Yesterday, the largest demonstration since 1989 took place in Hungary. At least one hundred thousand people joined what the organisers called a “March of Peace” to support the nationalist government, which the European Commission and especially Western media rightly criticize as taking steps to undermine democracy and the rule of law. A revision of some laws is a condition for a new loan from the IMF and the EU, which the government has requested after having previously terminated its relationship with the IMF and suggested that it might prefer China as a lender.
The demonstrators, carrying slogans (also in English) like “European Union: 55 Years Old; United States: 236 Years Old; Hungary: 1116 Years Old,” “Let Us Decide,”"We Will Not Be a Colony.” One poster, with the English words “Hands Off Hungary! EU & IMF Get Out of Hungary,” showed a man with a heart on his sleeve throwing a flag of the European Union, a Communist red star, and Star of David into a wastebasket.
The demonstration was organised by two nationalistic media outlets and their leading lights (known, among others, for their anti-Semitism). It was the owner of one of the media groups, who is also one of Hungary’s richest men, who asked that demonstrators to bring English slogans, lest “Western media lie that this was an anti-government demonstration.”
The Ministry of the Interior, unprecedentedly, issued a statement that praised the demonstration as orderly and good-humoured and noted as the largest ever since the collapse of state socialism (it put the number of participants at 400 thousand).
I have been writing for some time about the similarities between Chinese and Hungarian nationalism and its use by the government, but this is just extraordinary. The rhetoric, down to the name of the demonstration; the intertextuality between government and demonstrators’ rhetoric and the complicity of large media and government; at the same time, the genuine emotions and extraordinary scale that can in no way be dismissed as government-organised: all of this is just like the 2008 demonstrations of Chinese students in support of the government and denouncing the Western press.
The Hungarian government has been emulating their Chinese colleagues, mostly unconsciously but partly consciously. (The ruling party sent a delegation to China’s State Administration of Film, Radio and Television before passing its own restrictive media law.) But more importantly, it combined the discourse of Hungarian nationalism (laboriously built up in the last twenty years and by now nearly hegemonic) with the symbols and language of parternalistic authoritarianism in which those who disagree are suspected of not being genuine members of the nation. And it clearly has struck a cord with many Hungarians.
One or two years ago I thought that the similarities between Hungarian and Chinese nationalism are a cautionary tale of what might happen, but I did not actually believe it would. Now it has happened, I think research on China might actually illuminate what is taking place in Hungary.