Ever since Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban returned to power in 2010, Budapest has built a closer relationship with Beijing and opened the door for increased Chinese investment and influence inside the Central European country.
Despite several scandals and controversies during that span, a new poll shows that support for China is growing, with a majority of Hungarian voters saying they approve of rising Chinese influence in the country.
The survey by the Budapest-based Central and Eastern European Center for Asian Studies (CEECAS) found that China generally has a positive image among the Hungarian public and that most voters in the country share views on important political issues that are “favorable to Chinese standpoints.”
But the researchers also highlighted a strong polarization when it came to foreign policy issues, with voters from the ruling Fidesz party sharing overwhelmingly positive views of China and opposition voters expressing pessimism and concern.
The poll -- which was conducted in April during elections in Hungary that saw Orban and his Fidesz party further consolidate their hold on power -- was released this month.
Domestic topics dominated the campaign, but issues related to Chinese investment and debt -- including loans about a railway line connecting to Serbia and plans to set up a campus for a Chinese university in Budapest -- also cast a shadow over the vote, with several analysts and opposition lawmakers warning that the projects could become a Trojan horse for Beijing’s interests and influence within the European Union.
Gauging A Rising China
The poll found that 51 percent of Hungarian voters felt optimistic about China’s expanding footprint in the country.
China's growing footprint in Hungary expanded in 2010 when Orban launched his Eastern Opening policy, which was meant to cultivate close ties with Beijing and Moscow in order to attract investment and new economic opportunities for Hungary following the global financial crisis.
Since then, Orban has cultivated a strong relationship with Beijing and Budapest has blocked several of the EU’s efforts to censure Beijing over human rights concerns in Hong Kong and China's Western Xinjiang Province.
According to the survey, a majority of voters see the current level of Chinese influence in Hungary as “high” or “very high.”
This perception may be due to the growing number of areas where Budapest and Beijing are cooperating. In addition to investment and growing diplomatic support, China also sent ventilators, masks, and vaccines during the coronavirus pandemic, with Hungary being one of a handful of European countries to approve China's Sinopharm vaccine.
While the exact scale of Chinese aid pales in comparison to that provided by Brussels, the survey concludes that “China’s perceived assistance and role in Hungary’s pandemic management seems to have had a significant positive impact on public perceptions.”
Fidesz And Fudan
Perhaps the most controversial project linked to Chinese influence in Hungary is a plan to build a Budapest campus for Shanghai's prestigious Fudan University, which triggered large protests in the capital in June 2021 after leaked documents showed the government would take out a $1.5 billion loan from a Chinese bank to cover most of the costs.
The deal would make Fudan the first Chinese university in the EU and the first foreign outpost for the Shanghai-based school, which the Hungarian government has argued will raise higher-education standards in the country.
Polls have shown -- including the CEECAS one -- that this topic has divided voters.
Like many hot-button issues in the recent survey, views tend to skew heavily along political-party affiliation, with a large majority of those who said they voted for Orban’s ruling Fidesz party backing a greater role for China in Hungarian higher education.
Unsurprisingly, support for Chinese influence in the country is also high among Fidesz voters, a view that increasingly leaves them out of step with their peers in the EU.
While more than three-quarters of Fidesz supporters are in favor of a greater Chinese presence, a 2021 study by the German Marshall Fund found that 62 percent of Europeans polled had negative attitudes toward China and its growing global influence.
Putin, Xi, And Ukraine
Since Moscow’s February invasion of Ukraine, the war has been a leading topic in Hungary and the poll also asked voters how they view close ties between China and Russia.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin heralded a new era and declared a “no limits” partnership during a joint meeting in Beijing on February 4.
Throughout the war, China has walked an awkward diplomatic line where it has sought to avoid explicitly backing Moscow’s war but has muted its criticism of the invasion. Beijing has also avoided any violation of Western sanctions against Moscow while becoming the top buyer of discounted Russian crude, providing the Kremlin with a crucial financial lifeline.
The poll found that some 48 percent of voters had an unfavorable view of the partnership and its impact on international politics.
“This was the only question in which a majority did not [hold] a positive perception [toward] China’s role,” the survey said.