The myth of the Belt and Road in Central and Eastern Europe

Analysis of media and parliamentary discourse shows that the BRI has hardly made a dent in Central and Eastern European perceptions of Chinese influence

By Tamas Matura

The rapid development of China is one of the most important global changes of the last decades. The rise of the Chinese economy and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) have had a major impact on its connections with Europe. Through the so-called 16+1 cooperation (now 17+1 since Greece signaled its support for the group earlier last month) exchanges between China and the Central and Eastern European (CEE) region have become more intensive than ever before. And this development does not go unnoticed. Voices of concern in Europe have been particularly strong. EU politicians worry that with China’s increased economic involvement in the region, its political clout could grow to an extent that it would be able to “divide and rule” Europe by undermining EU solidarity on multiple key issues such as transparency norms and human rights.

Given the polarized international debate over the BRI, it is easy to feed such concerns into the familiar narrative of a menacing China. Yet before jumping onto that narrative, it is important to take a step back and assess the true scale of China’s influence in the CEE region and key in-region differences when it comes to perceptions and attitudes. In the past two years, my colleagues and I have been working on a major international research project, called ChinfluenCE. The aim of the research was to assess the image of China and to understand how the wider public and political elites perceive topics related to China. Our research found major differences between media sentiments towards China in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia. Most significantly, despite all the anxieties about a rising China in the region, the BRI has not been high on the agenda in the above three countries since 2013 (when the initiative was launched by President Xi in Kazakhstan), in both the media space and political discourse.  Instead, our research suggests that intentionally or not, China has yet to developed a narrative about BRI or CEE-China connections on its own terms in the CEE region.

The Core 4

The core of the CEE region is represented by the so-called Visegrad Four countries, namely the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. Hungary has been playing a leading role in the 16+1, organized the first China-CEE meeting in 2011 and one of the annual prime ministers’ summit later in 2017, and may become an important link in the BRI. Budapest recently elevated its political relations with Beijing to the level of a comprehensive strategic partnership, and Hungary hosts the biggest stock of Chinese investment in the region. Meanwhile Warsaw and Prague are the two biggest trade partners of Beijing among the four. Due to their geographic location, these countries are an inherent part of any potential land-based transportation corridor between the EU and China.

As reliable public opinion surveys are not available for the time being, the only source of information is to analyze how the BRI is depicted in the media of the CEE countries, and how politicians perceive and talk about the BRI. In the first phase of the project, we have collected, coded and analyzed all printed and electronic media coverage on Chinese politics and economics in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia for the period between 2010 and Q2 2017. As a result, we have created an enormous dataset based on almost 8000 articles published in the three countries. (The research in Poland is still going on, and will be published in the coming months).

Analyzing the database, we found that the discourse in the Czech Republic and Hungary is heavily politicized. Czech media sources have taken a critical perspective of China with a particular focus on values such as human rights. Meanwhile the Hungarian media focuses mostly on economic issues and the development of bilateral relations, with political values or human rights almost completely missing from the agenda. What is noticeable in Hungarian media, however, is that almost all negative news on China comes from anti-government media, while almost all positive coverage of China comes from pro-government media, indicating the politicized nature of the discourse. In Slovakia the media discourse is overall neutral, and economic issues are the most widely covered topics. Where strong media sentiment is present, however, there is a similar trend as in Hungary of pro-government media adopting a positive tone on China and anti-government media adopting a negative tone.

In the second phase of the project, we looked through almost thirty years of stenographic transcripts of the debate on China in the Czech and the Hungarian parliament and analyzed how the attitudes of different political parties and individual politicians towards China have evolved over the past few decades. Like in the case of the media discourse, there are major differences between the Czech and Hungarian politicians’ attitudes towards China. The Czech debate have experienced significant ups and downs in the past few decades, as it has gone from criticism to a more pro-Chinese period and back to a rather critical standpoint. In the Hungarian Parliament the mood has never been outright pro-Chinese. Right wing parties used to be fierce China bashers in opposition, but they have been neutral or even pro-China since their election victory in 2010. Like the media discourse, the Hungarian parliamentary debate is ideologically less underpinned, and human rights or other values have mostly disappeared from the agenda since 2010.

The 16+1 cooperation and myth of Chinese influence

It has to be emphasized that BRI has never been the main framework of cooperation between China and the CEE countries. The 16+1 initiative is. The story goes back to 2011 when the Hungarian government organized the first China-CEE meeting, where numerous political and business leaders gathered in Budapest. The event was so promising that the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs decided to establish a permanent cooperation with sixteen CEE countries.

16-1-map

The initial idea was to create a semi-institutionalized framework that would enable all parties to meet each other once a year. This was obviously a huge opportunity to the leaders of these relatively small countries to negotiate with their Chinese counterpart every single year. The framework has been developed ever since, it spilled over numerous fields of cooperation between the involved parties, ranging from tourism, through infrastructure cooperation to financial and economic issues. The success of this format is debatable. Some see it is a major success as it has increased the level of exchanges to unprecedented levels between China and the CEE countries, while according to others it is nothing else but a huge pile of unfulfilled promises, without significant economic gains on the side of the CEE countries.

Having grown an average of 9% per year over the past eight years, it is certainly true that CEE exports to China have grown significantly. However, the share of exports to China was as low as 1.2 percent of the total exports of CEE countries in 2017. The stock of Chinese investment equaled to EUR 5.5 billion, which was only 1.2 percent of the total stock of FDI in the five major economies (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia) of the region in 2017. Meanwhile the total stock and share of Chinese capital in the five biggest economies (Germany, the UK, France, Italy and Spain) of the EU was EUR 92.3 billion in 2017. In fact, the export dependence of Germany, the UK and of France on China is considerably higher (6.3, 4.4 and 3.5 percent respectively, according to data from UNCTADstat) than any of the CEE countries. Thus, it has to be underlined, that none of the CEE countries are dependent on exports to or investment from China in any aspect. On the contrary, where China has gained real economic influence is in Western member states of the Union.

The BRI in the CEE region

Although Beijing tends to label every kind of cooperation nowadays as BRI related, in fact the number of real BRI projects in the CEE countries is very limited. This is especially true when it comes to the eleven EU member states of the 16+1, as these countries are entitled to receive EU funds for infrastructure development, thus the business model offered by Beijing is less than attractive for them. One prime exception is Hungary, as Budapest has agreed to the joint development of the Budapest-Belgrade railway line (what would eventually connect the Port of Piraeus in Greece managed by China’s COSCO cooperation to the heart of the EU). This project is definitely part of the BRI. However, the construction has not even started yet, and observers expect further delays. When it comes to transport cooperation, Poland is a forerunner in the region, as it has established a direct railway service between the city of Chengdu and Lodz in December 2012, well before the BRI was announced in late 2013. It is considered as the most successful BRI related cooperation of the region, as almost 800 freight trains commuted between China and Poland in 2018. In the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia, the BRI has not achieved tangible results so far.

Consequently, the initiative has had an almost insignificant impact on the media discourse of these countries. Based on media analysis, the BRI has not been high on the agenda in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia since 2013. Altogether 126 articles (3.1% of the total number of coverage on China) touched upon the BRI from 2013 to mid-2017 in Hungary, 56 articles (2.1%) in Slovakia and only 24 articles (1.9%) in the Czech Republic. In comparison, thousands of articles scrutinized the development and status of the Chinese economy or Sino-Hungarian business relations.

Likewise, when it comes to parliamentary discourse, the impact of the BRI on politicians has been minimal. Hungarian Members of Parliament (MPs) mentioned China 92 times between 2014 and 2018 in the Hungarian national assembly, and the BRI was never mentioned as a topic of its own. The somewhat vague concept of the “new Silk Road” was cited in 13 speeches, but all of these occurrences were related to the topic of the Budapest-Belgrade railway line. One may speculate that the true nature and complexity of BRI is barely known by Hungarian MPs. The Czech case is very similar, as the BRI has never been mentioned in the Czech Parliament since 2013, as a clear sign that the initiative has had a minimal impact in the country.

In summary, despite the enhanced relationship between China and the CEE countries, public awareness of the BRI is still very limited in some of the most prominent countries of the region. Consequently, it would be easy to influence the discourse, as China has failed to develop a narrative on its own terms in the region. Of course, it is also possible that Beijing has never intended to induce public or political discourse on the BRI in the region, since the 16+1 (now 17+1) has served well to frame the narrative in the countries in question. In any case, it is highly probable that Western narratives will continue to shape the mind-set of CEE public and elites in the future, and given the increasing levels of anti-BRI criticism in Washington and in the EU, this important geographical link in the chain of the BRI may develop less friendly attitudes towards the ideas of Beijing.

Tamas Matura is an Assistant Professor of the Corvinus University of Budapest, the founder of the Central and Eastern European Center for Asian Studies, and the Hungarian representative in the European Think Tank Network on China.

 

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