When the police and Ústecký kraj region head Oldřich Bubeníček stormed the Lovosice warehouse last week and confiscated 680 thousand masks and 28 thousand respirators, they severely disrupted the plans of one of the most powerful men in the Czech Chinese community - Zhou Lingjian.
Zhou Lingjian is in charge of the largest overseas Chinese association in the Czech Republic, runs the most influential Czech Chinese-language media outlet, the Prague Chinese Times, is directly linked to the Communist government in Beijing and even accompanied the Czech president Miloš Zeman on his state visit to China last year. According to Aktuálně.cz’s investigation, it was him who imported the confiscated protective gear.
Altogether 680 thousand surgical masks and 28 thousand respirators were eventually bought by a Czech company that tried to sell them to the Czech Ministry of Health for several times the regular price. Zhou claims that he sold part of the imported masks to the Czech reseller - since he did not want to deal with the Czech government directly - for the regular price of 0.3 CZK (0.012 USD). This is currently impossible to verify.
But the police have also confiscated boxes labeled with Chinese and Italian flags. According to a statement by Zhou’s representative (obtained by Aktuálně.cz), these were humanitarian aid for Italy coming from his home province in China. However, it is not clear why the masks were in the Lovosice warehouse, especially since another aid shipment from China managed to arrive to Italy around the same time directly via airmail. The police’s current working theory is that someone stole the boxes.
The confiscation of boxes marked as humanitarian aid led to a major conflict with the Czech Chinese diaspora and Italy, which the Czech Minister of Interior Jan Hamáček (ČSSD) tried to ease. "We will send the same amount - 100 thousand masks - to Italy," he told Aktuálně.cz on Sunday. In the meanwhile, the Italian daily La Repubblica published an article claiming the Czech Republic had sequestered the humanitarian aid to Italy, framing it as an "extremely severe case of lack of solidarity within the EU".
As Deník N reported, the ministry apologized already on Friday: "Further investigation showed that part of the confiscated goods was a shipment of 101,600 masks and respirators intended as a donation from Zhejiang province’s Qing Tian City Red Cross [Zhejiang Province Qingtian District Red Cross Society of China] to overseas Chinese in Italy ," wrote Hamáček. This was his reaction to questions from Aktuálně.cz and others he had been facing since Thursday.
Celníci v Lovosicích zabavili statisíce roušek, bohužel následné šetření odhalilo, že menší část z nich byla čínský dar Itálii. Zjišťujeme, co dělal čínský dar pro Itálii v Lovosicích, nicméně komunikujeme s oběma zeměmi a ujišťuji, že Itálie o nic nepřijde. #spolecnetozvladneme— Jan Hamáček (@jhamacek) March 20, 2020
On Twitter, Hamáček later added that he was investigating what the gift was doing in the Lovosice warehouse. Aktuálně.cz’s own investigation shows that the warehouse is leased to Zhou’s company CTE Cargo Sped, Ltd.. Zhou is the largest shareholder of the company, headed by his wife. The company is linked to CTE International, the company that supposedly shipped the material to the Czech Republic.
Masks and respirators ended up in the possession of a Czech "shell" company CBA Trade - as already described by iRozhlas.cz, the company’s headquarters is in a family house in the town of Jirny. No website and no updated contact details are available. The company which according to its 2016 financial report (the last one published) has no employees and barely any assets, was bought by Romana Voráčková two years ago. Voráčková remains the company’s director. Aktuálně.cz’s attempts to contact her were unsuccessful.
According to a Ministry of Health spokesperson, the company tried to sell the masks, usually priced at 15 CZK (0.6 USD), for 32 CZK (1.27 USD) apiece.
Aktuálně.cz spoke to a Czech-speaking representative of Mr. Zhou, who introduced himself as Mr. Yu on Friday morning. Mr. Yu declined to comment on the situation, saying they were solving it with a "higher power". The same day in the afternoon Hamáček, who has close ties to Chinese government representatives, issued the aforementioned apology.
"Zhou Lingjian has a transport company. The imported masks were sold to Czech nationals for 0.3 CZK a piece. They offered the goods to the ministry and then came the police action, during which they also confiscated other masks. It was a misunderstanding," claims Mr. Yu. It was allegedly easier and faster for them to deal with a middleman, whose name they prefer not to disclose, than to sell or donate the material directly to the Czech government. The Czech Republic should be according to him grateful for the Chinese help, because thanks to the president Miloš Zeman [who is close to the Chinese regime] it is among the three countries to which China offers the most aid.
Man number one or two
Zhou Lingjian seems to be an extraordinarily influential person within the several thousand strong Chinese community here. He heads the Czech Qingtian Hometown Association. "Formally that makes him man number one or two within the Chinese diaspora here. With a very clear link to the Chinese regime," states Filip Jirouš, a researcher at the Czech China-focused think tank Sinopsis.
Even according to Chinese organs, overseas Qingtianese are a very important group among the Chinese diaspora. In 2018 there were 330 thousand Qingtianese living abroad, the large majority of them in Europe. This group is very active in Italy and Spain, where it has featured in organized crime scandals.
According to photos obtained by Aktuálně.cz, it was Qingtian from where the aid was sent to Italy. It remains unclear why it showed up at the warehouse used by Mr. Zhou instead. "It was supposed to be sent on a direct flight from China to Italy. But that was canceled, so they shipped it to Prague from where we wanted to take it by car to Italy. But then they closed the borders," said Mr. Yu. It should be noted that the Czech border remains open for trucks and cargo.
In the meantime, according to the Hospodářské noviny daily, the Italian embassy claimed the humanitarian aid found in the warehouse was stolen. "The Czech authorities confirmed their investigation shows that somebody stole the masks and respirators from the supplier and stored them in the Lovosice warehouse," HN quotes the embassy statement.
Aktuálně.cz confronted minister Hamáček with its findings but he refused to comment stating the police investigation was still ongoing. The minister of foreign affairs Tomáš Petříček (ČSSD) said the police action targeted an organized group that most likely had committed fraud. "I believe the police will manage to clarify how could these items ended up illegally in a Lovosice warehouse," said Mr. Petříček.
It is however clear that by confiscating the second shipment the Czech Republic has angered a man connected to influential Czech politicians who friendly towards China. The Czech Qingtian Hometown Association, headed by Zhou Lingjian, is the largest member of the Czech Association for the Promotion of the Peaceful Unification of China (CAPPUC). According to the Chinese authorities, there are five thousand overseas Chinese living in he Czech Republic, of whom three thousand come from Qingtian.
"CAPPUC is an umbrella organization that claims to represent all the five thousand Chinese living in the Czech Republic. The declared goal of the association is the incorporation of Taiwan into the People’s Republic of China. The organization also participates in influence operations. The former head of its Australian analog financed local politicians and was subsequently banned from the country," added Jirouš. Aktuálně.cz was given access to unpublished research by Sinopsis that details Zhou Lingjian’s activities.
CAPPUC is nominally in charge of a high-level Chinese New Year celebration, attended this year by many active and former politicians, especially from the circle around the president’s office who is a great supporter of Communist China. The main partner of this year’s event, coorganized by the local Chinese embassy, was a company the Czech National Cyber and Information Security Agency has issued a warning against - Huawei.
The Chinese government's mask-buying operation
While Mr. Zhou is now importing masks to Europe, back in February he and his association were busy doing the opposite. Even though the Czech PM Andrej Babiš (ANO) first refused to send any material to China at the beginning of February claiming his country needed it, some Chinese living in the Czech Republic were buying masks, respirators and other protective gear in order to send it to Qingtian. According to Chinese public sources, it was hundreds of infrared thermometers, tens of thousands of respirators and single-use surgical coats and hundreds of thousands of surgical masks.
"Zhou Lingjian already collected 780 thousand surgical masks, over 30 thousand single-use surgical coats and N95 respirators," states a report on the website of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, which is constitutionally one of the most important institutions in China. According to this article, the Chinese diaspora in the Czech republic "was buying out big Czech drug stores all day long".
At the beginning of February, members of the local Chinese community also organized a money and medical supplies collection for Qingtian. According to their own statement, they shipped the masks and other material via airmail from Prague and then, when those direct flights stopped, from Vienna.
In early March, Zhou and his hometown association were tasked by the Qingtian Charity Organization for Overseas Chinese, established in 2019, with buying 50 tons of rice and sending it to the Qingtianese in Italy. The organization is linked to the Communist government. In a press release, the head of the Qingtian Overseas Chinese Affairs Office stated that he had delegated to Zhou’s association the task of sending the rice to Italy. The boxes found in the warehouse are also marked as belonging to this organization. The rice was sent on March 6.
The Security Information Service (BIS), a counter-intelligence agency, warned the Czech government in early March that the Chinese embassy had been organizing large purchases of masks and respirators. This was first reported by the weekly Respekt. According to Aktuálně.cz’s sources, BIS wrote in a clasiffied report that the Chinese embassy and the secret services of the Communist regime had been organizing a massive operation in the Czech Republic, encompassing several thousand of local overseas Chinese. The material was then sent to China.