Court awards compensation to would-be Tibetan protesters in Hungary

April 16, 2015

Hungarian state radio just reported that a Hungarian court awarded damages to two Tibetans who were detained by police in 2011 to prevent them from demonstrating against visiting Chinese prime minister Wen Jiabao (see my post). The police must post an apology on its website.

But in the meantime, Hungary has adopted a developmental state ideology that, like China’s, sees dissent as disruptive, hostile and serving the interests of the nation’s foreign enemies. Consider three facts. The ministry of foreign affairs has been renamed the ministry of foreign economic relations and foreign affairs and declared that diplomats would henceforth be evaluated based on their ability to attract investment. NGOs receiving foreign funding have been subjected to raids by tax police, and some have had their accounts frozen, causing a conflict with Norway and a spat with the EU. And Jobbik (“The Right One”), a party vocally critical of the government, has risen to second place in opinion polls. Jobbik is a chauvinistic, anti-Semitic and anti-EU party whose attacks on the government are phrased in terms of national defense rather than individual rights, and as such have been buoyed by the government’s own rhetoric along the same lines.

Such developments — a rise of developmentalism combined with popular nationalism and a broadenin crackdown on civil activism, rooted in a successful campaign to convince people that such activism is inimical to the nation — echoes recent trends in Russia, Egypt, Turkey, Thailand, and China itself. In some respects, it can be seen as a slow shift towards what has famously been called the “Beijing consensus,” although I still think the term is inaccurate because it suggests that China’s model can be applied elsewhere. It cannot, but its elements are.

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Hungary wants to become regional hub for Chinese railway construction

November 26, 2013

Hungarian radio reported that the government’s spokesman said it was “not a secret” that Hungary wanted to become the regional hub for Chinese railway construction. Negotiations were underway with the Chinese and Serbian governments to upgrade the Budapest-Belgrade railway at a cost of $3 million.


Chinese corporation sponsors Chinese courses at Hungarian university

April 20, 2012

The Hungarian radio station Gazdasági Rádió reported on 19 April that Wanhua-Borsodchem, a chemicals manufacturer in northeastern Hungary that was purchased by the Chinese plastics company Wanhua in February 2011, is sponsoring courses in Chinese language and “social sciences” for all students of Miskolc University, a major regional university.

The news is interesting because it is the first instance I have come across of corporations funding such initiatives directly, rather than going through a “Confucius Institute”. It seems an example of “corporate citizenship” that is akin to the activities to some Chinese state enterprises in Southeast Asia and Africa, which help offer Chinese-language classes on a much more local, typically village, scale, but this initiative is much higher-profile. Interestingly, it is taking place in the region of Hungary where support for the extremist xenophobic party, Jobbik, is strongest.


Gary Locke, Jin Liqun, the Chambishi mine and the Myitsone dam

November 12, 2011

Today’s International Herald Tribune writes about the popularity of Gary Locke, the American ambassador to China, who queues up at the Great Wall like an ordinary citizen and flies economy class. But the article also notes that Locke likes to talk about how his father, an immigrant from China, “worked every day of the year and taught him respect for family, education and hard work.”

This is a refrain that resonates with the Chinese government and many Chinese people, including those building dams and investing in factories. So it does with many Americans: in the same issue of the newspaper, economist Tyler Cowen advocates a “pro-discipline and pro-wealth cultural revolution,” bringing to mind Aihwa Ong’s observation years ago that “Asians” (i.e., increasingly, Chinese) had become the ideal enterprising American subjects.

Europeans are clearly the laggards here: Jin Liqun, the head of China’s overseas investment agency, recently admonished Europe’s “worn-out welfare societies” to change labour laws that “induce sloth, indolence rather than hard working.” As a friend from Benin commented, “For the very first time since I don’t know when a non-Westerner is dictating a code of conduct to Westerners! Are Chinese going to devise conditionalities for loans to the West similar to the ones of Structural Adjustment Programme to the Third World?”

Maybe. For now, Hungary, whose government has recently come out with the vision of a “work-based society,” announced the opening of two more Confucius Institutes. Do so many Hungarians really want to learn Chinese? Probably not, but the mayor of Szeged, where one of the new institutes is planned, says Chinese investors have “more trust in cities that have them.” (The mayor, by the way, is from the opposition Socialist Party.)

These reports make interesting reading against the background of the two biggest news about China’s overseas investments in the past month: the suspension of the Myitsone Dam project in Burma and the strike at the Chambishi mine in Zambia that led to the — albeit temporary — collective dismissal of all workers over demands for higher wages. A new report by Human Rights Watch criticizes Chinese-owned mines in Zambia for maintaining poor wages, long shifts and low standards of health protection compared to other foreign investors. Perhaps the most interesting finding of the report is that Chinese companies tolerate the presence of one union but not the other, more combative one.
The Myitsone halt triggered a range of diverse responses, but aside from political implications, the reaction of a frustrated Chinese worker on the construction site was this: “It’s tragic that a country like this doesn’t hurry up to develop! And it has the nerve to talk about democratically elected president this, bowing to popular opinion that! … What’s even sadder is the ignorance of ordinary people stupefied by politicians!” In contrast, a promotional film by Sinohydro’s 11th Office, the project’s contractor, describes the progress of the construction as a heroic and victorious battle against the jungle, malaria and Dengue fever, in terms reminiscent of the labour competitions of the Maoist era, such as “battleground” 战场 and “front” 战线. (The film has been removed from the company’s website, but a description is available here.)
What gives such talk weight is that, state and corporate propaganda aside, managers of Chinese companies abroad — not only state-run ones but also the private telecommunications giant Huawei — genuinely take hard work seriously, often take pride in their dedication, and are nonplussed by the lack of ambition they see in their local colleagues. A thirty-year-old manager at Huawei Hungary echoed Jin Liqun avant la lettre when I talked to him in October. If Europeans did not change their work habits they would lose out definitively to Asia in ten years, he said. Yet he phrased his concerns in corporate rather than national terms, as befits a multinational company: “The Hungarians have difficulties adapting to the culture of the company,” he said. “We don’t want people to just hang around (混). We want people who can perform.” The ideal managerial subjects, indeed.

The “Angola model” reaches Europe, finally

June 27, 2011

OK, not quite the “Angola model,” as Hungary has no oil and few minerals. But, after a few tentative infrastructural investments in the poorer parts of Eastern Europe and a recent fiasco in Poland (see News, 14 June 2011), the package approach, in which a slate of agreements on investment and credit are signed at once and which is familiar from Africa, has arrived in the European Union. On 25 June, during Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to Budapest, Chinese and Hungarian government and corporate officials signed 12 agreements, covering among others

  • investment in railways, a citric acid and a lightbulb factory, and a European  regional support centre for telecom giant Huawei;
  • a “Central European Hungarian-Chinese Trade Logistics and Development Cooperation Zone;”
  • a China Development Bank credit line of 1 bn euro to cover these;
  • a Bank of China credit line of  1.1 bn euro to BorsodChem, a chemical company already majority-owned by a Chinese state enterprise;
  • purchase of Hungarian debt by China (which has already bought Greek and Spanish debt);
  • the establishment of cultural centres in each other’s countries (this is intriguing since China has no cultural centres overseas, apart from Confucius Institutes, which Hungary already has);
  • the setting up of a bilateral trade council (this too is interesting, since to my knowledge China only has multilateral trade bodies, such as with certain African or Pacific countries);
  • and scholarships for 150 Hungarian students to study in China.

This seems to be, as Chinese officials like to say, all-round success for Orbán Viktor, Hungary’s prime minister, who while holding the EU’s rotating presidency likes to talk about how the wind is blowing from the East and berates the IMF. The fact that anti-Communism is central for the legitimizing ideology of Orbán’s party is only ironic at first sight. In fact, both ruling parties use an increasingly hegemonic discourse of national harmony used to justify denying  autonomy to courts and media; feed a discourse of history in which ideological conflicts are erased and great national heroes are presented in a seamless succession; replace legal arguments with moral ones in justifying criminal prosecution or violations of civil rights; rhetorically exclude dissenters from the nation and automatically associate them with foreign interests; and institutionalise nationalist symbols and rituals. Orbán justified the adoption of a new constitution by saying that the old one was not “consistent with the Hungarian spirit.” The legitimacy of both governments rests upon depicting their predecessors and enemies — Communist or anti-Communist — as puppets of alien interests. As the critic Szilágyi Ákos points out, both government boast of their bravery in withstanding the pressures of international capital and international human rights organisations or media.

Indeed, there are reports of Tibetan demonstrators being assaulted by police during Wen’s visit, and other Tibetans who live in Hungary being summoned to the immigration authority without explanation. (If this is true, it could only have happened in direct cooperation with Chinese authorities, since the Hungarian government does not have information on the ethnicity of immigrants.) According to the spokesman of an opposition party, the government also banned a demonstration by Falungong members. (Both Tibetan and Falungong protest is assumed by the Chinese government to be fuelled by interests inimical to China – a view that is akin to that of Gypsy protests in Hungary.) Wresting banners away from demonstrators and using pretexts to make sure potential demonstrators are safely away from the risky sites are methods used by Chinese police, and someone has had to teach the Hungarians these methods. They will come in handy when dealing with their own dissidents.

The fact that Orbán’s party, back in 2006, campaigned against Chinese immigration — despite the fact that there are only 10 to 15 thousand Chinese in Hungary, 80% of Hungarians in surveys consistently express their opposition to their presence — does not matter either, since the Chinese government does not care very much about the fate of its private citizens abroad. On the other hand, the choice of Hungary for the first full-scale Chinese investment package in Europe, in addition to Orbán’s politics and Hungary’s dire finances, probably does have to do with the country’s role as the region’s earliest hub of post-1989 entrepreneurial migration. The new contracts will no doubt energise Hungary’s languishing Chinese businesspeople, who will try to get pieces of the pie.

To quote again from Szilágyi’s vision of a new European “barracks capitalism,” possibly beginning in Hungary: “Democracy and the rule of law will be “tightened” to the extent to which freedom of expression and assembly (…) labour rights (and) civil society hinders the withdrawal of resources, accompanied with banners bearing national slogans, from social welfare systems,” resulting in a “state that commands both labour and capital, and in which both restriction of consumption and restriction of freedom becomes morally condoned, indeed a new national, nay European, ethic.”