How China is trying to shape Hungarian public discourse amidst the pandemic?
One of the most renowned movies in communist Hungary was The Witness by Péter Bacsó. The satire was made in 1969 and it was banned immediately by the state authorities for a decade. Many of the dialogues in the film have become part of Hungarian folklore, and these are still frequently quoted today. In a particularly ironic scene the main antagonist, Comrade Bástya (Bastion), a military general learns, from a briefing that nobody plots to kill him. In his outrage he says: "What? They don't even want to kill Comrade Bástya anymore? Am I worth nothing?" When it comes to Chinese influence campaigns in Central Europe one may have the feeling that Hungary was left out of such activities. Is Hungary not worth the effort? Or are there other reasons for the low level of Chinese actions to try to shape Hungarian public discourse amidst the pandemic?
The Hungarian government has been following a pro-China policy since 2010, and it has disrupted European unity vis-á-vis China in many instances according to international criticism. The pandemic has not led to any changes in its position on China, as the Hungarian government has expressed its gratitude for Chinese help and support on various occasions.

Budapest was among the first to send aid to Beijing and local governments have also sent medical equipment to China. Of course, ever since the virus started to spread in Europe Hungary has been importing medical equipment from China. The first airplane landed in Budapest on March 23 to be followed by another hundred flights between Budapest and various Chinese cities in recent months to deliver over a hundred million masks and other equipment. Over 99 percent of the cargo was purchased by the Hungarian government; while there have been some smaller donations by different Chinese actors as well.

In line with previous findings, the Chinese side has not engaged in a major public diplomacy campaign in Hungary. Duan Jielong, the Chinese ambassador published an op-ed in a Hungarian daily (considered by most to be a government mouthpiece) and given some interviews to online news websites and radio stations. In his public appearances he thanked Hungary for its help and called for solidarity in fighting the pandemic and generally repeated official Chinese talking points. As to the potential impact of such publications it is telling that two comments, seven shares and 22 reactions can be found at his op-ed on the Facebook site of the daily the op-ed was published in. His other interview has gained 29 reactions, 11 comments and two shares. Not an impressive achievement on the Facebook pages of two major media outlets with 15,000 and 56,000 followers respectively.

As in most other European countries the Chinese Embassy in Hungary was a latecomer to joining Facebook and Twitter, only doing so in October 2019. The two accounts were opened at almost exactly the same time on 23rd and 24th October. Having a mere 3.4 per cent of social media accounts Twitter has the lowest market share in Hungary among all the four Visegrad countries. Still, the Chinese Embassy has been very active since the opening of their account, as their feed features over 650 tweets, which is almost three tweets a day. The account was followed by 2,137 followers as of late May, but after closer scrutiny it turns out that 98 per cent of these persons are not Hungarians. There is a suspiciously high share of followers from the Middle East, South Asia and Africa, while I was able to recognise no more than 40 Hungarians among them. The average number of likes of each of their tweets is below three, while 54 per cent of the tweets have received zero likes and 45 per cent zero retweets. As a sign of the excellent language competency of the Embassy almost every single tweet features a short description in Hungarian.

The Embassy's Twitter account features two major types of content: news on China related events (like the fight against the corona virus and the two meetings of the national assembly) and tabloid style content about the natural beauty of the country or interesting news of technology or everyday life in China. As the chart below shows the number of likes (and other kinds of engagement) has always stayed in the range of about 50-200 per month between October 2019 and late May 2020. The only exception was March when one single tweet about the arrival of masks from China to Hungary received almost 400 likes (out of which only 47 were from a public profile), 25 comments and 105 retweets. However, none of the comments and retweets were made by Hungarians.
The Facebook page of the Embassy has 898 followers and its content is almost a perfect copy (except retweets of course) of its Twitter account with the same news on Chinese politics and the fight against corona virus and the same videos or other news related to the beauty of China or technology and everyday life. Its impact is slightly higher with numbers of likes and shares in the range of 10 to 20. Just like the Embassy'stweets, all Facebook posts offer a short description in good Hungarian.

The Hungarian version of China Radio International (CRI) has only offered 200 pieces of news in Hungarian on its website for the last two months, which is not very proactive, and older publications cannot be found. Another surprising feature of CRI is that its news is mostly in written format (transcripts) and the audio version is to be found at the bottom of each new piece, so it does not function as a normal radio station per se. What makes the Facebook page of CRI Hungary particularly interesting is the suspiciously high number of its followers. With almost 65,000 followers it is the 9th most popular Hungarian radio station Facebook page. One may wonder, however, how is it possible to have such a low amount of engagement while having such a high number of followers. Most of their posts receive likes in the range of 0 to 3, and it rarely goes above 10 (as well as this the Facebook page of the Romanian CRI features a similar pattern, as with almost 377,000 followers most posts get 1-10 likes. Likewise, in case of the Spanish version, which has 3.2 million followers, the average number of likes per post is in the range of 100 to 150) In comparison, each of the last ten posts of the page of the US Embassy in Budapest (63,000 followers) received over 70 likes on average, though they share nothing in Hungarian. Unfortunately, Facebook does not provide data on the individual followers of pages to check the approximate share of potentially fake accounts among the followers of CRI Hungary. Still, based on the extremely low number of engagements I can conclude that the impact of their activity on Hungarian society is marginal at best.

Meanwhile, it also has to be mentioned that none of the China related pages and websites introduced above have been engaging in "wolf warrior diplomacy", spreading fake news or videos attacking US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

So, is Hungary not worth the effort? Quite the opposite: given the cooperative approach of the Hungarian government to China in the last ten years, the Chinese government has no reason to directly influence or actively intervene in the domestic discourse to change public perceptions. It is the Hungarian government itself that promotes the success of Beijing in fighting the virus and emphasises the importance of China. For some reason even the text of official communiques of the Hungarian government (and thus most of the media coverage) never used the verbs 'to buy' or 'to purchase' when it comes to medical equipment coming from China, and prices are never mentioned either. Instead, the government employs phrases like 'arrival', 'delivery' or 'in transit' to describe how the equipment gets to Hungary. Hence, unlike in Czechia, even most of the opposition parties agree that Sino-Hungarian relations are of high importance. That is, Beijing could not make the official Hungarian discourse on China even better, even if it attempted to.
Tamás Matura is the Founder of the Central and Eastern European Center for Asian Studies and works as an assistant professor of international relations at the Corvinus University of Budapest.