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.