China's Xi signs economic partnership in Prague amid protests


Prague (AFP)

Chinese President Xi Jinping signed a landmark strategic partnership with his Czech counterpart in Prague on Tuesday amid a fresh wave of protests in the Czech capital against Beijing's policies on Tibet.

The first visit by a Chinese head of state to the Czech Republic has been overshadowed by protests by human rights groups and opposition politicians critical of China's policy in Tibet.

Czech President Milos Zeman, who has billed the visit as a chance to boost trade with the world's second-biggest economy, announced that Chinese investors would pour 95 billion koruna (3.5 billion euros, $3.93 billion) into the central European country in 2016 alone.

But the announcement failed to silence China's critics.

"I have never come across such bootlicking as I can see now," former foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg said, criticising the warm welcome Zeman has offered his Chinese counterpart.

To show its disapproval Schwarzenberg's conservative TOP 09 party, which accuses Xi of overseeing mass executions and other serious rights abuses, hung two Tibetan flags from parliament's windows on Tuesday.

Several dozen protesters from China's banned Falun Gong religious movement demonstrated outside Prague Castle as Xi arrived for talks with Zeman, who welcomed the Chinese leader with full military honours, including a 21-gun salute.

Further protests were scheduled for later Tuesday in Prague's historic centre.

Police arrested 12 people on Monday after pro-Tibetan demonstrators scuffled with crowds who had turned out to welcome the Chinese leader.

Chinese flags hung on Prague's streets were defaced, and a huge billboard of Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, meeting with the late Czech president Vaclav Havel was erected on the road leading from the airport to the city.

"These gentlemen are at home here", the billboard read, recalling the Dalai Lama's frequent visits to Prague during Havel's presidency between 1989 and 2003.

- 'Save haven' for Chinese investors -

China, which has ruled Tibet since 1951, accuses the Dalai Lama of supporting separatism and violence in the region.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner has won a global following through his spiritual teachings, but China has tried to ostracise anyone who deals with the monk.

The Prague protests underscore the controversy around President Zeman's staunchly pro-China policy.

Pro-European opposition politicians like Schwarzenberg accuse him of excessive servility vis-a-vis Xi.

On Monday, Zeman hosted the Chinese president at his official residence, where the two were photographed planting a ginkgo tree, holding watering cans emblazoned with their national flags.

On Tuesday, the two leaders signed a strategic partnership, with Zeman saying he wanted the Czech Republic to become a "safe haven" for Chinese investment in the EU.

Xi said the agreement gave the "political direction" for the future development of bilateral relations.

Chinese group CEFC, among the country's top 10 private companies, recently spent about 20 billion koruna to acquire stakes in a Czech airline, a brewery, two media groups and a top football team.

Zeman said Czech carmaker Skoda Auto, a unit of Germany's Volkswagen, would invest 60 billion koruna in China in the next five years.

Zeman, a 71-year-old pro-Russian ex-communist, was the only European head of state to attend a military parade in Beijing last September commemorating Japan's surrender at the end of World War II.

After visiting Prague, Xi will travel to the United States to attend a nuclear security summit which begins on Thursday.