Shortly after his 2014 reelection triumph, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán delivered to his Fidesz party base a speech that laid out its future strategy. This was Orbán’s famous “illiberal democracy” address, in which he declared that the country’s political direction would henceforth diverge from the liberal model embraced by Europe and America and adopted in varying degrees by Hungary’s post-communist neighbors.
In one noteworthy passage, Orbán spoke warmly of a group of “successful” countries that had deviated from the liberal democratic path. Their systems, he declared, were “not Western, not liberal, not liberal democracies, maybe not even democracies.” These “stars” of international development were Turkey, Singapore, India, Russia, and China.
In succeeding years, Orbán has had little to say about Turkey, Singapore, or India—and, although he has generally defended Vladimir Putin, Orbán has been circumspect in comments about Russia, given his country’s unhappy memories of life under Soviet domination, not to mention shock over the invasion of Ukraine and the thousands of refugees spilling into Hungary.
The one country that has captured and held Orbán’s open admiration is China.
Orbán’s regard for China is, or should be, a matter of more than passing interest. While we might describe Turkey or India as “illiberal,” that modifier would never attach to China. Among the major powers, China stands virtually unchallenged for its absence of basic freedoms, pervasive surveillance, intolerance of freedom of thought, willingness to persecute minorities en masse, and hostility to nonconformists. Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, China has declined from a system where (carefully calibrated) independent ideas about politics were tolerated, experiments in local democracy were given the go-ahead, and modest gains for press independence inched forward to a dystopia increasingly resembling the totalist systems that held sway during the 20th century. Unlike Orbán’s cautious assessments of Russian behavior, his praise for China, its leader, the ruling Communist Party, and China’s global role has been effusive and unqualified, at a level of enthusiasm that he usually reserves for favorite soccer teams.
Orbán’s infatuation with Beijing is worthy of comment first of all because it so dramatically clashes with his image as an anti-communist freedom fighter, which was responsible for his initial rise in stature in post-communist politics, an image that Orbán scrupulously cultivates even as he heaps abuse on liberal democracy and its champions.
But Orbán’s preference for China above all other major powers is also important because of his celebrity status among the ideologists and publicists of the new Right in Europe and the United States.
A galaxy of admirers from the American Right have embraced Orbán as a model for “national conservatism.” At one level is Rod Dreher, a Christian conservative who has emerged as a pitchman for Orbán and his political system. On a more rarified plane are intellectual critics of democracy Patrick Deneen and Adrian Vermeule, both American academics, and Yoram Hazony, an Israeli scholar. All claim that liberalism has evolved into a form of soft autocracy. On still another level, Fox News host Tucker Carlson spent close to a week in Budapest in 2021, tossing softball questions to Orbán and comparing Hungary’s quasi-autocracy favorably with American liberal democracy. In a gesture suggesting that Orbán’s conservative credentials have gained broad recognition, the Conservative Political Action Committee has announced that it will hold a gathering sometime this year in Budapest. And in January, former President Donald Trump took the unusual step of endorsing Orbán in Hungary’s coming national elections.
Conservatives have justified their enthusiasm for Orbán on the basis of his explicit break from globalism, his embrace of “Christian values,” his militant stance against immigrants, and his ability to impose a system disturbingly similar to a one-party state while avoiding the brutalist war on dissidents at home and bloody invasions of democratic governments in his neighborhood that has marked Putin’s Russia.
Meanwhile, even as American conservatives find Hungary worthy of esteem and, at least until recently, would occasionally praise Putin as a “strong leader,” they have consistently criticized China and supported a strategy by both Trump and President Joe Biden of treating Beijing as America’s number one adversary.
Orbán laid out his attitude in the embarrassingly enthusiastic comments he made in his opening speech to a 2016 conference in Budapest involving Central European political figures and representatives of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Orbán dispensed with the usual diplomatic bromides to describe Beijing in superlatives exceeding Chinese win-win platitudes. He declared that Europe must “change our global way of thinking” and, in addition to deepening economic relations with Beijing, “give meaningful content to our political relations” and “raise the level of inter-party cooperation to a higher plane.” [emphases added] He urged Europe to discard the belief that the West is a “superior culture” and move away from international agreements based on Western thinking. He went on to say that the “Chinese political system is a matter for the Chinese people,” the kind of insipid cliché that the Western Left used to drag out during the Cold War to justify ignoring repression in Cuba, the Soviet Union, and Soviet satellites like Hungary. He capped off his remarks by urging that relations between Central Europe and China be elevated from a level of cooperation to one of “strategic partnership.”
Orbán later showed that he meant what he said when he called for treating China as a partner. As Beijing’s policies of control, regimentation, and outright repression have intensified, Hungary has become Beijing’s most obliging advocate among EU member states. In case after case, Hungary has been a holdout, usually the lone holdout, when the EU has considered statements denouncing Beijing’s violations of human rights or international law. When the EU proposed a statement criticizing Uighur repression, Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó dismissed it as “pointless, self-aggrandizing, and harmful.” Hungary was the only EU member to oppose a statement denouncing Beijing’s imposition of a national security law in Hong Kong, which effectively snuffed out freedom in the territory. Hungary has prevented the formal adoption of statements condemning China’s actions to gain dominance of the South China Sea, human rights abuses, and the imprisonment of human rights lawyers. Orbán has described these resolutions as “inconsequential and frivolous.” Likewise, Hungary refused to protest the Beijing government’s detention of Michael Kovrig, a dual Canadian-Hungarian citizen held for three years as a diplomatic hostage. Hungarian officials refused to help Kovrig, lamely claiming that since Kovrig was arrested as a Canadian and China does not recognize dual citizens, there was nothing Hungary could do.
Hungary has also become China’s leading Central European trading partner. Huawei has established a major European logistics center there; despite Orbán’s pro-Trump bent, he flatly rebuffed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s entreaties to cut ties with the Chinese tech giant. Hungary was also among the first European countries to sign on to Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, agreeing to an expensive rail link between Budapest and Belgrade, whose economic benefits to Hungary are questionable and whose funding details are classified and therefore closed to public scrutiny.
More recently, Orbán has agreed to the establishment in Budapest of a campus of the Shanghai-based Fudan University. If the project materializes, it would be the first Chinese university presence in Europe. The economic and management details have raised eyebrows of both economists and educators. Fudan-Budapest would be built with Hungarian money; Hungary would be responsible for staff salaries, while the trust that makes policy and management decisions would be under Chinese control. And, of course, Fudan-Budapest would not adhere to European standards of intellectual freedom. Fudan University would be a Chinese university on Hungarian soil, run by Chinese officials, built by the Chinese, and presumably following the pedagogy set down by the Chinese Communist Party, including its attitude to historical accuracy and freedom of speech. Public opinion has been unenthusiastic, and Orbán has put the project on hold until after the elections.
Orbán’s commendations of the Chinese regime are remarkable from a politician who styles himself a tough negotiator unafraid to challenge taboos and swat down clichés. Unlike other national leaders, who limit their praise to China’s impressive alleviation of poverty, Orbán’s enthusiasm extends beyond development strategy. He has described the Chinese as a “serene people with a philosophical bent and a goal of achieving harmony.” He compares the Chinese favorably with Westerners: “The pursuit of freedom is at the core of Western political thought,” he says reproachfully, and “freedom leads to conflicts.” Westerners “are constantly alarmed about threats to freedom,” whereas the Chinese “are concerned with problem solving, trying to find a balanced result, which they call harmony.”
One senses that Orbán’s ruminations about Chinese harmony derive from envy of a system where all decisions are made through private discussions within the ruling party elites. He and other Fidesz leaders have spoken obliquely of preferring what can only be described as a de facto one-party system, in which open competition is smothered and policies are accepted without the debate, inspection, and demands for accountability that are integral to multiparty dynamism.
No discussion of Orbán, China, and the American Right is complete without an assessment of Orbán’s claims to be a defender of Christianity. Orbán calls the system he is creating “Christian democracy,” by which he means something quite different from traditional Western European Christian Democratic parties like Germany’s Christian Democratic Union. The values and policies that constitute Orbán’s Christian democracy are thin and imprecise, usually summed up in the slogan, “tradition and family.”
Orbán has decried Europe’s low birth rates, for which he blames secularism and the decline of Christian faith. Thus, the core of his family policy is an impressive list of financial inducements, including maternity support, paid child care leave, tax benefits, free holiday camps for children, subsidized textbooks, and tax allowances that encourage young people to marry. These measures have produced a modest payoff: Hungary’s birth rate has risen in recent years, though it still ranks well below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per couple.
Otherwise, most of his “family and tradition” policies, certainly the actions he and his publicists have advanced with the loudest drumrolls, are those directed at minorities: gays, transsexuals, Muslims, immigrants. Hungary’s constitution stipulates that marriage is between a man and a woman. A government measure outlaws gender studies at major universities. During the 2015 European migrant crisis, Orbán built a barbed wire fence to prevent Syrian and Iraqi refugees from crossing Hungarian territory, a move that solidified his status as leader of Europe’s populist forces. Americans like Dreher have cited Orbán’s hostility to immigration as crucial to his popularity with the Christian Right (though most religious scholars would likely note that the Bible includes more passages about the obligation to take in strangers than exhortations to build barbed wire fences to keep them out).
Orbán’s ambitions to resuscitate Christianity extend beyond Hungary’s borders, including a project to assist persecuted believers in the Middle East. In introducing the project, dubbed Hungary Helps, Orbán made the preposterous assertion that Christian believers in Europe might someday confront the same sort of violent persecution that believers in Syria and Iraq experienced under ISIS.
The United States also has projects, many funded by federal grants and others supported by religious denominations, to assist oppressed believers around the globe. The country regarded by American believers— Evangelical Christians front and center—as an especially dangerous threat to religious freedom is China.
Beijing’s assault on religious freedom extends well beyond the most obvious victims, Uighur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists. True, China’s Christian communities are not subjected to the reeducation camps, forced abortions and sterilizations, and cultural annihilation that Uighurs have endured. In its dealings with Protestants and Catholics, the regime follows a policy of modulated state control, fortified by pervasive surveillance, state regulation of the clergy, and strict prevention of religious involvement in public affairs.
Since Xi’s ascension, the state’s role in religious affairs has intensified much as it has throughout other aspects of Chinese life. According to Sarah Cook, research director for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan at Freedom House and principal author of The Battle for China’s Spirit (2017), the CCP’s ultimate goal is to asphyxiate religion through a combination of bureaucratic restrictions, rule by law, and the occasional use of iron-fist tactics. Regime measures are meant to expedite the process, regarded as inevitable in Leninist and Maoist dogma, that as societies become better educated and wealthier, “feudal” beliefs—religious convictions first and foremost—will simply fade away.
Cook notes that hostility toward Christianity is also driven by Xi’s crusade against Western values and institutions that enjoy regular contact with Western countries. In its calibrated policies toward the various denominations, the authorities have shown favoritism to “Eastern” faiths like Buddhism and Taoism as opposed to Christianity or Islam. Protestants have come under increased pressure to join “patriotic” churches whose clergy undergo political vetting. The status of Chinese Catholics was resolved in 2018 when the Vatican, under pressure for decades, capitulated and signed an agreement that concedes to Beijing the power to approve bishops.
Christianity has enjoyed a revival since 1980, and today China has an estimated fifty-eight million Protestants and twelve million Catholics. Believers can attend services and clergymen can preach the gospel. Proselytizing is forbidden, and the public celebration of holy days is discouraged and sometimes prevented. In some regions, the authorities have undertaken campaigns against the public display of crosses; and churches are pressured to hand over membership lists to local religious affairs officials. Patriotic clergy have proposed that religious teachings be diluted by playing down the doctrine of justification by faith while stressing the obligation of Christians as citizens to follow the rules. The Bible is censored, and its online sale is illegal.
There is, thus, a two-tiered system of religious control. For Muslim minority groups, it is a hell on earth driven by the most horrific methods of Maoism and Stalinism. For others, including Christians, it is tolerance conditioned by regulations, supervision, and an expectation of obedience. The system resembles the arrangement that prevailed in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during much of the Cold War—the same system that prevailed in Hungary during Orbán’s years as a young firebrand oppositionist.
Nathan Law, who as a teenager emerged as a hero of the Hong Kong democracy movement and now lives in exile, took note of Orbán’s past record as an anti-communist freedom fighter after Orbán refused to sign the EU protest statement over the Hong Kong clampdown.
“It’s difficult to imagine how someone who battled against the brutal repression of a Communist party at a young age could later become a staunch supporter of another,” Law wrote. “The system of absolute control under the Chinese Communist Party is no different than the Soviet Union you protested when you were young.” Law scoffed at Orbán’s claim that he was acting to prevent “the reemergence of cold war politics and culture in world politics.” Indeed, it was precisely Cold War politics, including the isolation of the Soviet Union and the rejection of its totalitarian system, that played a central role in bringing freedom to Hungary and the other Central European satellites.
Law’s remarks remind us that among the Cold War’s ripple effects was a transformation of American conservatism’s attitude toward political democracy. Where once conservatism found inspiration in figures like Franco and Pinochet, it came to embrace Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov, Walesa, and Havel. Conservatives revered Margaret Thatcher, of course, for her firm commitment to democratic ideals.
Conditions have changed: Witness the small but influential segment of the American Right, including an ex-President, that extolls the virtues of Vladimir Putin, a sworn enemy of America and of democracy. Orbán, of course, is not Putin. But until the invasion of Ukraine, Orbán has worked to justify a system in which the deck is stacked in Putin’s favor. Since the invasion, Orbán has proudly embraced a position of neutrality, an outlier within the EU, while the Fidesz media has showcased Putin’s talking points and conspiracy tales in which America and NATO are branded as responsible for the conflagration.
Orbán’s closest political allies are like-minded politicians, populist party leaders in Western Europe, and Putin admirers in the Balkans. More telling still is his attachment to the leaders of communist China, who have built a neo-totalitarianism that is more thorough, efficient, and rigidly enforced than Soviet communism was during the Brezhnev years. National conservatives should make no mistake: Orbán does not believe in democracy—illiberal, Christian, or otherwise.
Arch Puddington is senior emeritus scholar at Freedom House and author of the Freedom House Special Report Breaking Down Democracy: Goals, Strategies, and Methods of Modern Authoritarians (2017).
Image: By Abraham, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13348460
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