Europe for Sale

PARIS – In Shakespeare’s plays, comedy often meets tragedy. Perhaps Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao reflected on this as he watched a performance of Hamlet in Stratford-upon-Avon during his recent European tour. And, apropos the play, he may have been thinking: “To buy or not to buy?” In Bulgaria last March, one of his ministers quipped that “there will always be someone pointing fingers at us, whether or not we buy.” But, as Wen’s trip to the United Kingdom, Germany, and Hungary showed, China is indeed buying – and European Union leaders are eagerly selling.

Wen’s tour provided some absurd plot twists. In Budapest, he praised Sandor Petofi, whose nineteenth-century ode to freedom is a Hungarian national treasure, while Viktor Orban, Hungary’s rightist prime minister, lauded China for supposedly including Petofi in high school curricula. That seems unlikely: in one of his most famous speeches, delivered in February 1957, in the wake of Hungary’s anti-Soviet revolution, Mao excoriated the “Petofi club.” He lamented that the Hungarian communists “had killed virtually no counterrevolutionaries: that’s why there was a Hungarian incident”; and he fully supported the Soviets’ brutal repression of the uprising.

It is not difficult to fathom why Orban, who in 2000 received the Dalai Lama, would resort to such insincere praise – and even wax rhapsodic about Hungary’s “historical alliance” with China. Wen’s government has ensured that Chinese banks will finance €1 billion worth of potential investment by Hungarian firms in China, and has promised to buy an unspecified volume of Hungarian government bonds. Unlike in 2000, many Tibetan refugees in Hungary were summoned for prolonged identity checks at the time of Wen’s visit, effectively keeping them out of the streets.

Worse, Orban was in the final days of Hungary’s EU presidency during Wen’s visit, but said nothing about the EU – except to offer another ecstatic paean to his country’s potential as a logistical and trade center for Chinese goods.