“For a nation to survive and prosper, it needs the grace of heaven, the benevolence of the earth, and peace among men.”
In October 2023, as a member of Viktor Orbán’s delegation, I attended the international gathering in Beijing marking the 10th anniversary of the foundation of the New Silk Road, the One Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). I had never been to China before, and despite having read and written about China in dozens of books, especially a about its history, I had not yet had the opportunity to compare what I thought I knew about this vast country with first-hand experiences. Even now, I have only gathered a few impressions and made a few superficial observations – partly because I only went to Beijing and Shenzhen, and partly because the intense schedule of official events and the immense distances placed limitations on what I was able to see.
Beijing welcomed us with blue skies and balmy weather, befitting the most beautiful Indian summer. We did not experience the city’s smog or bad air quality, clearly because access to the city had been restricted on account of the delegations, and perhaps because it had been partly emptied. And of course I saw no bustling crowds, and only a very light traffic on the roads. Of course this was only natural for an event involving 130 delegations. In Beijing our movements were restricted to the innermost area and our convoy only travelled on main roads. The city was spotlessly clean, and the people who had to wait for the delegations to pass through were friendly and did not seem to be impatient. All this was different from the almost overwhelming atmosphere of urgency, anxiety and impatience I experienced in Tokyo and Seoul. There everyone was in a hurry not to be late, and everyone was very busy and conscious of their importance. Here in China I saw kindness, good organisation and teamwork. There is a calmness that comes from the fact that everyone is a link in the chain, everyone knows what their job is, and – provided everything goes according to plan and there are no distractions – they do their job smoothly and naturally. But spontaneity is not their strong suit.
Everywhere we went we were greeted with great attentiveness and respect. While we are not even as large as a medium-sized Chinese city, in negotiations we were regarded as being at the same level, and treated as equals. I have never experienced this in the West, where the message has always been that we should feel honoured to be present at all, and to be spoken to – but we should not imagine that this means we can open our mouths.
Among the things that we should learn from the Chinese are humility, attentiveness, kindness and gestures: the way they honour others, treating them as equals, even when those others are smaller, poorer and more vulnerable than they are.
Viktor Orbán had talks with the following: Premier Li Qiang, who held a banquet in his honour; President Xi Jinping; the chairman of ICBC, the largest bank in China and the world; the chairmen of two other giant banks, China Construction Bank and Bank of China; the Chairman of BYD, the world leader in electric cars; and the founder and chairman of Huawei. Everywhere he was welcomed and invited for talks at the highest level involving meaningful and genuine exchanges of ideas. All of these meetings were attended by the leaders of political, financial and economic life.
President Xi welcomed Prime Minister Orbán like an old friend, recalling that they first met in 2009, when he was Vice President and Viktor Orbán was the leader of Hungary’s main opposition party.
The Chinese negotiators were very disciplined and well-prepared, and gave substantive answers to substantive questions. In this we did not disappoint them either.
Beijing is full of huge buildings, tens of storeys high. At first sight it is pure America – or, in other words, the West. I saw a portrait of Mao Zedong in one place, above the gates of the Forbidden City – which, for lack of time, we were unable to visit. The building of the National People’s Congress on the Square of Heavenly Peace was the site of the official political gatherings: the Presidential Banquet and the Belt and Road forum. This building could have been in Moscow, as it looked like any other socialist realist Soviet building of similar function. What struck me most was that the two cities I saw gave me no impression of being Chinese in character. There was nothing Chinese about the huge skyscrapers or the design of building interiors – apart from the fact that Chinese landscapes hung on some of their walls. I had expected to see motifs and stylistic elements evoking traditional Chinese style or culture – perhaps similar to what I had seen in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, where the interior designs are clearly and identifiably inspired by Arabic motifs. I did not see that here. The exception to this was the Diaoyutai State Guest House in Beijing, where the Premier held a banquet (which was excellent) in an old Chinese pavilion in the middle of a beautiful park with luxuriant greenery. Here the waitresses wore traditional costume and served traditional dishes. The meals typically comprised between twelve and fifteen courses, each more delicious than the last. In several places a modernised form of Chinese fusion cuisine was on offer, which was similarly delicious. Something else in Beijing that struck me was all the greenery and trees – especially my favourite, the weeping willow. This made the vast metropolis – the scale of which I could not fully grasp – feel homely and more agreeable.
The leaders of the giant banks – whose headquarters we visited, and where the delegation’s economic specialists attended their meetings – and the heads of the two world-class companies in Shenzhen welcomed us with Hungarian music: traditional dance music (csárdás), folk songs and excerpts from operettas. One artfully designed dish represented a football pitch, in honour of Puskás, while another was in the shape of a Rubik’s Cube. In Huawei’s magnificent guest house palace we were greeted with a portrait of Albert Szentgyörgyi, and an installation based on the invention of the ballpoint pen, the safety match and the Rubik’s Cube. Meanwhile beautiful young Chinese girls played Monti’s “Csárdás” on Chinese instruments. All this was very touching.
Consideration, respect, attentiveness, courtesy. It would be good to learn something from that.