In Budapest, Xi Hails China’s ‘Deep Friendship’ With Hungary

In Budapest, Xi Hails China’s ‘Deep Friendship’ With Hungary

President Xi Jinping of China on Thursday found another safe zone in a continent increasingly wary of his country, meeting in Budapest with the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, the European Union’s perennial odd man out as a vocal supporter of warm relations with both China and Russia.

As happened at his previous stop in Serbia, Mr. Xi received a red-carpet welcome and was spared from protesters, with his motorcade from the airport on Wednesday evening taking a roundabout route into the Hungarian capital, avoiding a small group of Tibetan demonstrators.

Police banned a protest planned for Thursday in the center of Budapest and a Tibetan flag that had been hoisted on a hill overlooking the venue of a welcome reception was covered with a Chinese one.

After their talks on Thursday ended, Mr. Xi and Mr. Orban held what was billed as a news conference, but it consisted of their reading statements without taking questions, a format preferred by the Chinese leader, who avoids unscripted media encounters.

They pledged to elevate already-friendly relations to an “all-weather comprehensive strategic partnership” — a sharp divergence from the view of China held by the European Union, of which Hungary is a member, as “a partner for cooperation, an economic competitor and a systemic rival.”

Mr. Orban, under fire from many fellow European leaders for pushing what he calls a “policy of peace” in Ukraine — effectively a demand that its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, capitulate to avoid further bloodshed — offered “special thanks” to Mr. Xi for “the steps that the People’s Republic of China is taking to create peace.”

China has declined to condemn Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and, according to the United States, has helped Russia’s military continue its assault on Ukrainian territory by providing satellite imagery to Russian forces, along with jet fighter parts, microchips and other dual-use equipment.

“Our voice, the voice of Hungary, is a lonely voice in Europe. Today, Europe is on the side of war. The only exception is Hungary, which calls for an immediate cease-fire and peace negotiations,” Mr. Orban said, applauding China’s own vague peace plan, announced last year.

With nothing to announce on Ukraine beyond calls for peace, Hungary and China focused on economic cooperation. The Hungarian foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, announced 18 joint projects, including a high-speed railway to the international airport from downtown Budapest and a new rail line across the country to transport electric cars, batteries and other products from Chinese factories planned for eastern Hungary to European markets in the West. They also agreed to cooperate on nuclear energy projects.

In an article in Magyar Nemzet, which is controlled by Mr. Orban’s governing Fidesz party, Mr. Xi gushed about his “deep friendship” with Hungarian leaders and described Hungary as a trusted “traveling companion” on what he called a “golden voyage” that had taken relations to their “best period of history.” Hungary, he noted, was “the No. 1 target in the central Eastern European region for Chinese investment.”

The Chinese leader’s arrival in Budapest sealed Mr. Orban’s long, steady transformation from an anti-communist liberal firebrand once funded by the Hungarian-born American financier George Soros into one of the Chinese Communist Party leadership’s most fervent admirers and protectors in Europe.

In 2000, during his first term as prime minister, Mr. Orban met in Budapest with the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader, but is now a persistent opponent within the European Union of any criticism of Chinese policies in Tibet, Hong Kong and the western region of Xinjiang, home to the persecuted Uyghur minority.

Hungary infuriated fellow members of the European bloc in 2021 by blocking a statement criticizing Beijing’s crackdown on protests in Hong Kong. It has repeatedly worked to water down any condemnation of China’s human rights record, with Mr. Orban scolding fellow E.U. leaders for “frivolous” behavior toward a rising economic and military superpower he sees as vital for Europe’s future prosperity.

Theresa Fallon, director of the Center for Russia, Europe, Asia Studies, a Brussels research group, said Mr. Orban had become “China’s go-to person in the E.U. to block or water down anything that they don’t like. He has used up a lot of political chips in Brussels to help China.”

Already a major center for German carmakers, Hungary is now looking to Chinese investment to establish itself as Europe’s premier manufacturing hub for electric vehicles, batteries and other new technologies.

BYD, China’s E.V. juggernaut, announced in December that it would build an assembly plant in Hungary, its first production facility in Europe. Great Wall Motor, another big Chinese E.V. company, is looking into building an even bigger factory in Hungary.

Mr. Orban was the only European Union leader to attend an October gathering in Beijing of world leaders, including President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, celebrating China’s Belt and Road infrastructure program, Mr. Xi’s pet foreign policy initiative.

Mr. Xi, in his article in Magyar Nemzet, said China wanted to work closely with Hungary on Belt and Road projects and promised to “speed up” construction of a high-speed train between Budapest and the Serbian capital, Belgrade. The railway line, China’s flagship infrastructure project in the region, has been snarled by regulatory and other issues and progressed at a snail’s pace during five years of work.

The shift toward China by Mr. Orban and his once strongly anti-communist Fidesz party began in 2011, soon after he returned to power for a second, now 14 years long, stint as prime minister, with the announcement of a new foreign policy direction known as “Eastern Opening” that was aimed at attracting investment from Asia, primarily China.

“There has been a 180-degree turnaround in Fidesz and its voters,” said Tamas Matura, an expert on Hungarian-Chinese relations at Corvinus University of Budapest. But unlike in Serbia, where opinion polls show strong public support for China, “the majority of people in Hungary are not big supporters,” he added.

Thanks to his party’s tight grip on most Hungarian news media outlets, Mr. Orban has managed to mute domestic criticism of China. But he has faced a delicate balancing act with admirers in the United States, including former President Donald J. Trump, who has made bashing Beijing a central part of his domestic political message.

An annual gathering in Budapest of the Conservative Political Action Committee, a Trump-aligned American organization, has had to tiptoe around the issue of China and focus instead on building what its most recent edition last month declared a “coalition of pro-peace, antiglobalist forces.”

Mr. Trump sent a video message praising Mr. Orban as “a great man” working to “save Western civilization” from “the communists, Marxists and fascists.” He made no mention of China, the world’s largest communist-led country.

Zoltan Kiszelly of a Fidesz-funded Hungarian research group, told Magyar Nemzet on Thursday that Hungary and China shared a commitment to family values, opposition to immigration and support of peace.

Barnabas Heincz contributed reporting from Budapest.

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