Hungary, Budapest – Interview with Gábor Tóth, President of the world’s first V4 – China association, Gateway to Europe : “We will see a strong Europe, with the help of Chinese investments.“
Early December, Ferenc Almássy met with Gábor Tóth, the President of the recently reoriented NGO V4 – China association, Gateway to Europe, which is committed to develop ties between the V4 and China. A couple of weeks after the 16+1 meeting organized in Budapest, Hungary, gathering the leaders of 16 Central European and Balkanic countries, and China’s PM – all this at the initiative of China itself – we wanted to ask a specialist about what to expect from China in our Central European region.
Ferenc Almássy: Why, as a Hungarian, are you so involved in cooperation with China? What is the reason for this interest and investment from you into Gateway to Europe V4-China Association?
Gábor Tóth: Well, it goes all the way back to high school: one of my classmates was Chinese, a girl that I was very fond of. Her parents came to Hungary with the first wave of Chinese immigration in the early 1990s and they opened a Chinese restaurant in Budapest. In short, my first contact with China was personal.
Later, it became professional. After traveling a lot, spending time and working in the United States, some of Western Europe and Russia between 2000 and 2009, I realized that the American dream was different in reality and that their situation is not perennial, their system is far from perfect. With my brother, we went to Hollywood first to become actors. Looking back we are glad it did not happen. By spending six months in Hollywood, one can witness really strange things, terrible social and behavioural patterns. The West is clearly in moral decline.
One of our Russian friends in Moscow then recruited us to be salesmen. And this is where I first felt this “oriental scent”. After years in the West, I had seen that Westerners had sentenced themselves to trouble. Drugs are common, everything is allowed and everyone is offended when someone speaks of normality, there are no limits anymore. Then in Moscow, for the first time, I got in contact with the East. I discovered a much more disciplined world with enormous potential.
After this experience I returned to Hungary, and I got in touch again with my Chinese friend who then invested herself into Chinese-Hungarian bilateral ties. However, to build a serious network in China, you have to be there. She settled there, in Shanghai. In order to maintain her links with Hungary, she needed someone in Budapest and I had the most suitable profile, so I started working with her from Hungary to strengthen ties between Hungary and China.
FA: But then, today, how can you work on these networks? And what is your personal knowledge of China? How can a native European have a reliable knowledge of China without living there, given the enormity and complexity of this country?
Gábor Tóth: I have traveled to China every year since 2011, I visited Beijing as well as other big cities and I also discovered the Chinese countryside. I lived in Shanghai for several months.
It’s been years now that I`ve been working on the links between Europe and the Chinese. Thanks to my friend, I was introduced to political and economical personalities but also to the Chinese media. These contacts allowed me to quickly have a picture of what China is. And I could add my numerous and long-standing contacts with the westernized Chinese social stratum, particularly the community living in Hungary.
I am not the member of the association with the deepest knowledge of China and the Chinese mentality, though. That is precisely why there are Chinese people in it as members. The second generation of Chinese born in Hungary speak Hungarian perfectly and know both cultures. They are key assets, their understanding is unique and essential.
FA: Initially, your association aimed to develop cultural exchanges between China and Hungary. How and why did it become an association dealing with strategic issues between the V4 and China? What are your actions now? I would also like to know who your supporters are, especially when it comes to funding. Introduce your association, please.
Gábor Tóth: In 2010, there was an exhibition in Shanghai, and the Hungarian State Secretary for Culture at the time, Géza Szőcs, benefited from the on-site help of my Chinese friend and partner. After that the three of us decided to build something to consolidate Sino-Hungarian ties.
So we started with the support of the Hungarian state, organizing concerts, exhibitions and so on. After a few years, I realized that cultural associations have multiplied. Also, I had to be honest with myself, Hungary alone can not be the “Gateway of Europe”.
The cultural aspect is interesting, but I wanted to achieve more concrete objectives than the realization of cultural events. I realized that what is missing is a strategic organization that connects the V4 and China. There was, and still to this day there is no other entity like us.
That’s why I reoriented the project on the issue of the 16 + 1. Each country in the region builds its small bilateral relation, but the 16 together , and within it, the V4 countries as the core, have an historic opportunity to build a special relationship with China as the western pillar of the New Silk Road.
FA: So the association is destined to become a think tank? A sort of lobby in favor of China here, and of Central Europe there?
Gábor Tóth: What the association will become is not decided yet, since it is only a few months old. As discussed with Mr. Szőcs, who later became First Advisor to the Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, the association started to focus on political and strategic topics between the V4 and China. The goal is for dialogue between the V4 governments and China to be enriched with all that is needed to improve the efficiency of their discussions, working toward the success of the 16+1 and the New Silk Road. Shall it be forums, cultural events – but this time at the V4 level – or even meetings of businessmen, entrepreneurs, innovators and conferences, our goal is to complement the political realm with our associative, NGO platform.
The idea is to build and sell, so to speak, the V4 brand in China. It is necessary to make known the Visegrád Group to the Chinese. This requires knowing how the Chinese think. They tend to associate one particular field with each country, each region. And what the Chinese may associate with the V4 countries is high quality agriculture and food safety. There is a huge demand in China for quality agricultural products. The 16 countries of Central Europe and the Balkans can meet the demand of this Chinese class which is worried about food safety and for whom we remain affordable while benefiting from the good branding inherent to our European continent. This new wealthy layer of society prefer to spend triple for staple food products, just so they can give the best to its children.
FA: From a commercial point of view, for us Central Europeans, I understand the windfall that this represents; but what should we expect from them, if they themselves do not trust the quality of their products?
Gábor Tóth: It’s not really more Chinese import products that we are looking for. From China, we need capital investments. It is important that they help us develop our infrastructure. There is strong growth in Central Europe and a lot of things to develop. The Chinese are in a delicate situation with the Westerners. In Asia, their network is already built. They have already bought what they could in Africa. They still have to invest their money somewhere else, and this somewhere has to be Central Europe. In reality, Europe remains the key. The whole planet has its eyes fixed on Europe, to know what direction the world economy will take. We are still the center of gravity of the world.
And on this point I think that the V4 will be able to extend its model to Europe, as opposed to the dangerous and sometimes absurd model of the neoliberal elites, and that this will have global repercussions.
Hungary`s vision of a united Europe based on Christianity and the proper, original workings of the European institutions will prevail, and those that are watching closely see that in the V4 and other regional countries it already has. Germany and Italy are the key countries, and they will both turn back to their ancient roots, it is only a matter of time. As soon as this model becomes the norm in the new Europe, China will begin to send its excess capital and capacities on a much larger scale than currently. In a sense, the success of Europe and China depend on each other. These two can make each other great along the New Silk Road.
FA: About the political model, let’s come then to that of China. What is the situation in China, is it a “liberalized” communist dictatorship as one can hear? The political differences are enormous between China and Central Europe, so to what extent can this be a problem in the long run?
Gábor Tóth: Opinions diverge to judge the nature of the current Chinese regime, which is very specific and does not fit in any box. My personal experience is that at no time did I feel oppressed in China. Yet, the Chinese regime is truly a strong, authoritarian regime that holds the country with an iron fist. But that’s how they organize their life. Look at the size of the country! Look at its demographics! This, in many ways, is necessary.
I think they are right to keep some control over what is said and done. Despite some false reports, people talk freely among themselves, criticism is allowed, tolerated, even if it is about the government. They simply avoid the destructive and arrogant attacks and criticisms to which we are accustomed in the West. And this is the result of this pseudo-freedom of Western “freedom of expression”: all Western countries have fragmented societies, people are attacking each other and usually governments have the support of only half of the population, the rest feeling misrepresented and dissatisfied. In the end, the democracy that should unite everyone and promote the common interest divides the people. This failure and weakness of democracy, which was said to be winning worldwide and was supposed to dominate the world, must be taken into account. Also, when the average person hears the word communism, thinks of the terrible history of the last century, but today’s China and its regime are vastly different from that.
In short, it is precisely because of all this that cooperation between Central Europe and China can be successful. We are talking about two blocks that both reject foreign interference and respect each other`s system and choice of political structure. Central Europe is trying to preserve democracy and liberalism like it used to be in the beginning, based on the rule of law and human responsibilities, not overrated human rights and unlimited freedoms. This is why China wants to do business with us and not the EU, where they get schooled and humiliated all the time from people that cannot even lead their own countries properly.
FA: How is China behaving towards its partners? If China invests in Central Europe, as you said, it will have political consequences. Job creation, in particular, will give weight to China on the European political scene. It’s a new but not anodyne thing. What are the consequences for all this, when we are already exposed to the so-called American or Russian interferences?
Gábor Tóth: In my opinion, the Chinese do not intend to change Europe deeply. They do not want to touch its culture, they want a Europe that serves their economic interest: that Europe is a good buyer and a good supplier. They would be interested in a strong and united Europe. They are not dangerously strong influential actors in the Western or European political game.
The cooperation of the 16 Central European countries is proof of what I am saying: the Chinese initiated this cooperation because Europe is in disarray and they saw a possibility of a new chance with this region of Europe, and through economic interests bring all these countries together to help initiate joint and regional projects. The V4 is the core of this format, then comes all the 16, then the German world and Italy. This will be the next step after political changes come because people are shifting toward to Hungarian model, which the Chinese are quite fond of, I might add…
FA: The Hungarian model? Orbanism, illiberalism?
Gábor Tóth: We must be careful when we talk about illiberalism, it can be understood as a doctrine turned against liberalism. I think it must be seen as a brake on the unwise excesses that we see today, with the questioning of identities and genders, the destruction of the family, the open society as it is called. All of this is a failure and more and more people are realizing it. Loving and caring for others must not mean mixing with them to the extent that they grow into a majority among Europeans. This is simply prudent and wise, yet tolerant thinking. Viktor Orbán is acting responsibly according to most European people. Another part of the Hungarian model is that focus is on law and order, responsibility and character. Hungarians are far from perfect, yet they are seen by many as an example to follow…
Building a barrier, self-defense, preserving national cultures seem to be what people want. Even if it is still unsaid in some places, that is what is dear to the hearts of most Europeans.
FA: Let’s go back to China. Does the fact that it has set up a 16 + 1 format not divide Europe, de facto?
Gábor Tóth: I would rather say that China chose a large portion of Europe that is still accountable and on track, as they see it, and these are these 16 countries. Not to mention the commercial potential of this part of Europe, which is in rapid development, therefore in need of investment. Also, this part of Europe is better situated for China, geopolitically speaking .
FA: And it’s an integral part of the New Silk Road project, called the One Belt, One Road. What concrete changes could this project of the One Belt, One Road bring in the Balkans and Central Europe?
Gábor Tóth: For the moment, there are only project drafts. China set up this big project in 2011, 2012, and it was officially launched in 2013. There have been agreements signed, but this is only the beginning…Plus the western pillar of the Silk Road has not yet been determined. In my view, it will be the V4, since there is no other clear alternative at the moment.
FA: Where does this great New Silk Road project come from?
Gábor Tóth: I see two reasons. One is that the Chinese have begun to feel the decline of the Western world, which has been captured by its own ideology. It means the end of the exclusive American domination. The second reason is that the Chinese see an historic opportunity to become the first world power, especially economically speaking. If we look at the structure of this New Silk Road, it connects the whole world, except “the West”, so to speak, especially the Americas.
On paper, the New Silk Road goes to London, but Westerners do not take this project seriously. They still see themselves as decisive actors and are too concerned with their own problems. Meanwhile, Central Europeans are building their future nicely, seizing such opportunities.
At the European level, sooner or later, one way or another, some form of a divorce will take place between countries wanting the old Europe and countries wanting a Europe that is different from what it has always been. Those siding with the traditional and ancient European model of united Christian nations will win, but because these countries and leaders (not people) are mainly found in Eastern Europe for now, they need a new alliance system, a Plan B so to speak, to keep growing and to fuel their return to the historic values of Europe. China is the key, and the Silk Road is that new alliance system.
FA: In other interviews, you said you hoped the 16 + 1 became a 1 + 1. What did you mean by that ? How to “unite” these countries? It looks a lot like the Three Seas Initiative, which some critics say is a US project for the post-EU era. But as we see, this same area also interests the Chinese. So what is it?
Gábor Tóth: Simply because it would be everyone’s interest. A strong central and eastern Europe, which would serve as a basis for a Europe rebuilt on sound foundations, would later be in the interest of the entire world economy. Besides, everyone would win if Europe regained its former splendor. Except maybe the Americans, but that`s a different story. As for the unity of the 16 countries…well, they need a core that is an already existing base, a foundation with a face, an identity, a brand. A friend of mine once said : when 16 friends want to decide where to go out that night, they usually fight about it, until the strongest ones, in this case four, take off in a certain direction… the other twelve would follow the V4, I`m pretty sure…
Whatever the case may be, Europe will not fall or be destroyed, as many radical opinions reflect. If we look at the history of Europe, we recognize patterns. Disunited regions enter into crisis, then comes the union under a great monarch, an emperor often, who finds a way to unite the individually strong nation states to form a great continental power. Europe is used to crises. But in a few years we will come out of our current crisis, it will not carry us away.
Besides, everything tends naturally towards that. Even Mr. Juncker and his partners want to respond to the crisis by forming the United States of Europe, which I`m sure will ultimately happen, but not the way they imagine it. The irony would be that they push for the election of a President of Europe, and the people of Europe elect Viktor Orbán! It would be possible! If the idea of a USE were realized tomorrow, there would be noone else capable of leading it, but him, being the most successful European political leader of his time. This would become even clearer, if he won a third consecutive majority in parliament, which would be an unprecedented record.
FA: After 25 years of total dominance of the US, the world seems to become multipolar again, and Central Europe, or those 16 countries mentioned earlier, would form one of these poles?
Gábor Tóth: Almost. I think, however, that the future of Europe is one of unity, of working together as much as possible. We will see a strong Europe, with the help of Chinese investments. Finding the method to establish the western pillar of the New Silk Road is the economic key to European renewal. It would bring a Europe-China couple to the highest level on the world scene. But it will be without some of the western countries of Europe, such as France, Belgium, Holland and others, I’m afraid. The 16 countries are in a unique position, being at the forefront of this change, the power shift the world is experiencing today which will become more and more evident in the coming years.