Czech Billionaire Covertly Funded PR Campaign to Improve Image of the Chinese Regime: Czech Media

January 12, 2020 Updated: January 13, 2020
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PRAGUE, Czech Republic—Czech credit company Home Credit, which is owned by local billionaire Petr Kellner, funded a public relations campaign to improve the image of the Chinese regime in the country, according to documents leaked to Czech daily Aktuálne.cz.

The report, published on Dec. 10, 2019, was based on invoices from PR agency C&B Reputation Management, which was hired by Home Credit.

The PR agency was tasked with influencing media, public debate, and politicians.

In addition to promoting positive messages about China, the PR campaign also attacked critics of the Chinese regime.

Aktualne.cz also found out that the PR agency’s campaign, paid by billionaire Petr Kellner’s Home Credit, also focused on politicians. In September 2019, a conference was organized by a member of the ODS Party, where Prague lawmakers criticized the city’s mayor for canceling a sister city agreement with Beijing.

Epoch Times Photo
Home Credit’s Chinese company logo. (Screenshot)

On Dec. 14, 2019, Home Credit published a press release in response to the Aktualne.cz article.

The company denied the allegations, insisting its activities were “business, not political.”

“Home Credit, with full responsibility, declares that it has never hired or inquired in the Czech Republic about any lobbying or communication PR services aimed at promoting the interests of any foreign country,” the press release said.

Home Credit is owned by Kellner’s investment firm PPF, which entered the Chinese credit market in 2007.

According to business publication Ekonom, PPF earned more than 2 billion euros (about $2.2 billion) in China in 2017. Some Czech politicians and experts believe PPF came under political pressure from the Chinese regime to promote its interests in the Czech Republic.

In October 2019, PPF signed a purchase agreement to buy Central European Media Enterprises (CME), which owns TV NOVA, one of the largest television stations in the Czech Republic in addition to TV stations in Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. It has a reach of 45 million viewers. In light of the information published by Aktualne.cz, the purchase of TV NOVA raises the question of whether Kellner and his PPF will influence broadcasting in favor of the Chinese regime.

This contract, costing about $2.1 billion, must be approved by the shareholders of CME, the European Commission, and national regulators in some of the countries where CME operates.

Influencing Public Discussion

According to documents published by Aktualne.cz, during the period from April to August 2019, C&B itemized a total of almost 2,000 hours of work.

The itemized list of services rendered included PPF clandestinely organizing the establishment the Sinoskop Institute for Contemporary China through Home Credit, a think tank that promoted opinions downplaying the Chinese regime’s human rights violations.

The institute was officially established in June 2019 by sinologist Vít Vojta, who has also worked as an interpreter for Czech politicians and presidents traveling to China, including current Czech President Miloš Zeman.

Through the work for Sinoskop, Vojta appeared as an independent China expert in the Czech mass media, giving interviews and writing commentary.

 The PR agency invoiced Home Credit for the activities of Vojta and other Czech commentators on China issues. 

 How much Home Credit paid to PR agency remains unclear. The documents published by Aktualne.cz contain the number of hours worked, but not the hourly rate.

Financial Incentives

PPF operates in five Chinese provinces. In 2012, the company entered the Chinese finance sector.

Czech billionaire Kellner amassed his wealth by acquiring property during the fall of the communist regime in the former Czechoslovakia in 1989 and in the 1990s during the country’s early years.

Today, Petr Kellner is the richest Czech and, according to Forbes, is the 73rd richest man in the world, worth $15.5 billion.

Some believe PPF’s business interests in the country propelled the company to promote a positive image for the Chinese regime.

“Home Credit can lose its license in the PRC [People’s Republic of China] at any time,” wrote Czech MP Jan Lipavsky in an email to the Epoch Times.

After 2014, the Czech Republic started to move away from the promotion of human rights towards more economic and political exchanges with China.

For example, the country is part of the 17 + 1 platform, Beijing’s project for increasing business and trade between China and 17 eastern European countries.

Home Credit itself is a facilitator of closer ties between the Chinese regime and the Czech Republic.

In Apr. 2016, Jiří Šmejc, CEO and minority shareholder of Home Credit, said at a Prague business forum: “PPF, Home Credit and we are proud that we were at the birth of an initiative that, I think, led to the revival of Czech–Chinese relations.”

During an October 2018 panel, titled “Can China’s Increasing Activities Be a Threat to the Czech Republic?” Charles University sinologist Martin Hála said: “It is good to pay attention to what PPF is doing in China. PPF is one of the main drivers of political change in the Czech Republic. The decision to change policy towards China was clearly made by politicians influenced by PPF, or by China.” 

But Home Credit’s head of public relations Milan Tomanek denied allegations that PPF did influence Czech politics to benefit itself.

“It’s not true. It sounds like several people who are repeating this lie over and over again,” he said in a November 2019 email to The Epoch Times.

The Czech Republic has recently increased vigilance over the Chinese regime’s growing influence. In a 2018 report, Czech’s chief intelligence agency said it considered China’s influence as one of the country’s greatest security threats.