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China In Eurasia

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (left) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a visit to Beijing in 2019.

With Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s close relationship with Beijing becoming a target for the country’s opposition in a tightening election campaign, the government is now trying to distance itself from some of its more controversial China policies.

The new tack from Orban's government comes as Peter Marki-Zay -- a conservative small-town mayor who emerged as a unity candidate chosen by a coalition of opposition parties -- has come to represent what many say is the best chance to oust Orban in more than a decade.

In what is shaping up as a close race ahead of parliamentary elections in the spring, Budapest is adopting a new approach as Marki-Zay has pledged to shakeup the country’s warm relationship with China and take aim at Chinese-funded projects in the country.

“The Hungarian government is now silent about such China-related controversial issues and is trying to emphasize the bright side of [China-Hungary] ties, like the amount of Chinese investment flowing into the country,” Tamas Matura, an assistant professor at Corvinus University in Budapest, told RFE/RL.

Under Orban, who has held office since 2010, Hungary has built close ties with China.

Relations further expanded under the Hungarian leader’s Eastern Opening policy meant to cultivate close ties with Beijing and Moscow to attract investment and economic opportunities for the country.

Since then, Orban has opened the door to a series of controversial Chinese initiatives in the country -- including a Chinese-funded university in Budapest, a railway to Belgrade, and the procurement of Chinese ventilators and vaccines during the pandemic -- that have found themselves in the crosshairs of the opposition over debt and corruption concerns.

With polls showing Marki-Zay neck and neck with Orban’s Fidesz party, the opposition candidate has tried to push Orban’s controversial China-ties into the spotlight and called for a review of Hungary’s relationship with Beijing.

Hungary's 'Unexpected Candidate' Could Be A Political Threat To The Populist Orban
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The opposition candidate has also accused Orban of corruption in negotiating the funding of the Budapest-Belgrade railway, where the government took out a 20-year, $1.9 billion Chinese loan, and vowed to stop interfering with the European Union’s efforts to censure Beijing over human rights concerns in Hong Kong and China's Western Xinjiang Province.

In Brussels, multiple EU officials familiar with the bloc’s China policies told RFE/RL that Hungarian officials have not voiced opposition to renewing sanctions against Beijing over Xinjiang, in large part due to Budapest wanting to avoid strengthening the opposition’s attempts to target Orban over his China ties.

“Everything must be revisited and reviewed and all corruption must be identified,” Marki-Zay told the South China Morning Post. “The Budapest to Belgrade railway and the vaccine procurement must be revisited and must be checked thoroughly by open and independent authorities.”

'Eastern Opening' Meets Marki-Zay

Marki-Zay’s challenge has left the Orban government engaging in a high-wire act at home and abroad when it comes to its China policies.

This shift has been particularly felt in Brussels, where Hungarian officials have been willing to come to Beijing’s aid to court more Chinese investment and maintain diplomatic support over Budapest’s democratic backsliding, which has been the focus of repeated clashes between Hungary and the EU.

Following tit for tat sanctions in March between Beijing and Brussels over China's human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto denounced the measures as "pointless, self-aggrandizing, and harmful."

A protester holds a placard depicting Prime Minister Viktor Orban as the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong during June demonstrations in Budapest.
A protester holds a placard depicting Prime Minister Viktor Orban as the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong during June demonstrations in Budapest.

In April and May, Budapest was the only one of 27 EU member states to withhold support for punitive measures in response to Beijing imposing a national-security law on Hong Kong and have since blocked any future measures.

But behind the scenes in Brussels, EU officials familiar with the issue who were not authorized to speak to the media told RFE/RL that Hungary has thus far indicated it will not oppose the extension of the Xinjiang measures as it tries to avoid the appearance of cozying up to China amid the close election cycle.

Hungary also increasingly finds itself as an outlier in Central and Eastern Europe over its relationship with China.

A new government in the Czech Republic has said that it will take a more adversarial stance toward Beijing and the incoming coalition in Germany has also called for reevaluating Berlin’s China policies following Chancellor Angela Merkel’s courtship of Beijing as a partner.

Several countries in the region also welcomed Taiwan’s foreign minister for a landmark European tour in October, while Lithuania has been involved in a tense spat with Beijing over the Baltic country’s ties with Taipei.

Those tensions look set to grow.

On November 21, China downgraded diplomatic relations with Lithuania over the opening of a Taiwanese office in Vilnius. In Brussels, meanwhile, the EU is working on new supply-chain due diligence and anti-coercion legislation that could also target China and fray ties with Beijing.

According to Matura, this leaves the Orban government in an awkward position as it looks to navigate rising anti-China sentiments among Hungary’s neighbors.

Viktor Orban at a summit between China and Central and Eastern European countries via video conference from his Budapest office on February 9.
Viktor Orban at a summit between China and Central and Eastern European countries via video conference from his Budapest office on February 9.

“[This] may increase the importance of Orban in the eyes of China, since he is one of the last friends of Beijing in the whole EU,” he said. “Meanwhile, he can’t be very supportive of China in the middle of the campaign…so, I believe Orban has embraced a wait and see approach [for] now.”

Spring Elections

Hungary’s Chinese-funded projects under Orban have been no stranger to scandal, but analysts say the central question for Marki-Zay ahead of the elections is whether it resonates with the electorate.

“There is definitely an attempt to bring China into the election campaign, but it remains to be seen if it will be successful,” Dominik Istrate, an analyst at the consultancy Kesarev, told RFE/RL.

Corruption concerns have followed the Budapest-Belgrade railway project since it was first proposed in 2014 and the government’s procurement of the Chinese-made Sinopharm vaccine has also been embroiled in controversy over high costs and graft accusations.

However, a plan to build a Budapest campus for Shanghai's prestigious Fudan University has received the greatest public pushback, with an estimated 10,000 people taking to the streets in the capital in June after leaked documents showed the government would take out a $1.5 billion loan from a Chinese bank to cover most of the costs.

Demonstrators gather in front of the parliament in Budapest on June 5 to protest plans to establish a satellite campus for Shanghai’s Fudan University.
Demonstrators gather in front of the parliament in Budapest on June 5 to protest plans to establish a satellite campus for Shanghai’s Fudan University.

Orban has since said he will hold a referendum on the issue, but such a vote faces growing uncertainty.

The Fudan project remains unpopular with voters, with an August poll showing that more than two-thirds of Hungarians oppose the campus. Members of Hungary’s opposition -- including Budapest Mayor Gergely Karacsony -- are also pushing for a nationwide referendum on the campus that can be included on the ballot for the federal elections. But doing so currently faces several legal challenges that could delay it until after the 2022 vote.

While critical of the Chinese megaprojects that were green-lit under Orban, Marki-Zay has also looked to position himself carefully as not being anti-China. The mayor of the small city of Hodmezovasarhely has said that Chinese investment is welcome as long as it is on a “mutually beneficial basis,” and has said that he respects Beijing’s achievements.

The Orban government, meanwhile, has shifted its attention to other issues that may galvanize voters and define the elections.

Pro-Fidesz pundits have already stated that there will be “major U.S. interference” in the 2022 elections and have taken aim at Marki-Zay’s time living in the United States as evidence that he represents foreign interests.

The Orban government has also put forward its own referendum on current legislation that limits schools' ability to teach about homosexuality and transgender issues, which the prime minister has framed as part of an “ideological war” with the EU.

“Ultimately, the election will be a referendum on Orban’s ability to govern and where the country stands after 11 years of Fidesz,” said Istrate. “In the end, the election will come down to domestic political issues.”

An ethnic Uyghur woman walks in front of a giant screen showing Chinese President Xi Jinping in the main square in the city of Kashgar in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. (file photo)

Welcome back to the China In Eurasia briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter tracking China’s resurgent influence from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.

I’m RFE/RL correspondent Reid Standish and here’s what I’m following right now.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping held their first formal talks on November 15 in a virtual summit, where tensions over Taiwan were a central issue.

While mentioned in the readout of the summit, Xinjiang -- where Beijing is accused of running mass internment camps against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities -- received minimal attention, feeding growing frustration from activists and the broader Uyghur community over a lack of action to hold China accountable for alleged abuses in the region.

Finding Perspective: From trade to climate change to Hong Kong, there’s no shortage of issues for Biden and Xi to discuss, and both leaders are looking to lower the temperature in the U.S.-China relationship as tensions reach new heights.

But for the Uyghur diaspora and those working closely on Xinjiang, there is a growing fear that governments could be looking to back away from pushing China too hard over its alleged atrocities there, which range from forced labor to mass sterilization of women to torture.

That feeling of frustration over a lack of action against Beijing was felt loudly when I was at the World Uyghur Congress in Prague, which was held from November 11-14. You can read my full report from the gathering here.

The U.S. government and some Western parliaments have declared that Beijing’s policies against the Uyghurs amount to genocide and crimes against humanity. Washington and the European Union have also enacted varying levels of sanctions against Chinese officials over Xinjiang.

But the level of response is still seen as lacking, given the scale and severity of the abuses that have allegedly been committed.

I spoke with members of the Uyghur community, former camp detainees, researchers, and activists, and they all mentioned a loss of hope that the international community would hold China to account for its treatment of Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other groups in Xinjiang, despite an overwhelming amount of available evidence.

Police officers patrol the square in front of the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China, on May 3.
Police officers patrol the square in front of the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China, on May 3.

Why It Matters: As Rian Thum, a senior research fellow at the University of Nottingham, told me at the congress: “We’ve never had this level of documentation for an atrocity in real time.”

More so, a large chunk of the evidence comes from leaked or publicly available documents from the Chinese government itself.

Still, the pace of action against China over Xinjiang is slowing, and that tension between mounting evidence and minimal action -- which has mostly come from Western countries -- could grow even further.

Read More

  • Hosting the World Uyghur Congress this year in Prague was partly the initiative of Zdenek Hrib, the city’s mayor, who is no stranger to angering Beijing after having built warm ties with Taipei in the past. Unsurprisingly, the mayor and the Czech capital were called out by the local Chinese Embassy and by China’s state-run press for hosting the Uyghur event.
  • My colleague Manshuk Asautay from RFE/RL Kazakh Service recently profiled Smayil Abilkasym, an ethnic Uyghur Chinese citizen who could face deportation from Kazakhstan back to China.
  • The White House is expected to announce by the end of the month that neither Biden nor any other U.S. government officials will attend the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics as part of a diplomatic boycott, according to Josh Rogin of The Washington Post.

Expert Corner: What’s Next For Europe And China?

Readers asked: “New governments in the Czech Republic and Germany have signaled a harder line toward China. How is the mood changing across Europe and what should we watch for next?”

To find out more, I asked Martin Hala, an expert at Charles University in Prague and the director of Sinopsis, a project that tracks China in Europe:

“Germany often sets the tone for other EU members, and its relationship with [Beijing] is much more complex. Unlike the Czech Republic, it has a massive economic relationship with China. The relationship has not been shaken by an incident on par with those in Sweden or the Czech Republic, yet even here the old Merkel-style mollification seems no longer feasible.

“Europe is going through a similar process like other regions, namely Australia and the United States, of waking up to some uncomfortable facts in their relationships with [Beijing], and searching for the right responses. The difference is that the EU is 27 countries, and all of Europe is 44, and they all have different risk perceptions and different experiences with China. So, the reckoning is more fractured, more stopgap, and less predictable.

“As much as many in Europe would like to stay on the sidelines of what the United States terms a 'Great-Power Competition,' sooner or later they will find out that they need to defend their own basic values. Eventually, they will be dragged out of their complacency, kicking and screaming.”

Do you have a question about China’s growing footprint in Eurasia? Send it to me at StandishR@rferl.org or reply directly to this e-mail and I’ll get it answered by leading experts and policymakers.

Three More Stories From Eurasia

1. Energy Ripples Continue To Spread

An accelerating energy crisis taking hold across Europe and Asia can already be felt in a variety of ways, from blackouts in Tajikistan to rising electricity costs across the Balkans to short-term profits for state companies in Russia, as I reported here.

The Details: With winter approaching, the sudden energy crunch hitting the world is threatening already stressed supply chains, stirring geopolitical tensions, and raising questions about how ready the world is for a transition to greener forms of energy.

Locked Up In China: The Plight Of Xinjiang's Muslims

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is partnering with its sister organization, Radio Free Asia, to highlight the plight of Muslims living in China's western province of Xinjiang.

Europe and Asia are essentially facing pressure on two fronts that could continue to create large ripple effects around the world.

On one side, the current crisis first emerged in China as global demand for its products suddenly and unexpectedly shot upward this year as part of a post-pandemic economic surge.

But coal stocks were low and the country faced an electricity deficit due climate policies being adopted in China.

In need of energy, Chinese power companies turned to buying up coal around the world and also to the natural-gas market, leading to purchases at an even faster rate than traders in Europe had been anticipating, causing prices to soar.

This, in turn, sparked rising prices across Europe and raised the prospect of supply shortages in several countries.

While things continue to develop, one early winner is Moscow.

Chinese imports of coal from Russia have tripled compared to last year. The rising cost of natural gas has also given Moscow and Gazprom, its state-run gas company, additional leverage over Brussels as it pushes for final approvals for its new and controversial Baltic Sea gas pipeline to Germany, Nord Stream 2, which will bypass Ukraine.

2. Brussels Shifts Gears On China

The EU is slowly becoming more hard-nosed when it comes to dealing with China, and the 27-country bloc has a slew of new moves in the pipeline to keep that momentum moving forward.

More Eyes On Beijing: For starters, the EU is expected to roll out its Global Gateway strategy: 40 billion euros ($45.9 billion) in technology and infrastructure spending that is slated to be a vital component of the West’s response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The strategy was set to be unveiled on November 17 but has since been pushed back to December 1, in large part due to Brussels' need to shift its attention to a migrant crisis on the border with Poland and Belarus.

The European External Action Service (EEAS), the bloc’s diplomatic corps, also unveiled a draft of its Strategic Compass on November 15. The document draws up how the EU sees itself in the world in terms of strategy and security going forward, with some interesting lines on China.

The draft continues with the standard view from Brussels that China is “a partner, an economic competitor, and a systemic rival,” but goes further in taking focus on the Indo-Pacific, which the EU is increasingly viewing as the key geopolitical theater of the 21st century.

While the document highlights EU hopes for cooperation with Beijing on climate change, it has some critical passages on China:

“China gains advantages through our divisions, tends to limit access to its market, and seeks to promote globally its own standards. It pursues its policies including through its growing presence at sea, in space, and online. China’s development and integration into its region, and the world at large, will mark the rest of this century. We need to ensure that this happens in a way that will contribute to greater global security.”

3. 'This Is A Robbery!'

A new system proposed by the Kyrgyz government to kick-start trade between China and Kyrgyzstan has truck drivers who make their living ferrying cargo across the border worried that prohibitive added costs could leave them financially squeezed, RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service reported (also available in Russian).

What You Need To Know: For more than 18 months, pandemic-related restrictions introduced by China along its border with Kyrgyzstan have seen cross-border commerce dwindle and left the truckers and businesses who rely on the shuttle trade desperate for a financial lifeline.

But a new proposal to reignite trade has sparked a backlash, with protests from truckers near the border taking place on November 8.

Trade with China makes up a crucial portion of the Kyrgyz economy, but since the start of the pandemic in 2020 imports from China to Kyrgyzstan have fallen by 57.5 percent, with the number of trucks crossing with cargo declining tenfold.

This has left Bishkek desperate to raise trade back to pre-pandemic levels, but the current proposal to do so is a complicated and costly scheme involving carriers from a state-run enterprise ferrying goods back and forth to truckers across a neutral zone on the border and charging a fee ranging from $1,000 to $1,500 per truck.

For drivers in Kyrgyzstan, this added cost could be debilitating to business.

Across The Supercontinent

'Gray' Miners: Kazakhstan is facing rolling blackouts in some areas after the country welcomed an influx of cryptocurrency miners following a crackdown in neighboring China, RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service reports.

Cracks In The Road: Action for Social Justice, a Montenegro-based NGO, issued a recent report saying that the government’s new and controversial Chinese-funded highway is already starting to face construction quality issues.

Montenegrin government officials denied the claims from the report to my colleagues at RFE/RL’s Balkan Service and said that they would be issuing their own findings on the matter at a later date.

New Rules: China has suggested a radical change to the way the Internet works to the UN, which many Western countries fear could lead to more control for state-run Internet services around the globe, the Financial Times reports.

'I’m Sick All The Time': A joint Kazakh-Chinese industrial project in southern Kazakhstan is under fire for pollution and environmental damage, with many local residents complaining about health problems to RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service.

Bases And Bombs: The Pentagon released its annual report on China’s military.

While the biggest news was about China’s growing nuclear arsenal, the report also focused on China’s expanding security footprint in Central Asia, in particular in Tajikistan, which has been the focus of several recent reports here at RFE/RL.

One Thing To Watch

China's Xi further cemented his power at a key meeting of the Communist Party elite, overseeing the passing of a landmark resolution that paved the way for him to secure a third term in office.

The resolution puts Xi on the same pedestal as Mao Zedong and reformist leader Deng Xiaoping.

Expect Xi to continue to consolidate his hold on power and smooth his path toward next year's 20th Party Congress, where he is expected to extend his rule for another five-year term.

That’s all from me for now. Don’t forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you might have.

Until next time,

Reid Standish

If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition, subscribe here. It will be sent to your in-box on the first and third Wednesdays of each month.

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About The Newsletter

In recent years, it has become impossible to tell the biggest stories shaping Eurasia without considering China’s resurgent influence in local business, politics, security, and culture.

Subscribe to this dispatch in which correspondent Reid Standish builds on the local reporting from RFE/RL’s journalists across Eurasia to give you unique insights into Beijing’s ambitions and challenges.

The newsletter is sent on the first and third Wednesdays of each month.

To subscribe, click here.

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