Is China using Orbán to sabotage Europe? – The Weekly 53
Hungary-China relations have traditionally been good for decades, and it is a well-known fact that Hungary has long been considered as a key partner for China in Central Europe. None of that has ever posed a threat to Budapest’s Euro-Atlantic relations. Until now.
Today the situation is quite different due to a combination of China’s rise and Orbán’s efforts to build of an authoritarian regime.
Perhaps the latest and quite probably the most profitable era of Hungary-China relations began around the time of the communist collapse in Eastern Europe. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Hungary has seen the influx of the Chinese traders who laid the foundations of the populous Chinese community in Budapest. Due to their local knowledge and relations to their motherland, they played a major role in Hungary becoming a key partner for China in the region. By the 2000s, this connection resulted in such significant and widely publicized acts as the opening of the bilingual Hungarian-Chinese school in Budapest.
On the other hand, the genuinely important and favourable Chinese trade and cultural relations were never expected to override Hungary’s political commitment to the West. Neither the former Hungarian governments, nor the Chinese side has ever forced it, but the trend appears to have been changing recently.
The process is driven, at least partly, by China’s changing foreign policy.
Having realized its economic and political power, China has become an increasingly active factor in shaping world politics and wants to assume a growing role in the international arena.
No matter how often we disapprove of China’s methods, we cannot deny Beijing’s right to follow its own interest, just like every other country does. The onus is on China’s partners who should, knowing and understanding all that, conduct such a foreign policy that is in line with their own interests and benefits both parties.
That is why we are increasingly concerned about the process unfolding around the Orbán government. What we see is the formation of a highly unilateral dependence on China, and it has gone beyond the business and cultural sphere. Uniquely among all EU Member States, this dependence has already appeared in the political field, which poses an enormous risk to Hungary as well as the EU.
The first high-profile case was the planned Budapest-Belgrade railway. Funded through Chinese loans, implemented with Chinese technology and mostly carried out by Chinese enterprises, the contracting terms of the supposed project are classified for many years. Every study shows that the Hungarian side would not benefit from this project at all. But China would, and very much, too. The next sign was the Orbán government’s increasingly frequent and friendly statements to side with China in political issues as well. Interestingly enough, the Orbán regime, after having driven the US-founded Central European University out of Hungary by way of administrative measures combined with political accusations against the internationally renowned institution, is now offering hugely preferential treatment to China’s Fudan University, so it could establish a campus in Budapest.
Of course, we must also mention how Orbán has been rejecting the EU’s financial help due to the potentially attached rule of law requirements, while he has no problem taking eastern (likely Chinese) loans to fund the recovery from the pandemic depression.
The list of tell-tale signs goes on with the acquisition of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccines amidst the government’s intensive communication campaign, despite the fact that the Chinese vaccine has not been approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA). It is common knowledge in Europe that Orbán’s diplomacy regularly blocks the EU from issuing a common statement if it is inconvenient for Beijing. According to the latest reports received the other day, Orbán actually called Chinese president Xi Jinping during the break between two EU meetings to “consult” him before the Hungarian government, as the only Member State to do so, vetoed the EU’s statement to condemn China for cracking down on democracy in Hong Kong.
You might ask how Orbán benefits from a China connection in which he can never become an equal partner. Well, the answer is simple: power. Albeit slowly, the European Union began to give an increasingly firm response to Orbán’s blatantly corrupt and anti-democratic regime. China, on the other hand, sets no requirements in terms of democracy and the rule of law.
Having lost all his European allies for good, Orbán is now looking at the seemingly realistic scenario of shifting his loyalty from Europe to China so he could continue governing Hungary under Beijing’s protection.
When it comes to the European Union however, such a move is far more than just a mistaken foreign policy idea of a medium-sized country. It is an increasingly visible and palpable threat to Europe, too. Beijing is not interested in the EU becoming a united and strong community. As far as sabotaging the EU is concerned, such politicians as Orbán are an excellent fit for the job. Their modus operandi has already been demonstrated when they sabotaged the EU’s foreign policy, but I’m afraid that’s just the beginning. Orbán no longer has any moral reservations in terms of keeping his power at all costs, especially now when he is more likely to lose than ever, since his opposition has united its forces for the 2022 national elections.
The people of Hungary still trust Europe.
The question is: what is Europe going to do about the growing Chinese influence and politicians acting as Beijing’s agents, like Orbán?