Hungary is becoming more important to China
Tfrom used ears to the swelling chorus of Chinese suspicion in the European Union, the diplomatic language of Hungarian is excellent. The common talk of European officials about the need to “de-risk” relations with China and treat it as a “systemic competitor” is not for them. Cooperation between Hungary and China presents “opportunities rather than risks”, said the Hungarian foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, in Beijing on 15 May. Wang Yi, China’s foreign affairs minister, told him that relations between the countries had entered the “best period in history”.
As China navigates the bleak landscape of its foreign policy in Europe, buffeted by differences over issues ranging from the war in Ukraine to human rights abuses in Xinjiang and China’s flexing of its muscles around Taiwan, Hungary’s fragile relationship towards China – and Russia – stands out. Hungary reflects China’s view that Western support for Ukraine is only fueling the conflict at the expense of Europe. Speaking to Bloomberg on May 23, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban defended blocking a $540m package of EU financial aid to Ukraine. “There is no chance of winning this war,” he said.
Other countries in Eastern Europe, such as Poland, had admired Hungary for its close ties to China. But their enthusiasm has been tempered by China’s support for Russia during the Ukraine war, and a sense that the business benefits of accommodating China politically have not been as good as expected. .
China sees good uses in relations with Europe. The them is a vital trading partner. In addition, the bloc could, if it wished, reduce the impact of America’s conflict with China by adopting a less security-focused approach. Officials in Beijing are alarmed by a recent move – seen mainly in urgent joint statements at its g7th meeting in Tokyo on May 21 – towards greater transatlantic cooperation on China, despite differences between them members about how long this should go. During a visit to China last month, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, warned that European countries should not be “mere followers of America” regarding Taiwan.
But Hungary is special. The world views of Mr Orban and China’s leader, Xi Jinping, have much in common. They are both authors (albeit to different degrees), who struggle with American power but believe that the West is declining. They both love Russia. Mr Orban’s friends in the business world are expected to benefit from deals with authoritarian regimes.
Hungary is well positioned to serve China’s foreign policy interests. As a member of the them he has a veto over foreign and security policy. It is used for dilution or scupper them critical statements about China. He is also a member of nato, an alliance that China views with increasing suspicion. Hungary has shown from time to time that it is willing to poke its nose there as well, for example in the support it recently gave to Turkey in blocking Sweden’s accession.
So, as China sees it, a country of less than 10m people and one of the poorest in the them there is an outside area to play. This was evident in February when Mr Wang went on his first overseas trip since taking over as China’s foreign affairs chief (state media confirmed his promotion in January; it means he is going over on Qin Gang, Foreign Minister). He visited France, Italy and then Germany for the Munich Security Conference on world foreign policy elites. Before heading to Moscow, he stopped in Hungary where he proposed a “China-friendly policy”, according to Hungarian media. Mr. Szijjarto thanked him for China’s “absolutely necessary” support during the covid-19 pandemic, including the supply of Chinese-made vaccines (which Hungary used against legal action… them consensus that covid vaccines used in the bloc should benefit first them permission).
In the past two years, events in Hungary might have been expected to give China pause for thought. Mr Orban, who has ruled the country since 2010 and has emerged even stronger after another victory in last year’s general elections, remains a trusted ally. Opinion polls suggest that Hungarians are among the most supportive of China within the them (it helps that the country’s mostly anti-government media stifles China-dubious views). But China-related protests in Budapest in 2021 and more recently in Debrecen, the country’s second largest city, have raised questions about how sustainable this sentiment will be. A study published last year by the Pew Research Center, an American polling organization, found that 52% of Hungarian respondents had negative views of China, an increase of 15 points from 2019.
South of downtown Budapest, in the semi-wasteland of an abandoned logistics center, street signs recall the turmoil in the capital two years ago that brought concerns about China – at least briefly – into public debate. Their names poke at China: “Uyghur Martyrs Street” and “Bishop Hszie Si-kuang Street” (after the late Catholic Xie Shiguang, who was imprisoned for 30 years). In 2021 the mayor of Budapest, Gergely Karacsony, put these new leaflets on the roads (also Dalai Lama Street and Hong Kong Free Street) as a protest against a plan to build a campus of Shanghai Fudan University on the land. close at hand. Leaked official documents showed construction would cost $1.8bn, with 80% of the money coming from a Chinese loan.
The Fudan project helped galvanize government critics in Budapest, an opposition stronghold. Three days after the streets were renamed, thousands joined a rally to announce the campus plan. Complaints about it ranged from stifling academic debate to the loss of land earmarked for subsidized student housing.
Mr Orban seemed to be going back, agreeing to a referendum on the plan. But after he was re-elected in 2022, the Constitutional Court said that such a ballot could not be held because it would involve an international agreement. It is not clear, however, whether the project will go ahead. Some analysts in Budapest say that China, frightened by public anger, may have gotten cold feet.
Fractured after last year’s election, the opposition has little evidence of trying to revive public interest. But in the last few months in Debrecen, the government’s own supporters have joined a campaign that is still moving against another Chinese project. It includes a plan, which was announced in August before cat, a Chinese battery giant, to build a factory just outside the city in the small town of Mikepercs at a cost of around $7.7bn. It would make batteries for electric vehicles (e.vs), the largest facility of its kind in Europe. Hungary’s efforts to develop it e.v business has attracted others as well. last year bmwGerman company, has started to raise $2bn e.v and a battery factory in Debrecen. This month another Chinese company, afternoon Energy, that it would set up a $1.2bn battery factory to supply it bmwa plant
Some residents are concerned about the potential impact of the cat project on the local environment and scarce water resources in the area. They have organized protests and arrested local officials at public hearings. “Opening up to the East is a mistake,” said one activist, a 60-year-old retired doctor, referring to Mr Orban’s policy of promoting business with China. and other Asian countries. “Because Hungarian culture is European culture.”
In Budapest, however, opposition supporters say they doubt the protests in Debrecen will pose a challenge to Mr Orban or the Chinese government. The media does not give much coverage, they say. Any problems for his party, Fidesz, will remain largely local. Opposition politicians have attacked another multibillion-dollar effort involving Chinese companies: a new rail link between Budapest and Belgrade in neighboring Serbia (work began on the Hungarian side there in 2021). They say the price is too high and they are concerned about favoritism in awarding contracts. But China sees the project as the centerpiece of its Belt and Road initiative in Europe, of which Mr Orban is a cheerleader.
For all the shifts in European attitudes toward China, Mr. Xi is unlikely to make many changes. Despite Mr. Orban’s political isolation in Europe, he does not appear to be distancing himself from China. As long as he remains in power, Hungary will be a useful friend. “Studying its position on China could offer lessons for developing good relations between China and other European countries,” two Chinese scholars wrote in a paper published this year in the journal Communist Party. One obvious lesson is that pro-Russian, illiberal governments make strong allies. China’s options in Europe are narrowing. ■
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