As a two-part illustrative case study we looked at the discourse on Chinese COVID-19 vaccines in 2020 and 2021 in Germany and Hungary. The two countries were selected because they exemplify two ends of Weissenbacher’s core / semi-periphery / periphery typology , with Germany belonging to the core group and Hungary the semi-periphery group of the EU. We are aware of the fact that there are significant differences among the countries within the core as well as within the (semi-)periphery, and we by no means wish to play down these differences. Yet we see a link between the relative position of these two countries and the way they frame and formulate their policies regarding the Chinese vaccine – and we believe it can point the way to future, more substantial research.
The recent discourse about Chinese vaccines against COVID-19 was selected because it exemplifies the significantly different attitudes of EU countries towards China. Before presenting the two cases, we sketch the background to the COVID-19 vaccines.Footnote 19 China, Germany and the US were among the first countries to announce they had experts working on different kinds of vaccines. In the end it was Russia that presented its vaccine with the evocative name of Sputnik V in August 2020. Shortly thereafter, other countries presented their vaccines, including China in late 2020. In May 2020 President Xi Jinping announced at a World Health Assembly meeting that China considered its COVID-19 vaccines to be a “global public good”. The Chinese COVID_19 vaccines, primarily Sinopharm and to a lesser extent CoronaVac (produced by Sinovac) and Convidecia (manufactured by CanSinoBiologics) , have been shipped to eighty countries. Fifty-three of these countries (mostly developing nations) received it for free, while twenty-seven middle-income countries had to pay for it . UnsatisfiedFootnote 20 with the slow pace of vaccination roll-out, shortages in supply, and delivery bottlenecks within the EU, several EU members turned to China (and Russia) for more vaccine supplies. Russia’s Sputnik V slowly won the acceptance of politicians across Europe, including in Germany. However, Chinese vaccines have not been approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and their acceptance is limited. Central and Eastern European non-EU member countries, such as Serbia, Turkey, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Ukraine have bought or are planning to buy Chinese vaccines. CEE state Hungary has bought 5 million doses and both Czechia and Poland are considering doing so [26, 29].
In the following we show how this foreign policy strategy was discussed in the two case-study countries of Germany and Hungary. By adding a historical background, we illustrate how the two countries came to be at the core (Germany) and the periphery (Hungary) of Europe and how this affected their respective views and policies on Chinese COVID-19 vaccines.
Case 1: Germany
This analysis begins with the historical section and is then followed by the textual analysis.
Germany’s Position at the Core of Europe—From a Historical Perspective
West Germany and the subsequent reunited Germany are an exemplary case of a core country in Europe in line with the core-periphery theory. When the European Union was founded (initially as its predecessor organisation the European Coal and Steel Community) Germany had very strong incentives to become part of a peaceful post-war community of countries in Europe. It needed to re-establish trustful relations with its neighbours. Reflecting on the Nazi period and learning from historical mistakes remain a core element of “Germany’s self-identification and ha[ve] a big impact on its policy regarding democracy, the rule of law and human rights” . In addition, West Germany needed the support of France, the United States and the Soviet Union to pursue its long-term goal of reunification. This led Germany to become a major protagonist and proponent of the EU. With its main goals of reintegration and reunification achieved, its motivation for supporting the EU then changed. As an export country, it benefitted in large part from the EU. Due to the unified stable currency regime, EU member states cannot devaluate their own currencies to be more compatible. At the same time, Germany’s goods are in high demand within Europe . Germany found itself primarily in precisely the opposite situation from countries at the periphery of Europe, particularly in the south and the east, which were struggling especially following the financial and economic crisis of 2008–2009 . Germany is not only situated in the geographical middle of the EU but has been a strong integrating and shaping force in Europe.
Germany and China
Over the years Germany has also developed strong and rather close relations with China. When the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was founded in 1949, post war-Germany was in the process of becoming divided. The German Democratic Republic (GDR) was founded a few days after the PRC, and followed the Soviet Union closely in its China-policy until the early 1980s. Diplomatic relations between the GDR and the PRC were established almost immediately, in 1949. Years of close exchange and economic cooperation followed until the Chinese-Soviet split and the Cultural Revolution, which also meant the end of relations between the PRC and the GDR. At the beginning of the 1980s the GDR slowly signalled its renewed interest in intensifying bilateral relations with China, although the Soviet Union waited much longer to begin normalising its relations . The Federal Republic of Germany, on the other hand, was bound in its foreign policies to the Western world. Diplomatic relations with China were established in 1972, following Washington’s turn to China in the early 1970s in an effort to outflank the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Economic interests played an important role from the start. However, before Germany was unified it always had to bear the divided city of Berlin and the possibility of reunification in mind and shaped its foreign relations accordingly. The breakdown of West German-Chinese relations after the 1989 crackdown on the democracy movement coincided with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and reunified Germany waited until 1992 to resume the relationship. Germany’s China-policy since the end of the Cold War has always been shaped by three partially contradictory factors: economic interests, human rights concerns and the specific China-policy of the incumbent German leadership. Helmut Kohl, the chancellor during the unification process, was open to trade and investment relations. With the support of the minister-president of the state of Bavaria Franz Josef Strauß, he laid the foundation for the recent close German-Chinese relations. Gerhard Schröder, Kohl’s successor and chancellor from 1998 to 2005, explicitly courted China and Russia, which enabled economic relations to flourish. At the same time a particular form of dialogue policy was established leading to approximately eighty different bilateral dialogues today including annual government consultation rounds. Angela Merkel has had a different policy style, less pal-oriented but equally keen on maintaining good economic relations, coupled with a certain reserve towards the socialist government. Today, the two countries have a solid and complex economic relationship. Germany has transferred a large part of its production to the PRC and benefitted for many years from the huge market.
The Debate on Chinese Vaccines in Germany
For this frame analysis a German textual corpus was compiled consisting of media articles and parliamentary documents. The media articles are from the Genios databaseFootnote 21 and comprised mainly (online) press articles and a few items from radio and TV. The analysis starts with the first mention of COVID-19 vaccinations in April 2020 and ends in June 2021. To be included in the textual corpus, the articles had to deal substantively with COVID-19 vaccination and include the keyword ’China’. In addition, documents from the German Bundestag, i.e. speeches, parliamentary motions, inquiries by MPs and answers from the government on issues related to the Chinese vaccine were included. After clean-up, the textual corpus for the German case study consisted of fifty-five articles from German press and news portals and thirty-six parliamentary documents.Footnote 22
All texts were analysed for whether they contained specific frames for Chinese vaccine-related contents. Following the definition by Price we looked for “textual attributions of a message (including organisation, selection of content, or thematic structure) [that] render particular thoughts applicable, resulting in their activation and use of evaluations” .Footnote 23 Regarding the framing of press articles on Chinese COVID-19 vaccinations, we made two main observations: (a) only general news articles framed the issue while specialist papersFootnote 24 focused on reporting facts and strictly refrained from any framing or political assessment thereof; (b) from these non-specialist papers in our German media corpus we identified five major frames (Table 1): (1) competition in vaccine development and application in the race to become the world’s leading power; (2) a ruthless Chinese government that follows its own power goals without regard for victims at home or abroad; (3) China’s vaccination imperialism, i.e. use of its vaccine to suppress other peoples and/or extend its power in other countries; (4) China as an actor that cannot be trusted; and (5) China being ineffective or clumsy in shaping its international image (“Public Relations Failure”). Within these five general frames we distinguished nineteen sub-frames. The second part of the German textual corpus, namely the parliamentary texts, contains slightly different sub-frames and weighting. We found matches in the two corpora for Frame 3 (China Exercises Vaccination Imperialism, Frame 2 (Ruthless China), Frame 1 (The Vaccination Competition is a Competition for World Leadership), and Frame 4 (China Cannot Be Trusted).Footnote 25 Two additional sub-frames were identified. However, Frame 5 (China’s Public Relations Failure) was not echoed in the parliamentary texts.
These frames varied in frequency. Some were applied simultaneously. They also alternated over the period under investigation. We could not identify a clear shift in framing during the period of investigation, but the following development was evident: in the beginning discussion focussed solely on who would develop a vaccine first and what this would mean for world power relations, and subsequently on who would achieve herd immunity first by vaccinating their population and who would take the lead in helping poor countries which had thus far lacked access to the vaccines.
Discourse on different Chinese COVID-19 vaccines in Germany went through three phases. The first was the “vaccine development phase”, which lasted largely from spring to summer 2020. It focussed on which country would develop the first effective vaccine. The second phase, i.e. the “vaccine roll-out”, and the third phase, i.e. “vaccine sharing”, started simultaneously (in summer 2020) and are still underway at the time of writing (summer 2021) but have differed in intensity. The frames for this topic did not follow this time line but rather showed waxing and waning intensities.
Chinese COVID-19 vaccine development, roll-out and distribution is discussed by the German public as an issue of economic stability, secure ties to the Chinese market and rather secure prospects of receiving enough vaccine from the EU.
Frame 1: The Vaccination Competition is a Competition for World Leadership
China was the first country to allow emergency use of a domestic vaccine, namely in June 2020.Footnote 26 However, it was Russia that stepped forward with the first fully developed and officially approved vaccine Sputnik V in August 2020. The German-US Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine applied for approval in November 2020. The US-American vaccine Moderna and the British vaccine AstraZeneca followed shortly thereafter. German media discourse in this initial phase of vaccine development was not yet extensive. News reports were dominated by Frame 1: “The Vaccination Competition is a Competition for World Leadership”.
It was accompanied by the idea that the winner of the race to the first vaccine would also gain a leading position in the world.
While research is being conducted around the world, U.S. President Trump is turning the medical challenge into a race with rival China […] The vaccine race between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping is headed for a stalemate, immunologist and author Laurie Garrett predicts in the New Republic: “In the end, it could be that these two power-hungry egomaniacs share the Nobel Peace Prize.”Footnote 27
If China wins the global race for a vaccine, it will carry symbolic weight, experts judge. Especially for the U.S., China’s biggest geopolitical rival, this would be a defeat.Footnote 28
Other articles emphasised that China was trying to present itself as a responsible actor in world politics, leaving it open as to whether the strategy was convincing.
In one article, an expert is quoted on China’s vaccination roll-out in Indonesia:
Emerging economies like Indonesia are undecided about which camp to choose in the conflict between China and Western countries. It is with them that the People’s Republic is trying to score an important point by presenting itself as a responsible partner.Footnote 29
However, after China was the first country to come up with a vaccine, albeit only on an emergency approval basis, and Russia, another non-Western country, became the first to have a fully approved vaccine, framing shifted from the significance of speed to the significance of quality.
In parliamentary debates, the “competition for world leadership” frame was referenced in debates on the geopolitical dimension of vaccine distribution. Andrej Hunko (MP, The Left), for example, pointed out that China and Russia were much quicker than the EU in helping non-EU members in Europe, such as the Republic of San Marino and Serbia, in their quest for a vaccine.Footnote 30
Frame 2: “Ruthless China”
In the next phase of vaccine roll-out, Frame 2 or “Ruthless China” came into play. Some articles accused China of caring more about its international image than its own population:
At present, it seems more important for Beijing to position itself as a helper in times of need and a global vaccine supplier. No criticism of this is voiced among its population.Footnote 31
Referring to earlier product scandals in China, the issue of low-quality pharmaceuticals was often raised in the context of Chinese domestic vaccination campaigns as well as in articles about China providing vaccines to other countries.
These days, we can observe the kind of unconventional measures that the historic race for a Corona vaccine brings forward. The state oil company Petro China has made an immoral offer to its employees who plan to go on a business trip abroad: they may already be administered a promising vaccine as volunteers—without any clinical testing procedures. However, these guinea pigs were apparently not informed about possible side effects.Footnote 32
But in mid-January, doubts arose about the Sinovac substance; according to tests, it had only about 50 percent efficacy in Brazil. In Indonesia, it was said to have been 65.3 percent in a smaller study. And so it hardly inspires confidence that companies like Sinovac and Sinopharm are keeping their test data largely under wraps for scientists in other countries. Nevertheless, CoronaVac has now been approved in both countries.Footnote 33
China’s efforts to test vaccines in other countries were also subject to this line of reasoning.
In terms of vaccine development, China had been dealing with a luxury problem since the summer: The risk of infection had dropped to a low level after the lockdowns and the closing of the borders. For research, this was a disadvantage. It was not possible to find out whether a vaccine actually protects against infection. Chinese scientists therefore began testing their active ingredients in more than a dozen other countries, such as Peru, Argentina, Brazil, Bahrain, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.Footnote 34
Other sub-frames which cannot be cited due to space limitations include: China has considerably contributed to the worldwide spread of COVID-19 because it valued maintaining its good image by suppressing free speech at home over informing the world of the virus.Footnote 35 China is also reported to engage in price dumping to outpace competing Western (liberal) vaccine suppliers.Footnote 36
Interestingly, some journalists even doubt whether China has serious plans to vaccinate its own population at all:
While many countries want to vaccinate as large a proportion of their population as possible to achieve herd immunity, information about China’s vaccination policy for its own country is sparse. It is true that medical personnel and the military are reportedly to be vaccinated. But whether China also wants to achieve herd immunity for its approximately 1.35 billion citizens is not clearly communicated. The country has hardly recorded any new infections. Most of the Sinovac doses could therefore be destined for export.Footnote 37
In parliamentary debates, the “Ruthless China” frame was used mainly in the context of vaccine deliveries for Taiwan which were reportedly obstructed by mainland China.Footnote 38 The Liberal Democrat MP Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, for example, asked the state secretary of the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a parliamentary Q&A session:
Are media reports true that the government of Taiwan has asked the federal government for help in procuring and/or supplying SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus vaccine, and does the federal government, like the governments of Japan and the United States, plan to provide SARS-CoV-coronavirus vaccine to Taiwan in the short term?Footnote 39
Frame 3: “China Exercises Vaccination Imperialism”
The third phase of sharing vaccines with the developing world runs in parallel to the second phase. However, the German media’s main concern here is China’s intentions regarding other countries. In the context of the COVID-19 vaccines global access initiative (COVAX) to facilitate equitable vaccine access for poor countries, for example, Frame 3 is that of China’s “vaccine imperialism”.
China is suspected of distributing its vaccines to developing countries under the pretext of humanitarian aid, but in reality with the primary aim of expanding its global power.
This view is advanced in the media:
Secretly China baits the world with its vaccine. […] China does nothing purely for humanitarian aid.Footnote 40
While EU countries struggle for sufficient vaccine, Russia and China seem to distribute their products generously around the world. In this way, they secure influence—often to the detriment of Europeans.Footnote 41
A similar view is voiced in a parliamentary motion by the Alliance 90/The Greens parliamentary group:
The gap left by the EU in the distribution of vaccines is currently being filled in part by China and Russia. These actors are not only concerned with the urgently needed supply of vaccines to the population, but also with creating financial and political dependencies. The EU and the German government are not doing enough to counter this, giving the impression that they are not taking the fears of their partners worldwide seriously enough.Footnote 42
In the same vein we found articles on recipient countries approving insufficiently tested Chinese vaccines or production licenses thereof.Footnote 43
The two remaining frames, namely Frame 4 “China Cannot Be Trusted” and Frame 5 “China’s Public Relations Failure”, are present in all phases of reporting on China’s vaccine development, roll-out and distribution.
Frame 4: “China Cannot Be Trusted”
Frame 4 also plays a role in some parliamentary documents. For example, the German government answered diplomatically to an inquiry by The Left party about approval of Chinese vaccines in Germany as follows:
The German government has repeatedly stated that it does not support the marketing of a vaccine without regulatory approval in Germany. Proper approval is important for confidence because, on the one hand, vaccines are used in healthy individuals and, on the other hand, quality, efficacy and safety must have been carefully tested and confirmed by an official procedure. These are also decisive criteria for the population’s quick and comprehensive acceptance of the offer of a vaccination. Therefore, the German government welcomes the start of application processing for the Russian vaccine Sputnik V at the European Medicines Agency with the aim of obtaining a European marketing authorization. The path of applying for European approval is also open to the Chinese vaccine manufacturers.Footnote 44
Frame 5: “China’s Public Relations Failure”
However, Frame 5 about “China’s Public Relations Failure” was confined to media articles, such as ridiculing China’s purchasing strategy and domestic reporting:
By the way, China has also ordered from the class enemy: The People’s Republic has ordered 100 million doses from Biontech/Pfizer, but pro-government media are also reporting extensively on alleged side effects of the vaccine.Footnote 45
Summary of the German Case Study
This brief sketch of media reports and parliamentary debate on China and its COVID-19 vaccination policy against the background of Germany’s historical positioning at the core of Europe, shows that the German media and political elite are generally highly suspicious about the intentions of the Chinese government. Even apparently humanitarian activities are conceived as acts of imperialism or crime. Even Chinese intentions regarding the health and safety of its own people are cast in doubt. The major frames in Germany’s media discourse are largely echoed in the parliamentary debates and motions. The only view not taken up by the politicians is that the Chinese government has failed in its public relations strategy. The above analysis shows a distanced, critical perspective on China and its vaccine policy. The journalists and politicians cited evidently do not see their country in a situation potentially requiring goods from or cooperation with China in the context of COVID-19 vaccination at some point. This is the perspective of Germany, a powerful country located at the core of Europe. What about Hungary, a country at Europe’s semi-periphery?
Case 2: Hungary
For the Hungarian textual corpus, we have selected speeches by and interviews with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (23 items), parliamentary addresses (43 items) and coverage of the Chinese vaccine in mainstream news media (mostly articles and occasionally videos, altogether 72 items). The latter group includes the six largest Hungarian news portals (24.hu, index.hu, origo.hu, HVG.hu, telex.hu, 444.hu)Footnote 46 and the four leading political dailies which also have online editions (Népszava, Magyar Nemzet, Magyar Hírlap, Világgazdaság). Orbán’s speeches and interviews are usually also media appearances, such as his weekly interviews with Kossuth Rádió, the most popular news radio broadcaster in the country.Footnote 47 Orbán dominates Hungarian media discourse not only because his speeches are widely broadcast across the Fidesz-controlledFootnote 48 outlets with minor alterations—a survey prepared by Mérték Media Monitor Nonprofit Ltd. found approximately 80% pro-government media in HungaryFootnote 49—but also because he exercises a strong agenda-setting influence even in oppositional media. The time span was from August 2020 to mid-March 2021. As the intention was to embed mention of the Chinese vaccine into the broader context of EU-Hungary relations, we also searched for the terms “West”, “East”, “Brussels” and “periphery” in addition to “Chinese vaccine”, “European Union” and “China”.
For Hungary, of the five main frames we identified, three (1–3) were used almost exclusively by the government (Orbán himself, Fidesz MPs or pro-government media), while the other two (4–5) were characteristic of discourse by the opposition. Given that approval of the Chinese vaccine was a key political issue in Hungary, these frames were employed intensively in parliamentary as well as media discourse (this also applies to frames by the opposition, the only two sub-frames missing from parliamentary addresses being the “China is suspect“ and “the Chinese vaccine is dangerous” ones) (Table 2).
[T]he countries of West Europe have been the ’core’ of the world system as the most advanced and powerful countries of the world. They almost always dominated their neighbours to the East which by the twentieth century were generally very small and, at most, semi-developed countries. Furthermore, these small countries (although many of them were packed into the Habsburg empire for several centuries) suffered from the pressures of Western modernised and industrialised states on one side and the Eastern empires (Russian and Ottoman) on the other. They have been swinging through history between long waves of Westernisation and Easternisation. After the last five decades of Easternisation, there appears once more to be a fundamental turn in the other direction and so their Westernisation begins again .
Hungary is a pertinent case of the power struggle between East and West—and this binary still has a formative power in today’s politics. This non-Slavic nation views itself as having Asian nomadic ancestors who found their way to the Carpathian basin. After initial raids further into the West, in 1000 CE they opted for settled, agricultural statehood and conversion to Christianity to seal their integration into Europe. As the narrative goes, Hungarians have found their home in the “heart of Europe”—this “heart” was, however, close enough to the East to be devastated by the Mongols (1241-42), fall prey to the Ottoman Empire and become separated from the rest of Europe. Ottoman rule (1541-1699) was finally broken with Habsburg assistance, and the country was integrated into the Habsburg Monarchy, which was then reorganised under the name of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy after the failed Hungarian independence movement of 1848-49. The Habsburg period (from the late seventeenth century to the end of World War I) positioned Hungary on the semi-periphery.
We can talk about Hungary’s semi-peripheral position not just in economic [20, 33,34,35,36] but also in cultural-discursive terms [37,38,39,40,41,42,43]. In parallel to bitterness from a sense of being “colonised” and wedged between East and West (as shown by the notion of Hungary being a “ferry nation”)Footnote 50, there has also been a struggle for cultural “upward mobility” towards the core, as demonstrated by the discourse of an entire generation of intellectuals calling themselves “Westophiles” in the early twentieth century.Footnote 51
Following the fall of the monarchy and the shock of the Treaty of Trianon (1920) when Hungary lost two thirds of its territory, however, there was general distrust of “Western European” politics. The movement known as “Turanism”, which rose to significance between the two world wars, proclaimed an opening to the East and focused on demonstrating the nation’s “Eastern origins” . Hungary’s inglorious role in World War II, caused partly by the desire to recover lost territories, and the Soviet occupation that followed were further major traumata within a span of thirty years.
The Soviet period was perceived as an imposed swing to the East—but not to the “Eastern relatives”. The conscious shaping of a Soviet identity met resistance not only due to its ideology but also to cultural differences. Hungarian intellectuals still defined themselves as “Europeans”, but felt cut off from Western Europe. After the euphoria of the 1989 regime change, hope arose of reintegration into Europe. As a leading Hungarian economist wrote on the prospect of the country’s EU accession, “After several centuries of peripheral existence Hungary would eventually become fully integrated. The significance of this can perhaps only be paralleled with the founding of the state [1000 CE]. We can take roots in Europe, and deep ones now, for a second time”.Footnote 52 The “return to Europe”, however, was also expected to be “painful and slow” , and semi-peripheral existence was understood as a frame for the reintegration process [45,46,47,48,49,50].
As Western European retailers flooded the Hungarian market and Western European industrial giants moved parts of their manufacturing to Hungary (and to other CEE countries) following the 2004 accession, disappointment and euroscepticism followed [51,52,53]. The perception of the past almost two decades has been that Hungary is only needed as a market and a pool of cheap labour, and the Habsburg image of the country being reduced to a “German colony” has returned. As a result of the above, Hungary’s relations with the EU have necessarily been contradictory: on the one hand there is a deep sense of historical and cultural belonging to (Western) Europe; on the other hand there is an inferiority complex, fear of a loss of identity and a sense of being taken advantage of by core EU countries.
The core-periphery structure seems helpful in explaining the dynamic of Hungarian China-policy. At the same time, the East versus West binary is just as dominant in the background, adding to the instability and constant struggle that characterises the periphery. In 2006 Rumford wrote, “Modernity has seen Eurasia divided according to two principles which have produced a familiar pattern of bordering: an East–West divide, and a core–periphery relation. Neither of these divisions dominates Europe–Asia relations at the present time, although they both still exert an influence over political orientations and continue to inform identity politics” . We argue that these divisions seem to play a more critical role in shaping relations between China and individual EU member states these days than was to be presumed after the optimistic moment of the 2004 EU enlargement.
As recently as 2018 a Hungarian analyst wrote, “It might be expected that China has become an important factor in Hungarian domestic politics, and opposition parties might try to denounce the government as pro-China or pro-communist. In fact, the opposite is true. […] Prominent politicians in the opposition parties barely mention China at all in their public statements, and, unlike in some other countries, its increased political and economic presence has not triggered any alarm in Hungarian political circles or among the wider public. Critical commentary on Hungarian China-policy currently exists only in independent media” . As we will see, the situation has changed, and one of the very first indicators of this change is the case of the Chinese COVID-19 vaccine.
Politicisation of the Chinese vaccine in Hungary can best be understood within the broader context of Hungary-EU and Hungary-China relations. We have already introduced the first, so let us offer a glimpse into the latter as well before moving to the vaccine case study. For the sake of conciseness we summarise the past twenty years only briefly. The first Orbán government (1998–2002) positioned itself strongly against Communist China. Orbán himself received the Dalai Lama in 2000 as Prime Minister, and the official party website of fidesz.hu listed a link to the Free Tibet blog. The next eight years saw a Socialist government (prime ministers: Péter Medgyessy 2002–2004, Ferenc Gyurcsány 2004–2010) which was very China-friendly. As Gyurcsány said in a 2007 interview, “Hungary opposes any form of Taiwanese independence and shares the one China principle.”Footnote 53 Within the first three years of Gyurcsány being PM (2004–2007), sixteen Hungarian ministers visited China, four of them twice, with the PM himself paying two visits.Footnote 54 Throughout the Gyurcsány regime, Orbán-led Fidesz, then in opposition, was fiercely fighting against the government – and against China. “We call on the Hungarian government to use its influence to act in the appropriate fora of the European Union in order to end ethnic violence in China”, said Zoltán Balog, a leading Fidesz politician, in 2009.Footnote 55
However, a mere two months before coming to power in April 2010, Orbán as Fidesz chairman held a state of the nation speech in which he eloquently outlined his future foreign policy. The speech set the tone for the “Opening to the East” policy that was to start the same year, essentially right after Orbán’s coming to power. Here he used the metaphor that became a recurrent image in his rhetoric: “although [Hungary] sails under a Western flag as an EU member state, the wind of the world economy blows from the East.”Footnote 56
One might argue that the severe blow of the global financial crisis to core EU states (with Germany entering a recession and spill-over effects in Hungary) and China’s rapid ascent created a new global setting that Orbán felt the need to accommodate. Under these conditions, China as a rival global centre had (and has) definite leverage for Hungary (and apparently for several CEE states—see the “CEE-China Initiative” launched in 2012—although the domestic political landscape of other CEE states might differ). “Approaching the 2010 elections, it was suggested in professional circles that after a possible change of government, the second Orbán government would pursue a more distant, politically critical, less economically cooperative China-policy. This would have been a sharp reversal compared to the convergence processes of previous years” . In fact, the very opposite happened.
Framing Hungary-China Relations and Chinese Vaccine-Policy in Hungary
We will briefly introduce three frames that have dominated recent government discourse; then two „counter-frames” employed by the opposition. While our focus is the Chinese vaccine, we will also show that the current frames are deeply rooted in the broader context of how the Fidesz government sees Hungary-EU and Hungary-China relations.
Frame 1: Disadvantaged Hungary
The “Disadvantaged Hungary” frame interprets Hungary as a small, subaltern country on the periphery of Europe having to fight for survival. Its enemy is either the “West” (i.e. the core EU states) or, rarely, the “East” (i.e. Russia). If it is the “West”, the fight is emotionally supported by the vision that Hungary might soon outdo all those who have oppressed it this—so it often appears in combination with the second frame (“declining West, rising CEE”). Apart from assuming an economic context, it also often serves to frame texts in which being disadvantaged is personalised, and dramatically so—such as employees of Western companies working for a fraction of the salaries in Western Europe or people having to consume poor-quality food products.
The concept of a “two-speed Europe” is regularly posed as a binary of empowerment (of the “centre”) and disempowerment (of the “periphery”). As Orbán said at the time of the “dual-quality food” scandal, “If we see that there are double standards, and there is a two-speed Europe, we think Central Europeans will certainly be on the receiving end” (Oct. 2017).Footnote 57 He himself employs the “Disadvantaged Hungary” frame regularly to rationalise Hungary’s fight in a malign political environment: “Threats approaching from both the East and the West. […] [A]s we saw that the paths marked out for us by Brussels and Washington were not viable, we were forced to create a new one” (Feb. 2020).Footnote 58 This rejection of a “two-speed Europe” seems to span the entire political spectrum in Hungary, from the far leftFootnote 59 to the far right.Footnote 60
The government (Gergely Gulyás, Minister heading the Prime Minister’s Office) first talked publicly about “negotiations” for the Russian and Chinese (Sinopharm) vaccines on 22 October,Footnote 61 which was then reinforced factually by Orbán a week later, “because they’re slightly ahead in vaccine development”.Footnote 62 On 5 November, however, State Secretary for Information and the International Representation of Hungary (Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade) Tamás Menczer said in a Facebook video post, “If the antidote is found sooner in the East, then neither the Brussels lobby nor the pharmaceutics lobby can stop us bringing the vaccine to Hungary. The health of the Hungarian people comes first!”Footnote 63 Here he places the Chinese vaccine into the frame of “Disadvantaged Hungary” having to fight for its most basic rights (the health of its own people) against its two enemies: Brussels and the pharmaceutical companies.
At around this time the oppositional media started addressing the issue of vaccine safety and lack of transparency,Footnote 64 providing a platform for the opinions of Hungarian virologists. Orbán, however, continually chose to reframe the discourse as that of “Disadvantaged Hungary”: “[I]t’s best to have access to as many types of vaccine as possible. We mustn’t turn this into a political issue. But there are some who do, who want to wage a new Cold War, playing’East’ against’West’.”Footnote 65 The image of Brussels (“some”) waging an ideological war against pragmatic Hungary (wanting to stop Hungary from purchasing the Chinese vaccine) has remained a central element in vaccine-related discourse by the Hungarian government, as the quotations also illustrate it:
[O]ne cannot allow Hungarians to die, simply because Brussels is too slow in procuring vaccines (22.01.2021).Footnote 66
Here in Hungary we can hardly afford to reject a [Chinese] vaccine which is being used to inoculate Hungarians in Vojvodina. […] One should not use the issue of vaccines in order to prove one’s allegiance to America or to Brussels (15.02.2021).Footnote 67
[T]he lives of the Hungarian people must be saved, and the lives of the Hungarian people are only important for us (19.02.2021).Footnote 68
In the head of a bureaucrat, money is obviously more important than time; but in real life, outside the Brussels bubble, matters are the other way around. […] [W]e have more faith in ourselves than in the Commission (26.02.2021).Footnote 69
Frame 2: Declining Western (Core) Europe and Rising Central and Eastern Europe
The perception of a “West” in decline has become a central element in the second and third Orbán government’s discourse on the EU. This is clearly demonstrated by Orbán’s utterances such as “the situation is that the torch of those we could follow has gone out. […] the nucleus of the new European economic era that is just emerging will be not Western but Central Europe” (July 2011)Footnote 70; “the time has almost come for Central Europe to truly be the middle of Europe and evolve into the motor driving the impetus of European economic growth” (May 2014)Footnote 71; “Europe is us, and we do not have to measure up to the tired Brussels elite, who will soon be disillusioned even with themselves. We used to think that Europe was our future; today we know that we are the future of Europe. […] the Carpathian Basin radiates strength” (Feb. 2020)Footnote 72; “[t]he growth centre of the entire European Union is shifting eastwards, to Central Europe” (Oct. 2020).Footnote 73
As the texts reveal, centre and centrality play a very important role in the way Orbán positions his country/region in relation to Western Europe. Instead of postulating commonality, i.e. the sharing of a single European space, he divides the EU into centre and periphery and assumes the role of a peripheral agent trying to instigate a major power shift. This “periphery” versus “centre” (also often referred to simply as “us” and “them”) dichotomy forms the axis of the arguments, and the emotionally loaded images legitimise movement of the centre (domination, power) to Central (Eastern) Europe. The past is allocated to the centre (Western Europe/Brussels), while the future to the periphery (Central and Eastern Europe), making the desired power shift a compelling utopian image.
The oppositional Hungarian Socialist Party declares in its 2014 electoral programme, “Instead of suffering from the renewal of Europe, from the creation of a common new Europe, we want to shape it, so that Hungary should not belong to the periphery, but to the European centre.”Footnote 74 LMP, Hungary’s Green Party, calls for “a Europe of the people, not a Europe of capital”Footnote 75 when speaking against Western European companies’ presence in Hungary. Both the Socialist Party and the Green Party perceive the differences (also the “centre-periphery” dichotomy) in a very similar way as Fidesz (Orbán’s party), but see the solution in moving closer to the centre or levelling things out instead of proclaiming a shift of the centre towards the CEE region.
The vaccine procurement offered ample opportunity for the “Declining Western (Core) Europe and Rising Central and Eastern Europe” frame:
For me the most inspiring example is Serbia, […] those who are outside and have taken care of their own affairs are doing well. […] [L]et’s procure vaccines from elsewhere, knowing that Brussels will either succeed or they won’t. But we can’t afford to stand only on that one Western leg (29.01.2021).Footnote 76
I repeat: for the Government the vaccine is not a political issue. As far as we’re concerned, it doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice (22.01.2021).Footnote 77
Most interestingly, Orbán is applying Deng Xiaoping’s famous metaphor of “black cat—white cat” to place pragmatism ahead of loyalty.
In mid-January, State Secretary for Information and the International Representation of Hungary (Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade) Tamás Menczer was already talking about fierce competition in a victorious tone: “Whether Europe needs the Chinese vaccine or not is well illustrated by the fact that after Thursday’s announcement about advanced negotiations by the Hungarian government, 14 European countries contacted the Chinese manufacturer within a few hours. By now, all of Europe is probably queuing up in China, again.”Footnote 78 Orbán also spoke of the “highest inoculation rate in the entire European Union” (26. 02. 2021).
Frame 3: China as Opportunity
Orbán sees a paradigm shift in the world: “Meanwhile China’s gain on global economic weight has been unbroken. […] Consumer welfare societies in the West are over.” (July 2011)Footnote 79; “The engine room of the global economy is no longer in the West, but in the East. […] And it has become increasingly offensive that a few developed countries have been continuously lecturing most of the world on human rights, democracy, development and the market economy. Everyone has had enough of this; and of these the Chinese are the strongest—so they’ve launched another direction of movement, which is called ‘One Belt, One Road’. This is specifically built on mutual acceptance: there is no teacher and no student” (May 2017).Footnote 80 He also declares his complete independence from the EU in China-related matters: “We do not accept restrictions of any kind on cooperation between China and our region” (Oct. 2016).Footnote 81
In a similar vein the Chinese vaccine was positioned as the one coming to rescue Hungary. In mid-January Orbán expressed high hopes for the Chinese vaccine and added a timeline: “Once the health authority completes its job and we’re also able to use the Chinese vaccine, then we’d be able to vaccinate people at a rate that would enable us to get our old lives back before the summer—or perhaps even well before the summer.”Footnote 82 Within two weeks a new Government Decree (No. 19/2021) was published as an amendment to Government Decree No. 488/2020,Footnote 83 allowing for approval of medicines authorised in the European Economic Area or the United Kingdom without testing in Hungary.Footnote 84 The next day the National Institute of Pharmacy and Nutrition approved the application of the Sinopharm vaccine,Footnote 85 circumventing approval by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and making Hungary the first EU member state to start using the Chinese product. After this move Hungary became a battleground, with Fidesz (Orbán’s party) and the opposition fighting openly over administration of the vaccine.Footnote 86 As the vaccine’s roll-out began and government media were touting the message that the Chinese vaccine is huge help and “saves lives”,Footnote 87 the opposition was busy employing a counter-frame.
Frame 4: China Cannot Be Trusted
This frame too has a history, but one that only goes back a few decades and is largely limited to Hungary’s experience with Chinese products. Chinese presence and investment have not been significant in Hungary thus far, but high levels are anticipated in the future . The biggest infrastructure project, the Budapest-Belgrade railway line to be built with Chinese loans, entered the limelight in conjunction with Hungarian government corruption but the novelty soon faded with many similar corruption cases. The Hungarian people are not supportive of China, but they don’t see an enemy or competitor in China either. The frame the opposition could rely on was the one to gain the greatest support: lack of trust.
The Budapest district mayors in the Democratic Coalition led by former PM Ferenc Gyurcsány have sent a letter to Minister of Human Resources Miklós Kásler requesting that only EMA-approved vaccines be administered in their districts because they are the ones to be trusted.Footnote 88 The Democratic Coalition also launched a petition for free vaccine choice following reports of the Sinopharm vaccine as the only option.Footnote 89 Gyurcsány has even ventured to insinuate that Orbán was probably given a different vaccine, not the “worse Chinese one lacking European approval”.Footnote 90 The opposition parties seem to agree that no vaccine should be administered without EMA approval or a Hungarian review process. In late January they issued a joint demand for withdrawal of the new governmental decree that made way for the Chinese vaccine.Footnote 91
The Hungarian population has also shown general distrust in the Chinese vaccine. According to a mid-January survey by Publicus Research, only 27% of those who want a COVID-19 vaccine would accept the Sinopharm product, while 63% would reject it. (The yes–no ratio among the same group for Pfizer is 91%–4%, for Moderna 77–15%, and for Sputnik V 35%–55%.)Footnote 92 This is probably the reason why not just Orbán himself but also Hungarian President János Áder and Zsolt Bayer, a journalist and very influential Orbán supporter, have decided to take the Sinopharm jab—and become live promotion for it.
Both government and opposition found an opportunity to blame the other for generating vaccine hesitancy or refusal among the population. As prominent left-wing political psychologist Péter Krekó wrote on 444.hu, “In order to counter the […] unfortunately high vaccine refusal rate in Hungary, the government should not prioritize the Russian and Chinese vaccines with less transparent testing and a mass roll-out before the end of testing […].”Footnote 93
By contrast, István Simicskó, an MP for KDNP, the small satellite party of Fidesz, declared at a parliamentary plenary session that “the government cannot count on the Left or unfortunately on Brussels either. […] Left-wing politicians […] constantly suggest that people should not trust the Russian and Chinese vaccines. By doing so, they are trying to make people insecure and thereby endangering and risking lives.” To his question posed to State Secretary Tamás Menczer (Fidesz): “Where would we be with vaccine purchases and vaccinations if we could only rely on Brussels and the Hungarian Left?”,Footnote 94 Menczer’s response was very straightforward: “Nowhere. […] What we are doing is correcting the mistakes of Brussels.”Footnote 95
While opposition politicians and media argue for the safety of EU-approved vaccines—and consequently the superiority of the EU—the government’s discourse creates an adversarial image of the “Left” and “Brussels”, and claims superiority over them.Footnote 96
Frame 5: Corrupt Business Between China and the Fidesz Government
This frame has become pervasive in oppositional discourse and managed to unite all non-government parties again Fidesz—notably also the far right which has joined forces with the left-wing parties. Here follow two examples:
Péter Jakab, MP and president of Jobbik, Hungary’s largest far-right party,Footnote 97 addressed Orbán in parliament: “You are saying […] if we are worried about our safety then this year again we will rot in our masks and under the restrictions. Mr. Prime Minister, this is […] blackmail. I know very well that blackmail among your buddies is a cool thing. But this is not Russia. Not China. But Hungary, you know? An EU member state. Here in the Western world the job of the government is not to punish the people but […] to ensure free vaccine choice. […] The European Union is giving us all the help we need. […] Mr. Prime Minister, could you for once in your life not blackmail but treat Europe as a partner? Treat Hungarians as partners? Treat the opposition as partners?”.Footnote 98
Anett Bősz, MP for the left-wing Democratic Coalition, addressed State Secretary Miklós Soltész: “It seems you have a significant interest in vaccinating us with the dubious and much more expensive Chinese vaccine instead of a safe Western one, and you are trying to force it on us with propaganda, threats and discreditation of the Western vaccines. My question, Mr. State Secretary, would be what is the business side of this, and especially for whom?”.Footnote 99
The clear binary created by the opposition consists of the dubious Chinese vaccine versus the safe Western one. In trying to find reasons for what seems a completely illogical choice (the Chinese vaccine over the “safe” one), they conclude that it can only be connected with corruption. Jakab insinuates that China (and Russia) are corrupt anyway, and positions the EU and Western world as the converse. What places Hungary in the “good camp” is its membership in the EU. Europe, Hungarian society and the opposition are all on one side fighting the corrupt Fidesz government and its dirty business with China.
Summary of the Hungarian Case Study
By placing the issue of the Chinese vaccine into the first three frames (“Disadvantaged Hungary”, “Declining Western (Core) Europe and Rising Central and Eastern Europe” and “China as Opportunity”) of the five discussed above, the Fidesz-government has been aiming to deliver a message that Hungary (and Hungarian individuals) can only survive with strong national sovereignty safeguarded by Fidesz (Orbán).Footnote 100 In order to keep the “us” intact, or even to increase the sense of collective identity among ethnic Hungarians, Orbán needs constant confrontation with the EU leadership. By placing this confrontation within the centre-periphery relationship can he justify his sabre-rattling against Brussels: the first three frames, based on, the centre-periphery binary, can hold and feed public emotions that are necessary to keep Fidesz in power.
The two frames used by the opposition (“China Cannot Be Trusted” and “Corrupt Business between China and the Fidesz Government”) do not place Hungary in conflict with the EU—on the contrary, they place Hungary under the protective wing of what is perceived as “Europe”. A very eloquent example of this is an interview with Gergely Karácsony, mayor of Budapest and joint PM candidate for three left-wing parties in the 2022 elections.
A: Viktor Orbán managed to thrust Hungary into a cold war between the two greatest powers [USA and China], and our head is now stuck between two cymbal plates. I find this a big mistake, a harmful policy.
Q: Where is our place in this cold war?
A: Preferably outside. It is better for Hungary to stay out of such global conflicts, and it is definitely better not to start serving Chinese interests.
Q: Is it possible to opt out as an EU member state?
A: In this conflict the European Union must take a position of course. But it does matter a lot whether we, as a member state, support this [the EU’s] position or another one. In the case of Hong Kong, for example, Hungary’s veto blocked a unanimous decision. With that we left the security zone that protects an Eastern European small peripheral state from conflict.Footnote 101
While belonging is not a choice for the core, for those on the (semi-)periphery it is a constant struggle. Hungary is moving between the poles of “catching up” with the core EU, trying to become a core itself or “balancing it out” by siding partly with another core. We argue that Hungary’s China-policy is largely defined by the dynamic among these possible choices. A perception of instability and the need for struggle—a major characteristic of the semi—set the background for whichever choice is made.