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Orbán's Hungary is Falling into China's Orbit

This blog is authored by Alyssa Fong, the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation's Public Affairs and Advocacy Manager for the UK and the Republic of Ireland.

On Friday 16 February China’s public security minister, Wang Xiaohong met with Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán. The outcome? An agreement between the two states to deepen security cooperation

Alyssa Fong

The pair discussed placing law enforcement and security at the forefront of their bilateral relations, tackling terrorism and transnational crimes, and how this could be approached as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which Hungary remains signed up to.

Hungary, a European Union (EU) and NATO member seems to be ramping up its friendship with China oddly at a time when its allies are becoming more skeptical. Italy recently officially withdrew from the BRI, while the Netherlands has restricted semiconductor exports to China. Lithuania has even been rebuked by Beijing for strengthening ties with Taiwan. Orbán’s Hungary appears determined to buck this trend.

How ironic that Orbán and Wang are play-acting at tackling the very real issue of discussed transnational repression when this tactic enables China to spy on its citizens abroad. Chinese police officers have even joined local Hungarian police officers to patrol areas with significant levels of Chinese tourists and businesses. More fruits of this alliance have been revealed as Chinese car manufacturer, BYD, announced the opening of its first European production factory in Hungary and Fudan University opened a campus in Budapest. Notably, Hungary was also the only EU country to attend the Belt and Road initiative forum in Beijing. So, what’s in it for China?  

China has shown its ambitions to challenge the international order and play a greater role on the world stage. China’s foreign diplomacy strategy is clear; it supports many authoritarian regimes that also crack down on freedoms and target dissidents worldwide, to varying extents. We have seen this strategy in China’s ever-closer ties with Venezuela, Russia, and Iran. 

Orbán has been accused of turning Hungary into an “illiberal democracy”, so perhaps we should be less surprised at his apparent warmth towards Beijing. Garnering support from Orbán means that China has yet another friend in the EU and has an open door to manipulate the decision-making from afar. This was clear, in 2021, when Hungary was the only EU member state to block an EU statement accusing Beijing of cracking down on democracy in Hong Kong which needed unanimity to pass. 

Ironically, Hungary has also been trying to exploit its historic links with the Turkish-speaking world, as a former Ottoman colony, even maintaining an observer state at the General Assembly of Turkic-speaking states. It has also applied for accession to the International Turkic Academy, with Orbán citing centuries-old cultural and political shared heritage. However, Orbán remains silent on China’s treatment of Turkic communities detained in concentration camps in East Turkistan. Hungary allows China’s egregious human rights record to be sugar-coated in the EU, for the sake of what?  

China has already established a global network of states that are highly receptive to its influence, be they economic partners, political allies, or both. If Budapest continues to creep further toward illiberalism and away from the US and its EU allies, the likelihood of Hungary's government becoming yet firmer friends with Beijing is in sight, with dark implications for democracy in Hungary, Europe, and beyond. 

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