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Pandemic challenges for Chinese migrants in Hungary

Published 10 April 2020 / By Pál Nyíri and Fanni Beck

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Introduction

“The virus revealed that the Chinese will always be Chinese in the eyes of Europeans", commented a young woman, recently moved to Hungary from a big Chinese city. She is among the 18,000 Chinese citizens who have paid between €300,000 and 350,000 for permanent residence in Hungary since 2013.

The Hungarian government has been the flagbearer of Europe’s anti-immigration turn, yet it has in recent years quietly expanded immigration opportunities for the wealthy and the skilled. In 2016-17, the number of valid residence permits more than doubled, the steepest increase in the European Union.

As elsewhere in the West, policies to keep poorer immigrants out have gained the vocal support of some middle-class immigrants[i]. Many Chinese in Hungary support Orbán’s strident anti-immigrant rhetoric. As a woman in her thirties said, “I like Orbán. Because he managed to keep out the riffraff. Because he knew that if he let bad people in, good people like us wouldn’t come”[ii].

Indeed, in the 2019 municipal elections, Orbán’s party targeted Chinese voters (permanent residents of Hungary can vote in local elections) with an anti-immigrant message, reckoning they would see it as not directed against them. [iii] Indeed, many Chinese say they have found Budapest to be a more welcoming place than Berlin, Rome, or Paris, where they believe discrimination towards Chinese is more frequent.

But polls contradict this perception: in 2016, 53% of Hungarians said they did not want to have Chinese neighbours.[iv] Still, living in detached houses in Budapest’s well-to-do suburbs and moving about in their cars, they have experienced little of this sentiment so far. Furthermore, the Hungarian government’s friendly stance towards China and the fact that it controls most popular media has cushioned Chinese in Hungary against the fallout from geopolitical suspicions they may be facing elsewhere in Europe.

This perception seems to be changing rapidly in the wake of the panic surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

The epidemic provided the Hungarian government with an additional justification to increase security on their already fortified borders and suspend the processing of asylum seekers. Many recent Chinese immigrants may have welcomed this: concern for their health in China was one of the reasons they gave for moving to Hungary in the first place, and the government said these measures would protect them from the virus. Yet when Orbán said the epidemic was brought to Hungary by “foreigners” and that “there was a logical relationship between coronavirus and migration as both spread through movement”[v] , these comments both highlighted the reality of Hungary’s increased immigration - the first patients were Iranian students who had come to Hungary on a government scholarship that has been awarded to nearly 4,500 mostly Asian and Middle Eastern students since 2013 - and expanded public suspicion to these relatively privileged immigrants. The government promptly ordered the deportation of 13 Iranian students who were said to have resisted quarantine regulations. (The deportation was stayed after the students challenged it in court.)

The association of  the virus with Chinese people also punctured the privileged position of Chinese immigrants in Hungary, shaking their previous positive impressions. Chinese children have been taunted at schools. Vietnamese shopkeepers posted “We are Vietnamese” signs on their shopwindows.

Rishi Sunak, the British chancellor of the exchequer, has reportedly said that minorities can feel more British than the white majority. Middle-class Chinese immigrants to Hungary have embraced “European lifestyle” with gusto, defending it against would-be “intruders” from Africa and the Middle East. This is an ambivalent attitude, combining appreciation for  individual freedoms not available in China with support for government that seeks to limit the freedoms of others, including foreigners, workers, and the opposition. The coronavirus epidemic has done little to reduce that support, but it has shaken their enthusiasm for a lifestyle that suddenly appears riskier and less welcoming. One likely effect is a shift away from “consumer cosmopolitanism” and towards the conservative nationalism that prevails in China, Hungary, and many other parts of the world.

Pál Nyíri is Professor of Global History from an Anthropological Perspective at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam. His most recent books are Reporting for China: How Chinese Correspondents Work with the World and Chinese Encounters in Southeast Asia: How People, Money, and Ideas from China are Changing a Region (edited with Danielle Tan).

Fanni Beck is a PhD Candidate at the Sociology and Social Anthropology Department of the Central European University (CEU), Budapest, Hungary. Her PhD focuses on the immigration of the new Chinese middle-class to Budapest, representing a shift from economic accumulation to non-economic pursuits centering around children and their upbringing.

 

[i] Galbraith, Quinn, and Adam Callister (2020) “Why Would Hispanics Vote for Trump? Explaining the Controversy of the 2016 Election,” Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences 42(1): 77-94.

Zhang, Chi (2018) “WeChatting American politics: Misinformation, polarization, and immigrant Chinese media,” https://academiccommons.columbia.edu/doi/10.7916/D8FB6KCR

[ii] Nyíri Pál and Beck Fanni (2020). “Europe’s New Bildungsbürger? Chinese Migrants in Search of a Pure Land,” Diaspora 20(3): 305-326.

[iii] HVG (2019) “A Fidesz potenciális politikai szövetségest lát a magyarországi kínaiakban” (Fidesz sees potential political ally in Chinese in Hungary), 21 November. https://hvg.hu/itthon/20191121_A_Fidesz_potencialis_politikai_szovetsegest_lat_a_magyarorszagi_kinaiakban

[iv] Kolozsi Ádám (2016) “Soha nem látott mértékű az idegenellenesség Magyarországon” (Xenophobia in Hungary reaches unprecedented levels), 17 November. https://index.hu/tudomany/2016/11/17/soha_nem_latott_merteku_az_idegenellenesseg_magyarorszagon/

[v] BIROM (2020) “Orbán: A járványt Magyarországra a külföldiek hozták be” (Orbán: It was foreigners who brought the epidemic to Hungary), 13 March. https://index.hu/belfold/2020/03/13/orban_kossuth_radio_koronavirus/