A few days ago someone very rightly expressed his surprise that Viktor Orbán, the great anti-communist, is courting China. Indeed, one would think that this turn in Viktor Orbán’s career is rather strange. However, let’s not forget that Orbán is a man of surprises. He started off as a liberal and by now he is mouthing words associated with the Hungarian fascists from the 1930s and 1940s.
In his first term he wouldn’t have anything to do with either Russia or China on ideological grounds, but lately it seems that he came to the conclusion that authoritarian or dictatorial regimes and economic progress go hand in hand. I’m certain that he is wrong, but his latest utterances attest to this belief. I wrote about Orbán’s recent admiration of the non-western type of capitalism during the summer.
This change of heart must have come during 2009 or perhaps a little earlier. In the second half of 2009 when he must have been pretty sure that Fidesz would win the 2010 elections he made two trips: one to Russia and the other to China. Both were unannounced and especially his trip to St. Petersburg in November 2009 was shrouded in mystery. That is, for weeks the Hungarian media wasn’t sure whether Orbán actually had a lengthy private meeting with Vladimir Putin or not. The confusion was strengthened by early Russian statements that tried to minimize the significance of the meeting. The first reports talked about a chance meeting and the exchange of a few words at a cocktail party in connection with the eleventh congress of Putin’s United Russia Party. Eventually it turned out that the private meeting was for real, but for some reason or other neither Putin nor Orbán wanted to talk about it. Less than a month later the surprise was even greater when MTI found out only through China’s International Radio that Fidesz had established official relations with the Chinese Communist Party.
China was certainly neglected by the first Orbán government. In fact, the consulate in Shanghai that opened in 1988 was closed in 2000. After the socialist-liberal government’s return to power Chinese-Hungarian relations were intensified. In August 2003 Prime Minister Péter Medgyessy visited China while Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Budapest in 2004. In 2005 Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány returned the visit. And finally, in October 2009 Vice-President Xi Jinping came to Budapest. This visit, lasting four days, is the important one from our point of view. It was most likely during this fairly long visit of the Chinese politician that the arrangements for Orbán’s visit were made. Xi Jinping made an extended tour of Europe, visiting Belgium, Germany, Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary, but as Hungarian papers announced rather proudly he spent the most time in Budapest.
In a way the longer stay is understandable. After all, twenty thousand Chinese live in Hungary. There is even a Hungarian-Chinese bilingual elementary school in Budapest and, as you can see, a lot of Hungarian children attend the school as well.
From the communiqué released after the meeting between Orbán and Xi Jinping in December 2009 we learned that “the Chinese Communist Party is ready to take up close relations with all the important parties of Hungary, including Fidesz.” Orbán for his part remarked that the most important result of his trip was “the establishment of official relations with the Chinese Communist Party.” He promised that if he becomes prime minister he will recognize and continue all the arrangements his predecessors made with China. He announced that his party supports China’s contribution to the economic development of Hungary and is ready to make every effort to further a comprehensive strategic development between China and Europe. MTI was happy to be able to take a better look at the Hungarian delegation on the Chinese television news where they spotted Sándor Demján, a billionaire businessman, and Ferenc Bartha, former chairman (1988-1990) of the Hungarian National Bank and today a wealthy businessman.
As for recent events. First, at the end of August Zsolt Semjén, deputy prime minister in charge of church affairs and of Hungarian minorities abroad, visited China. Semjén assured Hui Liangyu, deputy prime minister, that Hungary would consider Chinese-Hungarian relations of the utmost importance. After this came Orbán’s trip to Shanghai this past weekend where he visited the Hungarian pavilion at the World Expo. That visit was an interesting one. Because Fidesz in opposition criticized everything the former government did including the Hungarian pavilion. They said that it was neglected, dirty, ridiculous, that hardly anyone visited it and, moreover, that all sorts of questionable dealings took place that led them to suspect very serious corruption. The new government immediately stopped payments due to the companies involved. The Hungarian pavilion at one point couldn’t even pay the Chinese employees. Eventually, the companies paid them out of their own pockets while they waited for the government to pay them. Then something happened. Something rather embarrassing for the new government. The Hungarian pavilion received the silver medal for excellence at the Expo. So, now Orbán had to say something and he managed to squeeze out that although tastes are different he actually liked the pavilion. Of course, he added, the corruption surrounding the pavilion will be investigated and punished.
As for the political side of the trip. Orbán met with Prime Minister Wen Jiabao for a little less than half an hour. There was no press conference afterward. Orbán apparently stated that Hungary stands on “the one China” principle. To the representative of MTI he repeated his favorite theme that the world economy will not be the same as before the economic crisis and that as a result “the role of China will radically change” in world affairs. Therefore Hungary’s relations with China must also change and the two countries’ relationship must have a special significance. He informed the MTI reporter that he invited the Chinese prime minister to visit Budapest and that Wen Jiabao had accepted the invitation. He added that no Chinese prime minister had visited Hungary in the last twenty-three years. Apparently, Orbán mentioned economic areas in which China could have a role to play. For example, building railroads and highways. Concrete programs will be worked out after the visit. On the cultural front, Hungary is thinking of establishing a cultural center in Beijing and the Chinese Confucius Institute in Budapest might be expanded and enlarged.
On a more tangible level, Orbán talked to Chen Feng, head of the Hainan Group, about the possibility of buying the Hungarian airline, MALÉV, that has bounced back several times already. Most recently from the Russians. He also met with Ding Jiansheng, head of the Wanhua Industrial Group, producer and marketer of polyurethane raw materials, which already has a stake in BorsodChem. Apparently the Chinese company might acquire BorsodChem altogether. Orbán also conducted negotiations with the Chinese Bank of Communications with a view to the Bank’s possible Hungarian investments. As he said, it is important to have “new money arriving in the country.”
And he is absolutely correct.