China Signs Partnership Deal With Czech Republic

Czech Republic President Milos Zeman (R) welcomes his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping (L) at the Prague Castle, in Prague, Czech Republic, March 29, 2016.

Chinese President Xi Jinping signed a strategic partnership during his visit to the Czech Republic on Tuesday, a sign of improving relations with a country that once was a critic of China's human rights record.

Xi, who was greeted with a rare 21 salvos of artillery at the Prague Castle, the seat of the presidency, signed the document Tuesday together with his host, President Milos Zeman.

He said through an interpreter it “sets a political direction for the development of our relations in the future.”

Xi's visit - his only stopover in Europe before flying to the U.S. - is a result of a more business-oriented Czech approach to China than the one that prevailed under the late President Vaclav Havel, a prominent proponent of human rights.

Unlike him, Zeman was the only European Union leader to attend China's celebrations of the end of World War II last year and said he hoped his country becomes “an entry gate” for China to the European Union.

He said business deals to be signed during Xi's visit could bring some 95 billion koruna ($3.9 billion) of Chinese investment this year. Details were expected to be announced Wednesday.

Xi also backed a series of other deals on cooperation in health, transport, IT, sciences, tourism, banking and other fields as well a partnership deal between the countries' capitals.

He was scheduled to meet Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, the speakers of both chambers of Parliament and Prague's mayor later Tuesday.

Not everyone was happy with his visit.

Several supporters of the Falun Gong group that has been banned in China were in the streets of Prague on Tuesday morning, while others waving Tibetan flags were gathering to protest China's human rights record near a palace where Xi was meeting the Czech leaders.