Date: 24 February 2022
Author: Łukasz Kobierski
The Role and Influence of The People’s Republic of China on Visegrad Group Countries
Of all Visegrad Group states, Hungary has been the most China-friendly country, also due to a pile of joint economic and political deals. One example is a strategic agreement with Shanghai’s Fudan University to set up a branch campus in Budapest. Beginning in 2024, it would host 6,000 students. A September 30, 2020 article (China Plans to Build the First University Campus in Hungary) said on December 16, 2019, Hungarian Minister for Innovation and Technology of Hungary László Palkovics and Xu Ningsheng, the president of China’s Fudan University signed a deal to found a university. Another agreement came in April 2021. Hungary’s pivot towards non-EU players, notably China and Russia, stems from the country’s drive towards mitigating its dependence on the European Union.
On June 15, 2021, Hungary’s parliament approved a proposal to donate state land to build a controversial Chinese university in Budapest by 2024 despite a storm of local protests that attracted 10,000 people. Budapest’s liberal mayor, Gergely Karacsony, urged state officials to put the €1.4 billion project to a referendum. In his article Is The Dispute over the Chinese University in Budapest a Measure of the Hungarians’ Sympathy for the PRC (August 2021), Patryk Szczotka cited a poll from Republikon, a liberal Hungarian think tank, that found that two-thirds of respondents were against the Fudan University in Hungary, including one-third of Fidesz voters. Eventually, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has confirmed that Hungary would hold a referendum on a controversial project to build a Chinese university in Budapest after the general elections.
Another example of Hungary’s distinct approach to China is its policy on a national 5G rollout that involves Chinese telecoms businesses. The article Huawei in Poland and Hungary. Could It Be Part of 5G? tackles Poland’s and Hungary’s stance on cooperation with Chinese firms while deploying a fifth-generation wireless network. It said that excluding Huawei from the national rollout in Hungary was the least favorable solution as it made the Chinese tech giant quit the country, blocked infrastructure deals and soured political ties. If the European Union does not rule out Huawei from the bloc’s 5G mobile network, according to the author, the Chinese company will still supply gear. Since then, cooperation has been extended onto new fields. In early October 2021, the Chinese telecoms giant inked a deal with the East-West Gate Intermodal Terminal in Hungary––the company in charge of the terminal in Fenyeslitke––to roll out a private 5G network for internal communications. In November, Hungarian Innovation and Technology Minister Laszlo Palkovics and CEO of Huawei Technologies Hungary Colin Cai signed a letter of intent for a long-term collaboration that included digital transformation of education, development of 5G and wired networks, and smart city solutions. The world’s biggest 5G suppliers teamed up with other telecoms businesses despite what government officials had claimed.
As the Covid-19 pandemic burdened healthcare systems around the globe, Hungary and China developed an ever-closer partnership through supplies of vaccines and masks. It went far beyond health, though. In the article China’s Vaccine and Mask Diplomacy in Hungary (April 5, 2021), Paweł Paszak noted that China was then the second country in Europe––after Serbia––to have approved the Sinopharm jab. Thanks to a contract concluded with the Chinese company, the authorities in Budapest have vaccinated 2.5 million citizens with at least one dose, achieving the fourth-highest vaccination rate in Europe. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, Viktor Orbán’s government has actively supported the narrative of the authorities in Beijing, highlighting the importance of collaboration with China to effectively fight the disease. Hungary contracted €150 million worth of Chinese-made jabs, or $35.7 per dose. the price of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines (about $15 and $18, respectively), nearly four times more than the price of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine (about $8.5), three times more than the Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline jab (about $9), and more than eighteen times the cost of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine (some $2). Furthermore, Hungary’s state-friendly media outlets failed to inform that 99 percent of the medical cargo were equipment that Hungary purchased and not received from China. They said medical supplies “arrived” in the country or “were handed over,” which obscures the very fact of transaction.
Hungary’s China-friendly approach was glaring as the country’s top diplomat Péter Szijjártó went to Beijing. Paweł Paszak took an insight into the minister’s trip in the article Foreign Ministers of Poland and Hungary in China, published in early June 2021. While in Beijing, Szijjártó objected to the stigmatization of vaccines, stressing that the pandemic was not a political matter, the virus had no political background and vaccinations should not be considered in terms of ideologies. According to what Szijjártó said back in May, Sinopharm fulfilled contract obligations on time and the Chinese defense ministry sent additional 200,000 doses through some fifteen shipments. During Szijjártó’s visit to Guiyang, the Hungarian government announced a plan to begin production of the Covid-19 vaccine at a factory in Debrecen as part of a €157 million investment. So Hungary would become partly independent of foreign supplies by producing jabs in the country.
Hungary also disapproves of EU sanctions on China in a move that often leaves the bloc helpless (Wolf Warriors against European Hawks. Can the European Parliament Spearhead EU Foreign Policy on China, September 6, 2021). Hungary has blocked multiple EU statements condemning China’s Hong Kong policy in recent months and Fidesz MEPs were among the few voting against the resolution freezing the ratification of the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement (CAI) in the European Parliament. China, however, has no soft power tools in the European Parliament and uses its economic grip to lure some EU nations.
A look into China-Hungary cooperation since 2020 proves the latter’s friendly approach to Beijing, which is contrary to how other V4 and EU nations see Beijing. If Fidesz fails to secure enough seats in the April 2022 elections, Hungary could change its political course, with fewer joint deals in place.
Since Slovakia’s center-right, anti-graft OLaNO opposition party took most of the 2020 election, the country saw a tilt in its contacts with China. The ex-governing populist-left Smer-SD party teamed up with Beijing economically yet failed to grasp potential implications for the state security or policies. As a new party came to power, the latter became more apparent. After the 2020 election and the change of the government in Slovakia, the update of the strategic documents came to the fore. In his article Chinese Influence in the Slovak Information and Media Space (November 25, 2021), Peter Dubóczi noted that the conciliatory and sometimes unclear tone on foreign issues related to Russia and China had been replaced by a clear focus on the Euro-Atlantic area.
“China is significantly increasing its power potential and political influence, based on rapidly growing military capabilities, which, combined with economic strength and strategic investment, are assertively used to advance Chinese interests,” Slovakia’s security strategy said. “China promotes its own style of governance and a different understanding of human rights and freedoms; the Slovak Republic will take this into account in mutual relations, as well as in its positions within international organizations,” it added.
Also, Slovak Information Service (Slovenská informačná služba) became increasingly aware of China’s growing influence. One source is its 2020 annual report (December 1, 2021). In the article Czech and Slovak Intelligence Report on China (January 17, 2022), Łukasz Kobierski said the Slovak intelligence agency discussed China, especially in the chapter on state security. The report says Chinese intelligence services are increasingly active in the Slovak Republic. China and its intelligence services use a ‘whole-of-society approach’ to promote their interests abroad where all parts of the Chinese state, business, and culture are involved in a coordinated way in promoting the interests of the state. The Slovak intelligence agency said a Chinese diaspora could play its role by penetrating Slovakia’s critical sectors. Its members have extensively participated in securing supplies of medical supplies from China to the Slovak Republic and have sought to use this to gain contacts with representatives of the new government.
In the article Public Opinion on China in European and V4 Countries (December 23, 2020), Łukasz Kobierski examined a poll from the Central European Institute of Asian Studies that found some 70 percent of respondents in Slovakia see China negatively. Some 55 percent of respondents considered trade cooperation favorably, while just 50 percent spoke favorably of Chinese investments and the Beijing-led Belt and Road Initiative. Just 30 percent of people in Slovakia were in favor of the Chinese-assisted 5G rollout while 25 percent of respondents said China’s reputation had suffered in the last three years.
China has notched up some short-term success after it provided staunch support to healthcare professionals amid the Covid-19 pandemic. An April 2020 poll showed that 67 percent of respondents in Slovakia said China offered the biggest aid to the country to tackle the outbreak. Only 22 percent of people said they had EU assistance. What added up to these figures was Chinese disinformation narratives that blamed the European Union and NATO for being unfit to help its member nations.
Like other countries in the region, Slovakia is facing challenges amid a growing position of China worldwide that brings about security concerns. Beijing-friendly Hungary keenly backs Chinese narratives and initiatives, hopeful to attract new foreign projects into the country. Lithuania, however, dropped out of China’s 17+1 bloc and allowed Taiwan to open a representative office in Vilnius, which made the Central European nation vulnerable to Chinese retaliation.
Some events before pointed to a stalemate in Poland-China ties, as discussed in Paweł Paszak’s article Poland-China Relations in 2021: Current State and Prospects (January 29). Following a period of dynamic development of relationships between 2008 and 2016, the cooperation has weakened under the rule of the United Right. This is due to a disappointment with the lack of significant progress of the Belt and Road Initiative, the 17+1 format as well as limited access to the Chinese market for Polish manufacturers. The confrontational policy of Donald Trump’s administration towards China, described as the biggest threat to the United States’ position, has been an additional obstacle. Despite that, Chinese companies evinced a lively interest in bidding for expressway and railway projects in Poland. In August 2019, China’s Stecol won a tender to build a PLN 724 million worth of S14 expressway for the Polish city of Łódź. In June 2020, a Polish-Chinese consortium won a tender to build a PLN 4 billion worth of section of Rail Baltica (Czyżew-Białystok). In December 2020, Stecol, which submitted a PLN 530.8 billion worth of bid, was selected as the best tender for the design and construction of the last section of the A2 motorway Mińsk Mazowiecki – Siedlce.
Possibly Poland ordered the complete removal of the company’s kit from the entire 5G network, according to Paweł Paszak’s article Huawei in Poland and Hungary. Could It Be Part of 5G? (November 30, 2020). On September 2, 2019, as U.S. Vice President Mike Pence went to Warsaw, the U.S. and Poland signed a joint declaration to cooperate on secure new 5G technology. The signing came amid a global battle between the U.S. and China’s Huawei in a bid to exclude the Chinese manufacturer from the network rollout. On September 7, 2020, the Polish Ministry of Digital Affairs published a draft amendment to the law on the national cyber security system. Although in the proposed legislation there are no direct references to Huawei, its content leaves no doubt that this company was its main target.
2021 heralded a thaw in relations between Poland and China amid frequent talks and high-level meetings. Polish and Chinese officials expressed their readiness to tighten cooperation and keep the joint initiatives unchanged, according to Łukasz Kobierski, who analyzed Poland-China ties in his article A Thaw in Relations Between Warsaw and Beijing, published on July 1, 2021. Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau and President Andrzej Duda were most active in this area. Poland’s chief diplomat went to China in late May 2021 to meet his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, as discussed in Paweł Paszak’s article Foreign Ministers of Poland and Hungary in China (June 9, 2021). China notched up a diplomatic success at the meeting, somewhat mitigating Lithuania’s harmful decision to pull out of the 17+1 format. Polish officials said they did not intend to quit. At a 17+1 meeting in February 2021, Visegrad Group countries sent their top officials. The list of participants included Poland’s Andrzej Duda, Łukasz Kobierski wrote in the article 17+1 Summit: The Difficult Future of the Initiative (March 5, 2021). According to the author, the future of the 17+1 platform is not bright, thought.
What corroborated better ties between Poland and China was the fact that Polish President Andrzej Duda arrived in Beijing for the opening of the Winter Olympics, where he met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, as described in Patryk Szczotka’s article Polish President Andrzej Duda Met with Chinese Leader Xi Jinping in Beijing (February 17, 2022). Most Western political leaders boycotted the games so this was a vital political move.
China is unlikely to solve Poland’s problems with Belarus or Russia, according to Patryk Szczotka’s article Crisis on the Polish-Belarusian Border. Can China Help Get out of It? (December 6, 2021). In 2021, Poland saw heightened migrant pressure from neighboring Belarus. Back then, Polish columnists and politicians wondered whether to put pressure on Belarus by stopping the flow of Chinese goods to Europe. China is not interested in mediating in the Poland-Belarus conflict as Beijing tends to prioritize cordial ties with the Russian Federation.
In early September 2021, Poland donated 400,000 doses of Covid-19 vaccines to Taiwan, according to Łukasz Kobierski in his article Polish Support for Taiwan (October 11, 2021). This made Poland the third-biggest vaccine donator to Taiwan. Taiwanese media outlets spoke of the vaccine gift with their utmost gratitude. Although Poland holds the one-China principle, seeking not to annoy Beijing, Polish officials take some action to maintain robust informal contacts.
In the article Public Opinion on China in European and V4 Countries (December 23, 2020), Łukasz Kobierski gave an insight into the report “European public opinion on China in the age of Covid-19. Differences and common ground across the continent.” The poll found that some 70 percent of Poles spoke neutrally or negatively of China. Conversely, roughly 60 percent of respondents wanted to cooperate with China, which was the highest rate in the Visegrad Group. 35 percent of Poles said China’s reputation had suffered in the past three years while 10 percent claimed it better than before.
High-level political meetings failed to make a breakthrough for Poland-China relations yet depicted the two’s readiness to mend ties. Poland hopes to increase exports to China and welcome Chinese-financed investment projects. There is, however, no major advance in their trade ties.
Recent years saw a tilt in Czech-Chinese ties, as described in the article The Echoes of PRC Voices in Czech Experts’ Language by Ladislav Charouz and Anna Zádrapová (May 7, 2021). Perhaps the most important development was the chain of events surrounding the Chinese company CEFC China Energy, once hailed as “the flagship of Chinese investments in the Czech Republic.” This supposed flagship ran aground after it was revealed to be an “elaborate Ponzi scheme” that had accrued billions in debt and led to a major international scandal. Patrick Ho, a former Hong Kong civil servant who headed the think tank arm of Chinese conglomerate CEFC, was detained in New York on bribery charges. The company’s chairman, Ye Jianming––who also holds several functions in Chinese military organizations––came to prominence as an honorary advisor to Czech president Miloš Zeman, a staunch supporter of Chinese “economic diplomacy” in his country. Chinese-financed people were also found among university teachers, whom Czech Republic’s Home Credit and the Chinese embassy in Prague bribed to burnish Beijing’s image within the Czech Republic.
In his earlier-mentioned article of December 23, 2020, Łukasz Kobierski said 80 percent of Czech respondents spoke negatively of China. Of all V4 nations, people in the Czech Republic were also most skeptical about the Chinese-led Belt and Road Initiative. Just 20 percent of them spoke favorably of the Chinese-assisted 5G rollout. The Czech people have in recent years been most wary of Beijing. More than 40 percent of Czech respondents said China’s reputation had suffered in the past three years while 10 percent claimed it better than before.
In late November 2021, the Security Information Service (BIS) of the Czech Republic published its annual report, described in detail by Łukasz Kobierski in his article Czech and Slovak Intelligence Report on China ( January 17, 2022). A threat from China––as those from Russia––was analyzed in a separate subsection titled “Intelligence and subversive activities targeting the Czech Republic.” China’s effort to expand its growing influence represents one of the largest threats to the country, the Czech counterintelligence service wrote in a report. At the same time, the question of who is and who is not a Chinese intelligence officer is becoming obsolete – according to Chinese law on national intelligence, every Chinese citizen might be obliged to carry out the will and interests of Chinese intelligence services. Chinese intelligence activities were most intensive in the area of politics and scientific and technical intelligence. Chinese intelligence outlets influenced media content, too.
Some Czech officials are ready to cooperate with Taiwan. A 90-people delegation, led by Czech Senate President Miloš Vystrčil, arrived in Taiwan on August 30, 2020, on a six-day visit — the highest-level exchange between the two countries to cement economic and cultural ties. The Czech delegation visited Taiwan despite protests from the country’s top political parties, according to Łukasz Kobierski’s article Beijing Reacts to Czech Visit to Taiwan (October 20, 2020). Speaking at the National Chengchi University, Vystrčil called for solidarity among democracies. Moreover, he said that the “most important common denominator” between Taiwan and the Czech Republic is that both countries choose to live in freedom and democracy. The Chinese media did its best to discredit the importance and rank of Vystrčil’s visit. Soured diplomatic ties could worsen off before hitting trade and new investment projects that give jobs to people around the Czech Republic.
The Czech Republic’s new government is key for Czech-Chinese ties, as analyzed in Patryk Szczotka’s article Will the New Czech Governing Coalition End Friendly Relations with the PRC? (February 2, 2022). The new Czech governing coalition views relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) differently than the incumbent Czech President Miloš Zeman. The Czech leader had rejected the foreign minister nominee Jan Lipavský, who is from the liberal Pirate Party. Last year, Lipavský was one of those responsible for excluding Russia and China from bidding for contracts to build reactors at the Czech nuclear power plant. The Pirate Party that he hails from is known for criticizing Turkish, Chinese, and Russian authorities and accusing them of human rights abuses. Lipavský calls for closer ties with Taiwan. Eventually, Zeman approved all ministerial nominees of Petr Fiala, including Lipavský. Yet Lipavský and the Pirate Party will have a scarce influence on Czech foreign policy.
Huawei’s efforts in rolling out the 5G wireless network should be curbed in Visegrad Group countries amid their transatlantic ties and the EU-wide policy. This may also apply to Hungary, where it is up to privately held corporations to select their telecoms provider. It is better to involve European suppliers in the bloc’s 5G network for the sake of security and their more advanced tech solutions.
Efforts towards friendly contacts made by Polish President Andrzej Duda and Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau do not mean any change in the state foreign policy. The authorities in Warsaw prioritize their Euro-Atlantic partners, capable of providing security and sources of financing.
Due to the pivotal position of the United States in the European security architecture and the Russia-friendly stance of China, any possible rapprochement will be rather symbolic. Amid asymmetric economic potential and no uniform access to markets, Poland will see an increase in Chinese imports and transit through the Railway Silk Road.
China’s domestic policy and its activity worldwide deteriorate the state’s image, according to V4 nations. Of them all, the Czech people spoke most negatively of China while those in Slovakia were most favorable of Beijing.
More media outlets disseminate negative views of China. What added to that was “wolf warrior diplomacy” (战狼外交).
V4 states are increasingly wary of Chinese intelligence, notably the threats they can pose to the region, which is reflected by reports from intelligence agencies of the Visegrad Group countries.
In the EU and some V4 nations, China has a scare cultural potential yet it is capable of lobbying for any law that suits its interests.
The future of the 17+1 platform, or the 16+1 now, is shaky. As there is no progress in cooperation while the access to the market is patchy, some of its countries voice growing dissatisfaction.
As the 17+1 initiative failed to produce any major success, China is likely to embed itself in the Western Balkans whose states have less risky laws and more feeble economies. That makes it easier to China to enforce large investment projects while circumventing procurements laws such as those in EU states.
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Łukasz Kobierski – Vice President of the Board of the New Europe Institute and expert at the Warsaw Institute. A graduate of international relations at the University of Warsaw and the Nicolaus Copernicus University. A scholarship holder of the program in the field of national security, intelligence and information operations at the Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security Washington, and a one-year scholarship under the Erasmus program at the Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg. He gained analytical experience during internships at the Department of International Security Policy of the Ministry of National Defense and the Department of Strategic Analyzes of the National Security Bureau.
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