Hungary: the Success Story of Chinese Mask Diplomacy

Patrik Szicherle, analyst at the the executive director of Political Capital Institute (Budapest, Hungary)

Péter Krekó, the executive director of Political Capital Institute (Budapest, Hungary)

3 August 2020



Different shades of populism

Many authors drew parallels and highlighted similarities between the ideology and the governance of Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary who turned his country from a well-functioning democracy into a semi-authoritarian hybrid regime. The two politicians also seem to get along well, and spectacularly share a common platform when it comes to issues such as migration.

But when it comes to the handling of the coronavirus, the two definitely follow a different path. While President Trump has been the symbol and frontman of Covid-skepticism from the very beginning, labelling it as a hoax conducted by the Democrats in February 2020 (then hesitantly changing the tone and putting on the mask as the situation was becoming more and more desperate). Trump’s number one target is China, and he is calling the virus “The Chinese Flu”. Orbán is a different kind of populist. Contrary to most nationalist populists (including Jair Bolsonaro), he abandoned the path of Covid-denial at the very beginning. In his way of handling the coronavirus, Orbán did not behave like a rebel but as a good pupil instead, following mainstream Western European and regional recipes. Instead of bashing scientists and criticising their solutions – what most right-wing populists did during the pandemic – Orbán praised them and embraced their recommendations. “Let’s not believe that we’ve become experts in virology. […] Let’s leave the field clear for the scientists, doctors and professors” – he told in an interview.


China: friend or foe?

The second important difference: Orbán did not say a critical word to China since the start of the pandemic. On the contrary: China only appeared in a positive context in governmental statements, as a primary source of help in fighting the pandemic and the economic recovery in its aftermath.

In March, Orbán announced that he had sent “patrols” to the East to purchase products to combat the coronavirus. The government opened an “air bridge” between Hungary and China to facilitate the transfers. Viktor Orbán personally welcomed the arrival of a plane from China at Budapest airport, noting that 86 planes had arrived up to 24 March with masks, tests and ventilators. Hungary’s Foreign Ministry and Minister of Foreign Affairs Péter Szijjártó rarely missed an opportunity to report on new transport planes from large Chinese cities. Orbán thanked China’s Prime Minister Li Keqiang for Chinese help to Hungary in fighting the epidemic, while Szijjártó told the same to his counterpart. As it was shown in the video footage shot by Chinese journalists and then shared by Hungarian governmental officials – a big “Hajrá, Magyarország” (“Hail, Hungary” – a slogan of Orbán) sign was written on the packages, both in Chinese and Hungarian.

The government repeatedly expressed that Hungary only received help from China and other Eastern countries at the beginning of the pandemic. At the same time, the masks and ventilators were not gifts but extremely expensive products bought by the Hungarian state. In enormous amounts: Hungary now has more ventilators per 100,000 inhabitants than the United States, the UK, Austria or Germany – a development few can criticise. A significant proportion of these have likely come from China: by 9 June 2020, Hungary had received 6500 ventilators from its Asian partner.

China as the saviour and a charity

Government-controlled media, as always, amplified the governmental narrative depicting China as a reliable partner in defending the country against the virus, as well as the cabinet’s narratives blaming Brussels and the EU for the unpreparedness that led to the severity of the outbreak and lack of solidarity – remaining silent about the massive direct financial support that the government received to ease the impacts of the crisis. The EU was blamed for remaining idle throughout the health crisis and even tried to hinder Hungarian efforts to combat COVID-19 by raising concerns about the so-called authorisation bill. This is the same sort of contrast created by pro-Russian and pro-Chinese propaganda media. Strangely, the Hungarian cabinet could use the pandemic as a justification of its Eastern Opening foreign policy, pointing to China as Hungary’s best friend in need.

Crucially, the cabinet and its media did not present important information about the equipment Hungary bought. For instance, the quality issues with Chinese-manufactured masks were never raised towards China, even though the government in Beijing had to take action against shoddy masks itself. In contrast, Zoltán Kovács noted on Twitter that the masks distributed by the EU “are of such low quality that they are of little use.” He did, however, forget to mention that those masks were purchased from China. The price of the equipment was not mentioned either. Overall, the government made Beijing look like a charity instead of a business partner.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán meeting Chinese aid at the Budapest Ferenc Liszt airport. Source: Official Facebook page of Viktor Orbán.

European efforts were nowhere near as highly emphasised by the Hungarian government and its media empire as the strong cooperation of Budapest and its eastern allies. EU decisions relaxing state aid rules and the disbursement of European subsidies, the joint PPE procurement scheme that Hungary also participated in, the transfer of patients between member states, national capitals’ offers of medical equipment to others received only sporadic coverage by the cabinet and its media, which did not even come close to the number of anti-EU and pro-China articles. While, admittedly, the EU did react slowly to the coronavirus crisis, there was no word dedicated to the lies and cover-up of China and the Chinese Communist Party that resulted in the outbreak.

Never miss a good crisis: exploiting economic opportunities

Chinese-Hungarian business ties also strengthened during the epidemic. Budapest and the Chinese Export-Import Bank signed a loan agreement on the construction of the Hungarian phase of the Budapest-Belgrade railway line, which – according to experts – might take anywhere between 130 to 2400 years to turn profitable. The government, in contrast, says that it will help speed up economic recovery after COVID-19 and it is more needed than ever. Besides two Chinese companies, a firm connected to Lőrinc Mészáros, the PM’s close friend and business partner of its family members will be working on the project. And with the help of this project, Orbán can extend its regional influence. The possibility of nepotistic gains from a gigantic infrastructure project just brought Orbán closer to his close ally in the Western Balkans who also opens the door wide for Chinese influence: Aleksandar Vučić. Orbán has become the loudest advocate of Serbia’s full accession to the EU as soon as possible – and the Hungarian commissioner for enlargement is loyal to Orbán. The loan agreement has been classified for ten years, and the FM did not allow independent MP Bernadett Szél to see it because, as they argue, it would go against Hungarian interests: “gaining knowledge on the contents of the agreement would threaten Hungary’s ability to represent its foreign policy and foreign trade interests without illicit influences”.

The coronavirus did not merely prompt the Hungarian government to strengthen its ties with China, it accelerated it. Beijing has, in fact, been the main target of PM Orbán’s Eastern Opening strategy ever since 2010. The incumbent Hungarian government has consistently stated that it wants to improve its ties to China, especially in terms of trade to balance the country’s dependence on the West. However, before the coronavirus, Hungary failed to improve the volume bilateral trade with China, while Western trade partners became even more prominent for the country. Budapest argues that Chinese ties are necessary as a replacement for the EU subsidies lost due to the economic development of the country and Brexit. In practice, as indicated by the Budapest-Belgrade railway line (and the Paks II project), the purpose is gaining access to external funding not constrained by the EU rules.

To gain favour with the Chinese administration, Budapest has actively helped advance Chinese interests in Europe, especially in the European Council. Budapest is one of the most ardent supporters of Beijing’s 17+1 and One Belt One Road initiatives, and regularly raised its voice against “scolding” China for its human rights records. Hungary did not sign a document criticising Chinese infrastructural and development initiatives for not complying with EU values, and – allegedly – Budapest refused to sign a Japan-V4 joint statement because it referred to conflicts in the South China Sea. Such efforts continued during the coronavirus epidemic as well. Péter Szijjártó confirmed to his Chinese counterpart via phone that Budapest would not support Taiwan’s WHO membership. Reuters recently claimed that EU member states are discussing a response to China over the national security law affecting Hong Kong, but tough measures are off the table due to resistance from Greece and Hungary. In the European Parliament though, MEPs of Orbán’s party Fidesz can afford to support the mainstream critical EPP line on China with their votes – as they know it does not really hurt China, given that the EP is not an important player in EP foreign policy.

The Hungarian government and its media have been providing highly favourable coverage to China in Hungary for years, which is unlikely to change anytime soon. It is highly possible that Budapest, referring to the need to generate economic growth, will turn to Beijing more and more for joint projects, investments and loans. The pro-China rhetoric in government-friendly media will be used to create the perception that turning to Eastern allies is the only way to repair the economic damage done by the coronavirus.