by Mary Harrington
Monday, 18
January 2021
Spotted
11:49

Why Viktor Orban chooses China over the EU

The CCP's imperialism comes with fewer strings attached
by Mary Harrington
Hungary is a key EU weak spot for Chinese geopolitical manoeuvring

Empires, it seems, are like buses: nothing for ages then two come along at once. Spare a thought for Hungary, caught by the vagaries of geography between would-be imperiums of East and West. Having shaken off the yoke of the Soviet Union in 1989, Hungary is now triangulating between two rival sources of soft power: the EU and China. And contra (increasingly battered-looking these days) Western progressive teleology, it’s by no means a foregone conclusion which side will prevail.

Hungary’s status as a key EU weak spot for Chinese geopolitical manoeuvring was underlined this week with news that Hungary has grown tired of the lumbering EU coronavirus vaccine approval and procurement process, and has announced plans to fast-track approval for a Chinese vaccine instead.

This comes against a backdrop of increasingly fractious back-and-forth between Hungary’s government and Brussels, in which the former has accused the latter of colonialism and employing budget-based ‘blackmail’ over immigration policy. A key flashpoint concerns liberal interventions in the nation’s politics by Hungarian billionaire George Soros, who has worked as energetically to build liberal institutions in Hungary as Viktor Orbàn has to resist these efforts — for example via Soros’ funding of pro-migrant NGOs, countered by Orbàn’s  so-called ‘Stop Soros’ laws.

Another Soros-funded institution that’s found itself at the sharp end of Orbàn’s legislation is the Central European University, a liberal college founded in Budapest in 1991 with the aim of spreading open-society values. In 2018, the CEU was forced to relocate from Budapest to Vienna following legislation regarded by many commentators as specifically targeting its activities.

But for all that liberal commentators view the expulsion of CEU as part of “Orbàn’s campaign to dismantle Europe’s multicultural, tolerant liberalism and cement a culture that is unapologetically Christian, conservative and nationalist”, it’s not at all clear that Christian conservatism is the only possible outcome. Hungary’s position at the edges of the European Union, both geographically and also in terms of ‘values’, makes it a key target for Chinese soft power within the EU.

Having evicted Soros-sponsored higher education from Budapest, in 2019 Orbàn hailed the arrival of a Beijing-sponsored replacement: a campus of the world top 40-ranked Fudan University — which came with hefty donations of PPE the following spring. It’s probably not a coincidence that 2019 also saw Orbàn embrace China’s globe-spanning ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, that seeks to remodel global trade flows in Beijing’s geopolitical image.

One can perhaps sympathise with Orbàn’s desire to look both ways, given Beijing’s indifference to Hungary’s stance on intra-EU hot-button issues such as LGBT rights and freedom of the press. Chinese imperialism may, to Hungary, feel paradoxically less intrusive than the EU variety. This is especially when the Chinese variety comes with a university teaching science of the hard rather than the activist social sort, plus free PPE and preferential access to vaccine doses. In contrast, the liberal offering seems to comprise woke academia, an EU coronavirus recovery fund with hefty governance strings attached, and a vaccine rollout that to date has been sluggish, uneven and geographically skewed.

In the emerging multipolar world, if the European Union wishes to protect its peripheral territories, it may need to refocus away from ‘soft’ ideological priorities toward more pragmatic ones.

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andrea bertolini
andrea bertolini
1 year ago

I’m not a fan of China, but if I were in Orban’s shoes I would probably follow the same course. After all, unlike the EU China will not scream if I want to preserve the relative homogeneous nature of the population, if I refuse to let Lgtbq activists brainwash my children, if I decide to bring the justice system closer in line to the sentiments of the population, if I try to bring down the hostile organizations financed by Soros, etc.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago

Well Merkel herself has just chosen China over all the principles that the EU claims to stand for, so why shouldn’t Orban do the same? Remember, Merkel and Brussels don’t see China as an authoritarian hell on earth, they see it as a model to emulate.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

He’ll still get hefty criticism for it though – even while the EU applauds itself for that investment deal with China that barely even gives lip service to the issue of forced labour. If it’s done in the name of European integration and becoming a “geopolitical” actor, it makes it all OK, right? Eurologic at its very best.

Peter de Barra
Peter de Barra
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

… no surprise from EU Province 1 : it fits well with Red Mutti’s world view – and the deeply embedded so called Greens …

Nigel Clarke
Nigel Clarke
1 year ago

“…This comes against a backdrop of increasingly fractious back-and-forth between Hungary’s government and Brussels, in which the former has accused the latter of colonialism and employing budget-based ‘blackmail’ over immigration policy…”

And, tellingly, the EU let Hungary (and Poland) off the hook after they refused to ratify the budget BECAUSE they were being blackmailed.

“…One can perhaps sympathise with Orbàn’s desire to look both ways…”

The waves are parting. Britain has taken down it’s flag from the EU flagpoles, pulled itself out of the EU and allied itself with the English speaking Anglosphere and nailed its flag to the US flagpole.
The US are not friends of the Russians or Chinese.

The EU has made the decision to effectively eschew the US and instead move towards closer ties with Russia (energy) and China (Trade).

Orban isn’t looking both ways, the EU is looking both ways. Orban is doing the same as the EU, yes?

Interesting times….

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
1 year ago
Reply to  Nigel Clarke

“The EU has made the decision to effectively eschew the US and instead move towards closer ties with Russia (energy) and China (Trade).”

And whose phone will the EU ring when it all goes pear-shaped?

Nigel Clarke
Nigel Clarke
1 year ago

They are running out of friends to call i’m afraid, so I gues when the SHTF they will all be calling for the mummies.

Peter de Barra
Peter de Barra
1 year ago

China – ideal EU friend, particularly for EU Province 1 : … Dianne Feinstein, Senator for California … 01 … once rebuked a colleague of mine : “China is not a threat … You don’t understand China.” … noted, Dianne … 02 … her driver and long term dogsbody was found to be a Chinese spy not too long ago … run by the Chinese MSS which is the rarely mentioned ” odd that ” equivalent of a combined CIA + FBI + much more …

Derek M
Derek M
1 year ago

I think that singling out Hungary for genuflecting before the CCP dictatorship is a bit unfair, the rest of the EU with Germany in the lead is well ahead in that race

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 year ago

What the various nations in Asia, Africa and even Europe, getting into strategic deals with China need to understand is this: what China is offering is the Rings of Sauron – you will become zombies under Chinese control through tech and debt dependence.

Si B
Si B
1 year ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Yep. Belt and Road. One Ring to Rule Them All

Peter de Barra
Peter de Barra
1 year ago

… the sound in the undergrowth derives from the rather high pitched sniggering from the all powerful MSS and the all powerful CCP …

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
1 year ago

Orbán is a clever man and he’s been extremely smart at carving out a nice spot within the EU where he can continue to flout the rules but still get regular showers of cash. It sincerely annoys me to know that some of my taxes are flowing into a country that doesn’t play by the rules. If the feeling that playing by the rules is just for fools becomes widespread, things can’t end well.

I don’t know how this will end for Hungary. Orbán could end up with the best of both worlds – enjoying the benefits of the relationship with China while using the security of EU membership to mitigate the risks AND enjoying the benefits of the EU without complying with pesky things like the rule of law (thus keeping the EU weak on the inside – eastern Europeans can be nervous about getting sucked in too far). That seems very cunning and I would bet on Orbán pulling it off.

Or the two-faced act might turn out to be incredibly naive and result in Hungary being slowly pulled out of one form of domination (which can be annoying but has basically been beneficial to Hungary and its people) into another where it’s in over its head and might not be quite so well-meaning.

Am not entirely sure what the author is thinking of in terms of more “pragmatic” solutions to deal with members on the periphery. Orban’s government has systematically undermined the rule of law and press freedom in HU and has no real reason to fear serious consequences. It ignores rulings of the ECJ. The sloppy solution found for the budget impasse was sold as pragmatism but in reality was a fairly toxic mix of daft decision-making with the wrong priorities, self-negation and resignation on the part of the EU. What else can you do? Orban plays the system like a fiddle.

Derek M
Derek M
1 year ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

He may well play the system but in that he’s just following the lead of France and Germany

Starry Gordon
Starry Gordon
1 year ago

Well, so much for “unapologetically Christian, conservative and nationalist” Hungary. These ostensible qualities must be for the old folks at home. Out in the larger world, Orbán and company are unapologetically authoritarian and opportunist. Fear not: capitalism has not yet finished its work in Hungary, but it’s coming along.