New revelations on the laundering of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda through local actors in the Czech Republic point to an underresearched aspect of influence operations. The CCP’s tactic of “borrowing a boat to go out to sea” (借船出海, jie chuan chu hai), i.e., coopting local media outlets to serve as proxies, has long been known to involve organs in the party’s propaganda system (China Journalist, October 9, 2011; CPI, July 2015). Further scrutiny of laundered propaganda operations now indicates the Ministry of State Security’s (MSS, 国家安全部, Guojia Anquan Bu) role in efforts to coopt influential voices in media and academia abroad. In the Czech Republic, these operations involve former collaborators of the MSS’s defunct Czechoslovak equivalent, a nexus that suggests the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) intelligence apparatus is reactivating elements from communist-era security agencies.
Two influence operations that have recently come to light in the Czech Republic, one targeting the media, and the other academia, shed new light on the links between the PRC’s security services and its external propaganda efforts.
A series of scandals have turned Czech public opinion increasingly skeptical about the PRC in the last few years. The most high-profile incident was the collapse of the Chinese company CEFC, which had links to PLA intelligence, and the disappearance in early 2018 of its Chairman Ye Jianming, who was at that time an official advisor to the Czech Republic’s pro-Beijing President Miloš Zeman (China Brief, May 9, 2019).
As Czech public opinion on China has soured, CCP-friendly actors have mobilized in an apparent damage-control effort. For example, the Czech financial conglomerate Home Credit, which has major stakes in the Chinese market, orchestrated a public opinion campaign to “rationalize” the (mostly critical) debate on China. The company surreptitiously helped set up an “independent” China-focused think tank, called “Sinoskop”, and hired a public relations (PR) company to place its content in Czech media (China Brief, January 17, 2020). According to leaked invoices, the PR company micromanaged Sinoskop’s activities down to formulating its social-media posts (Aktuálně, December 10, 2019).
Along with “positive-energy” (正能量, zheng nengliang) messaging, attacks on CCP critics have intensified, including legal threats (Sinopsis, September 12, 2019). In at least one case, united front groups organized a cross-border disinformation operation involving a smear campaign against a Czech politician who visited Taiwan, spreading the false claim that he had been paid off by Taipei (Sinopsis, December 18, 2020; China Brief, April 12).
The Media Front: Borrowing a Venerable Boat
The CCP’s most prominent Czech “borrowed boat” is Literární noviny (Literary News, LN). The paper boasts a fabled history as one of the main voices of the Czechoslovak reform movement in the 1960s. LN’s reputation makes it a perfect vehicle: many readers may vaguely remember its past glory, without necessarily understanding its more recent troubled history.
The paper fell on hard times economically in the early 2000s. In 2009, the paper was taken over, with some help from the wing in the Czech Social Democratic Party that would later spearhead the post-2013 turn toward Beijing, by Miroslav Pavel, a former spokesperson for the late-communist Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec. Pavel gradually turned the celebrated but cash-strapped paper into a platform for CCP propaganda.
Since 2017, LN has had an official agreement with Guangming Ribao (光明日报, GMRB) to run its syndication project “Reading CHINA +” (阅读中国+, Yuedu Zhongguo Jia) in the Czech Republic—a project that has also involved partner outlets in Thailand and Pakistan (GMRB, November 7, 2018). Cooperation goes beyond just this one project. In coordination with GMRB, LN has prepared thematic “dossiers” on hot topics, such as Covid-19 or the upcoming Olympics, that present CCP-aligned viewpoints to an often unsuspecting Czech readership (Aktuálně.cz, January 27, 2020). Most of the texts are produced by GMRB in Beijing, sent for translation to the Czech Republic, and then are returned back to China, where the translations receive final authorization. LN, once the voice of enlightened reform, has been effectively turned into a localized extension of one of the party’s main propaganda organs.
A commercial aspect to the cooperation between LN and GMRB exists as well, which, according to uncorroborated sources, is worth about $34,000 a year. The sum was, however, well below the inserts’ publishing costs, and did not suffice to prevent the paper’s demise: the printed edition closed due to the lack of funds in 2020 (Médiář, May 18, 2020). The “dossiers”, however, have continued to be printed as stand-alone publications, or as inserts in other papers, such as Haló noviny, the organ of the unreformed Czech successor of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia . The main motivation for Pavel’s cooperation with GMRB may thus not be financial, but political.
The Academic Front: Less Venerable Connections
The LN’s propaganda-laundering activities were once again spotlighted by a recent media investigation of one of its collaborators, Marek Hrubec, the then director of a research center affiliated with the Institute of Philosophy of the Czech Academy of Sciences (CAS) and also the coordinator of one of the CAS’s research programs. Two articles revealed Hrubec’s collaboration with PRC intelligence and propaganda organs, as well as with Ladislav Zemánek, an anti-Semitic, Czech academic (Aktuálně.cz, November 4, November 11).
Hrubec has on multiple occasions reproduced CCP talking points in PRC media. Commenting for the People’s Daily in 2018, Hrubec lauded the promulgation of the National Supervision Law, which strengthened the CCP’s hold over state functions by establishing the National Supervisory Commission (People’s Daily, March 21 2018). Hrubec also praised the PRC’s “unique kind of modernization” on the eve of the CCP’s centenary and China’s role at the UN on the 50th anniversary of the PRC’s accession (China Daily, June 30; October 22). Hrubec’s LN pieces are also heavy on CCP propaganda tropes, praising, e.g., China’s allegedly positive role in handling the Covid-19 pandemic in a coauthored article (LN, April 17, 2020).
In September, Hrubec initiated a new form of collaboration with the LN whereby the platform promoted the outcomes of the CAS research program he coordinated (LN, 27 September). These outcomes were also shared with the online magazine Argument (Argument, October 27). The CAS-LN institutional linkage effectively used publicly financed research to provide content to a platform that has been coopted by the CCP’s propaganda system. Media investigations also revealed that Hrubec’s CAS program had paid about $1,840 of public funds to the CCP-coopted platform in October 2021 (Aktuálně.cz, November 4). As a result of the coverage, CAS and its Institute of Philosophy removed Hrubec from his managerial functions (Aktuálně.cz, November 16).
Behind Propaganda: PRC and Czechoslovak State-Security Networks
These developments involving LN and Hrubec were not the first episodes of propaganda laundering in the Czech Republic. However, these incidents highlight an underexamined aspect of CCP elite-cooption activity: the involvement the PRC state security apparatus, which in this case leveraged the networks of its now defunct communist-era Czechoslovak counterpart.
Sinopsis research, first used by local media in their coverage of Hrubec’s activities, revealed Hrubec’s affiliation with a Budapest think tank run by a long-term MSS officer. Hrubec is a member of the international academic committee of the China-CEE Institute (中国-中东欧研究院, Zhongguo-Zhong-Dong-Ou Yanjiu Yuan) in Budapest, which is officially run by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS, 中国社会科学院, Zhongguo Shehui Kexue Yuan) (China-CEE Institute.). The institute’s president, Feng Zhongping (冯仲平), was, between no later than 2014 and 2021, a vice-president of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR, 中国现代国际关系研究院, Zhongguo Xiandai Guoji Guanxi Yanjiu Yuan), a unit of the MSS (Gov.cn, June 17, 2014; China-CEE Institute, n.d.; n.d.; DNI Open Source Center, August 25, 2011). CICIR is the MSS’s Eleventh Bureau, engaged in intelligence and liaison work among foreign academic circles and think tanks, and in open-source research . Hrubec’s anti-Semitic colleague Zemánek has been writing weekly briefings on Czech politics for the Institute since 2019. Despite the media revelations, the Institute has not ceased cooperation with Zemánek: it continues to publish his briefings, and he recently attended a virtual lecture by Feng alongside Polish and other European scholars (China-CEE Institute, November 5, 2019; December 1; November 12). Days ago, the Institute condemned the media coverage in the Czech Republic and Hungary, claiming that “unfounded assumptions” about the “Institute’s operations” were made and “erroneous conclusions were drawn” (China-CEE Institute, December 1; for the Hungarian coverage, see HVG, November 26). To add to the security-propaganda links, GMRB has itself long been known as a frequent cover used by the MSS, which often posts its officers to PRC media organs’ offices abroad .
In laundering propaganda through LN, PRC organs may also benefit from old acquaintances of Czechoslovak State Security (Statní bezpečnost, StB), the communist regime’s secret police. Pavel, LN’s owner, is the son of a 1968 reformist-communist politician, and as such, was ostracized for some time after the Soviet-led invasion. He was, however, readmitted into the party in 1984. Pavel’s unusual welcome back to the fold may be explained by his collaboration with the StB. According to his now publicly available StB file, Pavel was recruited by state security in 1975 to spy on the West German embassy in Prague, and later to surveil journalists at a newspaper where he worked (Security Services Archives Collections, Secret Collaborator Files [SCF], sig. TS_751727_MV_2_2, p. 23, file no. 5500, November 11, 1984). The security organs lost interest in Pavel when he rejoined the party, as he had become less trustworthy to the journalists he was supposed to spy on (ibid., p. 24).
The networks between MSS and ex-StB elements extend beyond LN’s owner. In 2018, an event on cooperation between the PRC and Central European left-wing parties, which was attended by CCP International Liaison Department cadres featured, apart from Hrubec, the academic Oskar Krejčí (Haló noviny, December 2, 2018). Like Hrubec, Krejčí collaborates with Argument, and worked for the late communist-era PM Adamec (Argument, n.d.). Like Pavel, Krejčí was a registered StB secret collaborator. Now lecturing at a private university in Prague (Jan Amos Komenský University Prague, n.d.), Krejčí was—per StB records—recruited in 1971 to help purge “rightists” from academic circles, including the predecessor of the CAS Institute of Philosophy that would later employ Hrubec (SCF, TS_808756_MV_4_4, p. 23-25, file no. 8478, June 26, 1989) . Despite his “ultra-leftist or even pro-Chinese views”, Krejčí kept rising up the StB ladder, finally getting promoted to a resident, handling his own agents, in 1980 (SCF, TS_808756_MV_2_4, p. 29-30, Record no. 5, January 15, 1975; SCF, TS_808756_MV_2_4, p. 109, Record of resident recruitment, May 28, 1980). The security service severed cooperation with Krejčí in 1989, when he became an advisor to the premier (SCF, TS_808756_MV_4_4, p. 23-25, file no. 8478, June 26, 1989).
In projecting its influence into the former Eastern Bloc countries in Central and Eastern Europe (now grouped under the PRC’s “16+1” initiative), the CCP adjusts its tactics to these countries’ distinctive history. On the one hand, due to the region’s Marxist-Leninist past, large sections of the local population tend to be more skeptical of Beijing’s intentions than might be the case elsewhere. At the same time, there are natural allies for the CCP that extend beyond the local communist parties into the former security agencies. The conspicuous prevalence of former StB collaborators in CCP propaganda efforts in the Czech Republic, which themselves have links to PRC state security, suggests that Beijing has been quite capable at tapping into these legacy networks.
Martin Hála is a Sinologist with Charles University in Prague, and the founder and director of Sinopsis.cz, a project that provides analysis of China-related topics in Europe.
Filip Jirouš is a Sinologist and researcher with Sinopsis.cz, where he focuses on united front work.
Ondřej Klimeš is a researcher at the Oriental Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences, where he focuses on China and Xinjiang politics, propaganda, and ethnic policy. You can follow him on Twitter @otkur009.
The authors thank Jichang Lulu for valuable input and help with Hungarian-language sources.
 The LN website also continues to operate the “Reading CHINA +” virtual dossier (LN, n.d.).
 Peter Mattis and Matthew Brazil, Chinese Communist Espionage: An Intelligence Primer, Naval Institute Press, 2019, ch. 1.
 A journalist working for GMRB became MSS Second Bureau deputy director after leaving the newspaper (Xuezhi Guo, China’s Security State: Philosophy, Evolution, and Politics, Cambridge University Press, 2012, p. 367). Second Bureau officers use diplomatic, media, or government cover for espionage (Mattis and Brazil, p. 69).
 Krejčí’s StB profile was previously covered by a Czech newspaper (Deník N, October 31, 2019).