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Don’t Ignore Orban’s Coziness with China

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping before the bilateral meeting of the Second Belt and Road Forum at the Great Hall of the People, in Beijing, China, April 25, 2019. (Andrea Verdelli/Pool via Reuters)
Budapest’s conservative defenders must reckon with its deepening ties to Beijing.

‘America First is a very positive message here in Central Europe, because if it means for Donald Trump America First, for us, Hungary could be first as well, and let’s cooperate on that basis,” Viktor Orban told Tucker Carlson last week.

To be sure, Orban, an icon for nationalist conservatives, is probably the world leader most capable of articulating that message, but he still misunderstands its meaning. Mutual understanding between nationalisms greased the skids of bilateral friendship in the Trump era, in a departure from the Obama administration’s icy treatment of the Orban government. But America First ought to mean what it says, and Orban has put his own political interests first at the expense of U.S. efforts to confront the Chinese Communist Party around the world.

Carlson’s pilgrimage to Budapest stirred up debate about everything from how the Right fights cultural battles to the health of American democracy. But mostly absent from the conversation, particularly on the pro-Orban right, was any mention of the significant inroads the Chinese Communist Party has made into Hungary on Orban’s watch. Last year, for example, the Hungarian government relaunched a deal under which Beijing would finance work on a railroad from Budapest to Belgrade. In turn, at the outset of the coronavirus crisis, the regime endorsed China’s so-called mask diplomacy, boosting a key talking point in the CCP’s campaign to deflect responsibility for the pandemic. In a move hailed by Chinese-state-run media, Hungary later became one of the only European countries to sign a contract to purchase China’s Sinopharm vaccine, which research subsequently revealed to be ineffective.

Carlson says he will release more of his conversations with Orban, including in a documentary exclusive to Fox’s streaming platform. For the most part, though, he has generally opted for a soft-focus feature on Hungary’s strengths as a conservative-nationalist state, eliding the question of its deepening ties with Beijing. In the clips released thus far, there is only a single, brief mention of Xi Jinping, in a question about why Biden has labeled Orban but not the Chinese dictator a “totalitarian thug.” Orban’s response to the question didn’t mention Xi, and when his office released a transcript of the exchange, Carlson’s comment about the Chinese dictator was missing.

Given the growing cooperation between Budapest and Beijing, that deliberate omission of Carlson’s reference to Xi is unsurprising. Not even the Trump administration could convince Hungary to shun China. In February 2019, then–secretary of state Mike Pompeo traveled to Budapest to finalize a deal to deepen U.S.–Hungarian defense ties amid the threat from Russia. While he was there, Pompeo delivered a broader, more delicate message about China, making clear to the Hungarians that the U.S. would be forced to scale back cooperation with countries that do business with Huawei. “[The Hungarians] get to make their own decisions,” Pompeo told reporters later. “What is imperative is that we share with them the things we know about the risks that Huawei’s presence in their networks present,” including “the risk that China will use this in a way that is not in the best interest of Hungary.”

At the time, Pompeo’s team was busy ramping up its campaign to excise Huawei from Western telecom networks. Though these efforts were assailed in European capitals and by the Trump administration’s detractors as a bullying campaign, they were broadly successful in eventually convincing a number of European governments to sever ties with Huawei, which is believed to play a role in Chinese espionage efforts.

But Budapest wasn’t buying what Pompeo was selling, according to the Wall Street Journal: “Hungary will continue to respect NATO commitments and even increase deployments, the senior Hungarian official said. But Mr. Orban plans to resist efforts to get Hungary to toe the U.S. line on Russia and China, the Hungarian official said.” That May, Orban sat for a warm meeting with Trump in the Oval Office; they bonded over their mutual standing as bêtes noires of the liberal international order and over their nationalist politics. Months later, Hungarian foreign minister Peter Szijjarto announced that Huawei would play a role in his country’s 5G rollout anyway.

Since then, Budapest has only strengthened its embrace of Beijing, undermining even tepid Western attempts to confront the Chinese Communist Party. Although his government neglected to block an EU-sanctions package targeting Chinese officials for their involvement in the Uyghur genocide, Szijjarto later called the move “harmful” and “pointless” — foreshadowing his vote to torpedo a future measure that would levy EU sanctions in retaliation for the CCP’s Hong Kong crackdown. At this year’s NATO summit, while Western leaders focused on the Chinese threat, Orban spent his time warning against a “new Cold War.”

Meanwhile, in April, the Orban government announced plans for Budapest to host the first international campus of Fudan University, which some observers worry could serve as a Chinese espionage outpost in Europe. It later froze the plans amid a public outcry, saying they would be put to a referendum, and the issue looks set to play a significant role in Hungary’s upcoming elections. But otherwise, there are few signs that Orban intends to heed Washington’s warnings about China.

After all, with American progressives already hostile to him and American nationalist conservatives still giving him the kid-glove treatment, why would he?

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