China Unlimited: an exclusive interview with the former Ambassador of Hungary to China

Sandor Meszaros_

The interviewee, Mr Sandor Meszaros, is a winner of the China Unlimited competition and former Ambassador of Hungary to China (The European Sting, 2016)

On the aftermath of the China Unlimited trip that was completed a few days ago, Mr Panos Katsampanis, Co-Founder of The European Sting took an interview from one of the most prominent members of the delegation, Mr Sandor Meszaros, an experienced diplomat and former Ambassador of Hungary to China. Mr Meszaros was called to give his answers on a number of challenging questions, from his experience from the trip to China to his unique insights on topics like the Chinese economy and the South China Sea issue. Hereafter the questions from The Sting are given as P.K. and the answers from the veteran diplomat as S.M.

P.K.: As the former Ambassador of Hungary to China and an old friend of China who has travelled all around this vast country, what is new now there since your last visit? Did you notice any changes in infrastructure, the Chinese people or the culture? If during the China unlimited trip you would add a chapter in your lengthy China Book what would be its title?

S.M.: Change has been the most important word; I should say the symbol for China, its society and economy during the last four decades, positive change. China is the country where reforms have a truly positive meaning, what politicians should try to preserve, not letting restrictions to be named as reforms, as it happens in other places… The deep socio-economic reforms transformed the country enormously, moved its people to enter the 21-st century prepared to face the challenges of a new era, able to cope with the tasks generated by the development of the world and China herself. Since the time I left, Beijing have changed again a lot, its infrastructure growing and improving. A lot of wonderful new architectural, infrastructural projects were accomplished for the Beijing Olympic Games, and the years after also brought significant progress. People look differently, dressed better, young persons wearing trendy clothes, most of them without a break talking on smart phones, restaurants, bars, cafes full with customers, cars everywhere, the city is colorful, bustling with life. With the speedy progress came problems too, like serious air pollution in the capital city and elsewhere.

P.K.: Since 1970s, when you were a young intern in Beijing, how would you describe the evolution that has taken place in this vast city? Did you see any change during this last visit in July? What is your vision and aspiration for Beijing in 50 years from now? Would you see it evolving into the world’s most important business center, even more than Shanghai, or it will always remain the formidable cultural epicenter of China?

S.M.: When I first time arrived in China, in 1973, the whole country and Beijing in it felt and showed the devastating consequences of the “cultural revolution”.  The people had a very low standard of living, Beijing was dark, cold, people wore uniform-like dresses, everything was grey, and life offered no happiness to the majority of the population. By the time Mao died the country was ready for change, but it still took time to embark upon a new policy. Deng Xiaoping promulgated reforms and opening to the outside world and the impact was immediate: it felt like you open a door in the house which is then soon filled with fresh air and light. First, life became easier in the countryside, and then came the cities. Life was getting better a bit with every day; people became interested in working, because they could enjoy the results. The favorable situation outside China also helped the success of the reforms; the Chinese could feel the great benefits brought by the ever growing cooperation with the world, first of all with the West. Beijing today is a mega polis, very much in line with the global development trends. I believe Beijing will be a very important and developed center in the world. The eternal race between Beijing and Shanghai, in my view will end: Beijing is most likely, to keep its leading place as the administrative, cultural center, while Shanghai will further excel in trade and finances.

P.K.: This was not the first time you visited Ningxia. Although Ningxia used to be one of the poorest areas of China, it self-claims exquisite growth in the past decade. What are the strongest points and competitive advantages of Ningxia and how do you think this autonomous region can contribute to Chinese and global growth? Has the West explored adequately this region as investment destination? What sector would you advise a European investor to invest on in Ningxia?

S.M.: In Ningxia one can see the results of hard work, long term thinking and investments. 40 years ago the place was a desert, the situation seemed to be almost hopeless. With investing a lot into the reclamation of the land from the desert, developing water conservancy, supporting seriously the overall development of infrastructure the place had turned to flourish; huge green areas bring life in rocks and sand. While developing these areas the Chinese Government intends, following the ancient traditions of the Silk Road cooperation, to connect these regions into the international cooperation framework. Here one admires again and again the wonders created by human work and efforts. The West, I think, has here good perspectives and possibilities for investment: in this region everything should better be viewed in long term perspective. European investors can find new vistas for their activities here: food production, wine making etc.

P.K.: At the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, we witnessed a different Islam than the one we read about in the news recently. A peaceful Islam purified from any sort of disrespect or radicalization, an Islam that is entirely integrated into the legal system of China and where Sharia Law does not apply. Especially nowadays, following the countless deadly terrorist attacks in Europe and the world by ISIS, the West has unfortunately to a certain extent ‘demonized’ Islam. Would you see China’s Islam as a bright example of a peaceful religion, respected and coexistent with the whole world? In your opinion what are the key elements of a bridge between China’s and radical Islam and how the world can take lessons from China in terms of religious freedom in the world’s most populous and diverse country?

S.M.: China has a numerous Muslim community, among them the Hui people in Ningxia. The Government provides support for these communities to practice their religion, live in peace, and keep their identity. Hui people’s life is peaceful, Han and Hui people live together well, and cooperation is active. So this region provides a good example to follow. Among the Uyghur, living in the neighboring Xinjiang the situation looks a bit different.  In the Uygur population there were a few groups, organizations which were following the road of armed, terrorist actions, as they said a fight for national independence. The Chinese central authorities consider these actions as separatist, terrorist activities.

So the Chinese Government on one hand is very much aware of the possible dangers of radical Islamic influences, the radicalization among the Muslim community, especially the youth and steps up efforts to prevent religious Islamic radicalism, international terrorism spreading in the country. It looks to me that a productive dialogue and cooperation with China about all those very important issues could be useful for every participant. China shows cooperation in the fight against international terrorism. I remember from my experience what I had as Head of OSCE Mission in Chechnya that sometimes the Western world, out of different political considerations, qualified and treated the Chechen rebels as a sort of freedom fighters, and not condemned seriously enough their terrorist actions. As far as the situation is considered in Xinjiang it is also important to avoid double standards.

P.K.: China is one of the most powerful growth engines in a world that in 2008 showed its economic limits and 8 years later still shows that global growth will remain a great challenge to address in the future. Obviously China has been very extrovert in the past decades, investing in all corners of the world. Do you think that the West has invested enough or it sees China mostly as an investor rather than an investment destination? How will the world look like when China becomes once more the biggest economy of the world?

S.M.: During the last decades China showed the world: with the breathtaking growth of its might she behaves as a responsible, constructive partner in world politics, has integrated herself in the existing international order. China realizes now, and the world, including the West has to recognize also: if the World economy faces hard times, China feels them too. It is in the best interest of both sides to find solutions, mutually acceptable, not trying to force things on the account of the other side. China today plays the role both of an investment target and an international investor. China is not interested in closing herself in again; the country needs foreign trade and cooperation, and investment as well. At the same time, as it was foreseen and planed a long time ago China under the present circumstances moves the spearhead of development to the less developed, inland regions, the Government encourages internal consumption to grow. I think when this country will have the biggest economy in the World, China naturally will care about forwarding its interests to the extent it is possible, but will still seek further cooperation with other parts of the World.  

P.K.: One of the hottest territorial disputes globally now takes place in the South China Sea. As a deep connoisseur of China and with significant experience in international diplomacy, where does the South China Sea crisis end? Will it be possible for China to cut deals with the rest of the countries in conflict on the way to a fast and peaceful resolution? Would you see an escalation of the crisis in the coming years?

S.M.: The territorial disputes in the South China Sea region seem to stay with the international relations for a long time, by all signs it will be difficult to have a good for all solution. The interests of the countries concerned are confronting strategically, economically around the disputed territories, the presence and interests of outside great powers also complicate the matter.  The only way to get a solid, peaceful resolution is that the interested sides engage themselves in talks, aimed to find agreements acceptable for all concerned sides. That doesn’t seem to be an easy process, but there is no other peaceful alternative. One sided actions had been increasing the tensions around these issues, and are not helping in getting cooperation between the countries of the region on this matter. China definitely looks at this issue from the point of view of the leading power in the region, which has a real influence on global issues as well. So she certainly will not bend under any pressure, and will not let anyone to force a solution on her, which she does not find acceptable.         

About the interviewee

After finishing schools in Budapest, he was enrolled at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, with specialization in Chinese language. After graduation he entered the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Hungary. He had three postings in the Hungarian Embassy in Beijing, during the last one; 2004-2008 he worked as Ambassador. He also served as Ambassador in Albania, and during the first Chechen war he headed the OSCE Mission in Chechnya. Since his retirement in 2008 he published several books, all connected to his previous work experience. His wife Zsuzsa was also a diplomat, Marton, their son is a financial specialist. 

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