June in Central Europe: how Orbán risks complicating his own embrace of China5 min read
Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has once again proved himself to be China’s closest friend inside the EU, but it is costing him more friends closer to home.
It is no secret that Orbán, infamous in Europe as an unapologetic supporter of illiberal democracy, has made stronger relations with China a centerpiece of his foreign policy. Whether it is through consistent praise for the Chinese authoritarian model or a desire to bolster Hungary’s position as an investment hub at the heart of Europe, Orbán has turned himself into China’s chief advocate in the EU.
Now, however, Budapest’s favors to Beijing are starting to test voters’ nerves at home and friends abroad.
On 5 June, Hungarians in the capital took to the streets in their first major protest since COVID-19 restrictions were lifted last month. The target of their ire the Orbán’s government’s approval of the construction of a new campus for Fudan University, one of China’s most prestigious universities, which is to be built on land originally intended for a dormitory to accommodate thousands of Hungarian students.
Meanwhile, Hungary was blasted by Germany, the EU’s leading power, for shooting down statements critical of China’s crackdown of pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong. On 10 May, Germany’s foreign minister Heiko Maas accused Hungary of undermining the EU by blocking a resolution that expressed its concerns about a controversial new security law in Hong Kong and promised an EU response if the law was applied against any EU citizen or business. German Foreign Office State Secretary Miguel Berger has since called for reforms to how the EU makes decisions on foreign policy after Hungary blocked a second similar EU statement on 4 June.
Orbán’s loyalty at home and inside the EU may endear him as an ally to Beijing, but the frustration he has generated with his decisions are threatening new problems for his work at deepening relations with China.
The unpopularity of Orbán’s courtship of China is an opportunity that has been seized upon by Hungary’s opposition. Ahead of the protests against Fudan University, Budapest’s opposition mayor Gergely Karácsony announced a new set of street names to honor the victims of China’s authoritarian government. These include Dalai Lama Road, Free Hong Kong Road, Road of Uyghur Martyrs, and Bishop Xie Shiguang Road, named after a persecuted Chinese Catholic priest.
The Fudan campus clearly demonstrates Orbán’s readiness to grant favors to Chinese interests inside Hungary. According to leaked documents obtained by investigative outlet Direkt36, Hungary would be taking on the 1.5 billion Euro project, to be carried out by a state-run Chinese company, using mostly Chinese labor and material, and rely on a Chinese loan that would be footed by Hungarian taxpayers. To put it into context, Direkt36 said the project would cost more than the entire Hungarian higher education budget from 2019 for a university that most Hungarian students would not be able to afford to attend.
China erupted with indignation over the protests, particularly the renaming of streets, and injected itself into Hungary’s domestic politics. A government spokesperson called Karácsony’s decision to rename the streets “disgusting” while the state-run Global Times accused him of using “prejudice against China” to score political points. Beijing’s outraged reaction could play well for the Hungarian opposition ahead of next year’s election, especially in Budapest, where dissatisfaction with Orbán is highest in the country.
Orbán’s torpedoing of EU condemnations of China has its own set of risks. Germany’s frustration with his government’s refusal to strongly condemn China’s human rights abuses has reopened a debate on whether or not the EU should reform its foreign policy decision-making process. This would turn the usual consensus requirement on its head and allow decisions to go ahead once a majority of member states representing at least 65% of the EU’s population agree to a measure, a process called qualified majority voting (QMV).
Past efforts to do this within the EU have failed, but Orbán’s coverage for China has given fuel to the existing debate. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is a firm supporter of embracing QMV, specifically in sanctions and human rights cases. Other experts suggest QMV would be useful in stopping lone EU members from serving as “trojan horses” to third countries like China.
If a push to adopt QMV ended up being successful, Orbán’s foreign policy would be seriously undermined. China has found in his government its most reliable partner to undercut EU statements already, but it is not alone. Orbán’s Hungary has also helped block EU sanctions against Turkey for its saber-rattling in the eastern Mediterranean, and it stopped the EU from calling for a truce between Israel and the Palestinians during the recent conflict in the Gaza Strip in May. All of these states, each led by strongman leaders like Orbán himself, would find their main defender in a weakened position while Orbán’s own ambitions of diversifying Hungary’s foreign policy relationships would lose steam.
The backlash inside Hungary and within the EU shows the limits of the benefits that Orbán can gain from tying his fate to China. Protests over the Fudan University campus are unlikely on their own to cost Orbán his hold on power just as his obstruction within the EU does not guarantee a change to how it makes foreign policy.