BIS.
Last year, Aktuálně.cz uncovered a secret campaign operated by Home Credit, a company owned by Petr Kellner, the wealthiest man in the Czech Republic, that has lent 13.5 billion USD in consumer loans in China and which has a major interest in relations between the Czech Republic and China being good. A PR agency hired by Home Credit created a network of experts, journalists, and politicians, some of whom were unaware of the nature of their involvement. The agency founded the Sinoskop website for Vít Vojta. The site is largely uncritical in its approach to China. Vojta, however, has presented himself in the media as an independent expert. The agency was also paid to monitor and counter public statements made by critics of the Chinese regime. The PR agency also billed Home Credit for texts about China that were published on the news site Info.cz.
Aktuálně.cz has also already reported about Literární noviny’s collaboration with the People’s Daily. This Czech newspaper, which played an important role in the Prague Spring of 1968, has reprinted propaganda articles written by Communist journalists and other texts praising the Communist superpower. The readership of these two papers, however, cannot be compared. The circulation of Literární noviny is 10,000, whereas that of the People’s Daily is around 500,000.
Based on an analysis from the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs obtained by Aktuálně.cz, China is very active in spreading disinformation about the coronavirus. Experts from the ministry warn that China has hidden information about infection numbers and the pandemic, and has been using propaganda in an attempt to destabilize the West and gain dominance. In this regard, China’s interests and activities overlap with those of Russia.
Translated by Nicholas Orsillo.
Ralph Weber, “Working the fringes: An analysis of CCP/PRC influence networks in Switzerland”, presented at Mapping China’s footprint in the world III, 13 Oct 2020.
Filip Jirouš, “The Role of Coopted Diaspora Groups in Czech and European United Front Work”, China Brief 20:16, 16 Sep 2020.
Filip Jirouš, “The Chinese United Front in the Czech Republic: methods, goals and organizational structure”, master’s thesis, Charles University, Sep 2020.
Sinopsis and Jichang Lulu, “China’s ‘economic diplomacy’ in the Czech Republic: From promises of investment to threats of retaliation”, Sinopsis, 20 Feb 2020.
[Updated 12 November.]