Protests in Prague as China's Xi signs economic partnership

[PRAGUE] 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 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 (S$5.32 billion) into the central European country in 2016 alone.

But the announcement failed to silence China's critics.

Hundreds of protesters rallied in central Prague later Tuesday, waving Tibetan flags and chanting "Freedom for Tibet" along with anti-Zeman slogans.

"I want to express my disgust at this government and especially the president licking the boots of China's totalitarian regime," Otakar van Gemund, a 46-year-old translator, told AFP.

Police threw up a tight security cordon in the city centre, especially around Prague Castle, where Mr Xi held talks with Mr Zeman.

Mr Xi was received by his Czech counterpart with full military honours, including a 21-gun salute.

Several dozen members of China's banned Falun Gong religious movement demonstrated outside Prague Castle during the meeting.

Members of the conservative opposition TOP 09 party also expressed disapproval at Mr Xi's presence, hanging two Tibetan flags from parliament's windows in protest.

On Monday, police arrested 12 people 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.

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 a huge global following, but China has tried to ostracise anyone who deals with the monk.

The Prague protests underscore the controversy around the Czech Republic's staunchly pro-China policy.

Pro-European opposition politicians accuse Mr Zeman of excessive servility vis-a-vis Mr Xi.

On Monday, Mr 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, they signed a strategic partnership, with Mr Zeman saying he wanted the country of 10.5 million people, which is known for its vibrant automotive sector, to become a "safe haven" for Chinese investment in the EU.

China's 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.

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

A 71-year-old pro-Russian ex-communist, Mr Zeman 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, Mr Xi will travel to the United States to attend a nuclear security summit which begins on Thursday.



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