Czech investigative reporters uncovered a troubling evidence of China’s influence inside Czech academia. The case revolves around the Czech-Chinese Centre at the prestigious Charles University in Prague. In September, the Centre hosted its 4th annual conference, where Chinese ambassador to the Czech Republic Zhang Jianmin was one of the prominent panelists. As found by Aktuálně.cz, the connection did not end here – the annual conferences were funded by the Chinese embassy. Moreover, the Embassy secretly sponsored an entire university course on benefits of the Belt and Road Initiative.
The connection between the Embassy and Charles University was mediated by Miloš Balabán, the Executive Secretary of the Czech-Chinese Center established at the university in 2015. Balabán held a leading position as the head of Charles University’s other center – Centre for Security Policy, a leading research body in the field of security. In 2015, Balabán founded a private company focused on research under the exact same name – Centre for Security Policy, s.r.o. According to Aktuálně.cz, it was Balabán’s private company that received a 47,000 EUR check from the Chinese embassy for organizing the Czech-Chinese Centre conferences in 2018 and 2019.
Yet, when asked about this year event’s funding back in September, Balabán concealed where the money came from. “The main organizer of the conference is the Czech-Chinese Centre, which contributed with approximately 20,000 EUR. Other participating entities contributed 2,300 EUR,” said Balabán, omitting that the Chinese embassy provided him with 23,500 EUR that year. However, last week, the invoices and allocation of the money was confirmed to Aktuálně.cz by Libor Stejskal, another co-owner of the privately owned company.
In the light of the revelations, Balabán resigned from the Czech-Chinese Centre and also stepped down as the head of the Charles University’s Centre for Security Policy. Within a week, the university let him go, along with two other teachers who also participated in Balabán’s private company. An audit was launched into the activities of both research centers and the university is also requesting an audit of Balabán’s secret business. Yet, so far, Balabán has provided the auditors with a series of incomplete documents that do not show the company’s income.
After the first scandal, another level of Balabán’s cooperation with the Chinese Embassy came to light. Last year, the Charles University’s curricula started featuring a voluntary course for Czech students titled “Belt and Road Initiative” that officially aimed to enhance students’ understanding of the China’s mega-project. At the end of the summer semester eight students who authored the best essays were rewarded by fully-funded trip to China under the Chinese ‘Bridge for the Future’ program. The course was developed and taught by Miloš Balabán together with Marek Hrubec from the Academy of Sciences. According to findings of Aktuálně.cz, Balabán allegedly sent an invoice via his company for 2,700 EUR for teaching this course not to Charles University – but to the Chinese Embassy in Prague.
According to some students, who were interviewed by magazine Respekt, the course was balanced and informative, while others said Balabán painted the initiative as “all-saving economic project that only a dummy would pass on.”
As Aktuálně.cz points out, Balabán is not an entirely unfamiliar face to the Czech counterintelligence. The Prague Security Conference, organized annually by Miloš Balabán, was mentioned by the State Information Service (BIS) in its 2013 annual report as an example of how foreign powers influence popular opinion. According to the report, the conference panelists criticized the US intelligence activities, while omitting intelligence activities of Russia and China, despite the repeated warnings of BIS about the increasing presence and danger of both powers’ influence in the Czech Republic.
Yet, Miloš Balabán and his private intermediary company have been some of the most influential shapers of the Czech security environment. The Ministry of Interior chose Balabán to conduct the audit of National Security Strategy in 2016, which included assessment of foreign influence in the country. He also received numerous research grants and ultimately became a member of the Ministry’s advisory board on security research, which is responsible for distribution of grant funds. Jan Ludvík, another co-owner of the Centre for Security Policy, s.r.o., received a 170,000 EUR grant from the Czech Ministry of Interior for developing a system of protection of research institutions against foreign influence.
How Deep Do the Roots Reach?
Given the scope of the scandal, it is not just Balabán’s integrity that is being put into question. The Beijing-funded conferences were held under the patronage of Tomáš Zima, the rector of Charles University. Zima claims that he did not know about the source of the events’ funding which he described as “scandalous and unacceptable”. However, many academics are not convinced by his apology and demand his resignation.
“In this case, the argument that he did not know about [the funding] is untenable,” said Jiří Zlatuška, a former rector at the Masaryk University in Brno, in an interview with Aktuálně.cz. He also pointed out that Zima should have never allowed Balabán to create a private company that matches the name of an official Charles University institution. Václav Hampl, a former rector at the Charles University, blames Zima for setting up the Czech-Chinese Centre. “The Centre was founded despite the fact that China is known to influence these institutes with the objective of indoctrination favorable to its communist regime”, says Hampl.
Ivan Wilhelm, another former rector, however argues that the Czech-Chinese Centre is an important opinion balancer. “You can hardly have a critical dialogue with someone holding the same views as you,” commented Wilhelm. According to him, Zima might indeed not have known about the sources of the conference funding.
But this is not the first time Zima is being accused of helping to pave the way for Chinese influence into Czech academia. Just two weeks before Balabán’s case was made public, Zima signed a sponsorship agreement between Charles University and Home Credit – a company belonging to the portfolio of PPF owned by the richest Czech businessman Petr Kellner. Home Credit operates extensively in China and links between Kellner and Beijing were previously pointed out by researchers. What really struck the public eye was a paragraph in the agreement which stated that both sides would steer clear from any steps that “might damage their reputation”. After the university students organized a petition against the deal, Home Credit stepped away from the contract itself. Many subsequently criticized Zima for letting Home Credit to solve the issue, instead of cancelling the contract himself, or – better – never agreeing to in the first place.
The influx of money from the Chinese Embassy to both academic conferences and courses made a troubling dent in reputation of prestigious Charles University, one of the oldest universities in Europe. It is now crucial for the officials to adopt a thorough and uncompromising approach in their investigation. The findings of the audits will bear importance that overreaches the walls of Charles University. They will become an important case study of Chinese influence in foreign academia and will provide further arguments into the dispute over the value and dangers of establishing institutions such as the Czech-Chinese Centre. All European academic institutions should follow this case closely.
Alžběta Bajerová is a Research Fellow at the Association for International Affairs. She graduated from Master’s program Security and Strategic Studies at Faculty of Social Studies of Masaryk University, completed a study exchange programme at National Taiwan University, and gained work experience through internships at the Embassy of the Czech Republic in China, NATO CCD Centre of Excellence, or National Cyber and Information Security Agency (NCISA).