China for the New Barbarians: France, Serbia, Hungary

Xi Jinping’s European visit highlights China’s strategic positioning amidst global tensions, focusing on diplomacy, economic disputes, and geopolitical alignments, writes Félix Valdivieso, author of the book China para los nuevos bárbaros.

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At this also my heart trembleth, And is moved out of his place. (Super hoc expavit cor meum et emotum est de loco suo) Job, 37.1

There is no act more political than to make one’s presence felt. All self-respecting politicians know this, which is why they never miss the opportunity to do so. It’s not for nothing that the chorus of that hymn to Latin America’s most romantic revolutionary, Che, hammers the point home: “The endearing transparency of your beloved presence…” Being there, in person, breaks down walls, even though politicians sometimes insist on erecting them, albeit in absentia.

It has been five years since President Xi last set foot on European soil. The pandemic certainly played a role in this absence, but we should remember that China reopened its borders in January 2023, and since then almost a year and a half has passed without Xi making a move on the European chessboard. Similarly, it is worth noting that in 2023, after his third, and most recent re-election, Xi immediately chose Russia for his first overseas visit; meanwhile, just about every senior politician from around the word, with the exception of Joe Biden, has made the trip to Beijing.

There were three strategic stops on Xi’s European trip: France, Serbia, and Hungary. The most problematic was undoubtedly the French one, given the growing number of barriers and walls the West is putting up. Europe is unhappy at the popularity of Chinese EVs in its territory, accusing Beijing of unfair competition by subsidizing the sector and creating what it calls overcapacity. This is an old chestnut, both in Europe and China. In the end, we all learn from the same source. In this give-and-take, Xi has relaxed the restrictions on cognac imports, conditional on the European Commission relaxing pressure on the EV sector.

The Serbian and Hungarian stopovers were not problematic: Xi was welcomed by crowds and the red carpet was rolled out; but they were also an opportunity for Xi to make his presence felt. On May 7, while he was still on French soil, the Serbian daily Politika published an editorial he wrote on the 25th anniversary of the “flagrant” bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade by NATO. It also mentioned by name the three Chinese journalists, Shao Yunhuan, Xu Xinghu, and his wife Zhu Ying, who were killed in the attack, adding that the event should not be forgotten. However, in a calculated move, Xi did not visit the memorial there, as he did in 2016.

During Xi’s visit to Budapest, the Magyar Nemzet published another article by him that highlighted China’s deep friendship with Hungary, and with Viktor Orban’s government. It is well known that the Hungarian Premier is a thorn in Brussels’ side, and is now offering Chinese EV companies all sorts of incentives to set up factories in Hungary, in defiance of the restrictions Ursula Van der Layen and company are threatening.

Regarding the differences of opinion between the Commission and some member states, it seems clear that Brussels has fumbled the ball. Serbia has been hoping to join the EU for many years but has now signed a free trade agreement with China, which since 2022 has been its largest overseas investor. Lest we forget, Hungary and Serbia have close ties to Moscow, contrary to the rest of EU member states.

Ostensibly, Xi’s trip to Europe was to commemorate a number of diplomatic breakthroughs dating back to the middle of the last century: relations between France and Hungary, France and China, and China and Hungary. But beyond the celebrations, it’s impossible to lose sight of the problems caused by the tension between Beijing and Washington.

A fine romance

Until recently, the world was vicariously living the romance between China and the United States. Everything seemed to be going well, with a few strains here and there, typical of a relationship between two people who know deep down they were made for each other, but who are still not ready to give themselves up completely, unwilling to cede certain quotas of power, certain privileges about playing the field. The fact of the matter is that the two lovers are condemned to a certain reciprocal indifference, both having committed the impudent crime of wanting to be more than the other; the planet’s economic and political rulers. Not to mention that they have also been condemned to become eagle and dragon, respectively. There is always some reason to lose the favor of the gods.

Their situation brings to mind the myth of Hippomenes and Atalante. They were condemned, not only to become lions, but also to bear the yoke of mutual indifference, for having committed the dishonorable act of having sex in the temple of Cybele. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, helped Hippomenes to conquer the beautiful and swift Atalante. But blinded by the euphoria of triumph and the emotions of the heart – the same evils that afflict nations – he failed to thank her. In revenge, Aphrodite did what she knew best, inciting them to perform the Act in the mother goddess’s shrine, who, offended by this profanation, metamorphosed them into lions and attached them to her chariot. Which is why, in the Plaza de Cibeles in Madrid, Hippomenes looks to Flanders, and Atalante, the female, to the Americas. Indifference: a sad and impossible to rectify destiny; moreover, knowing that they will have to pull the same chariot for eternity.

China and the United States, not to mention the rest of us mere mortals, must now deal with the evils derived from their estrangement. Also tied to the world’s chariot, it doesn’t know where it’s going, because they are at loggerheads, pulling one way and the other, fighting to see who will impose their technical standards, who will build the smallest chips, or implement the most advanced G-technology in as many countries as are willing to adopt it. This is why France speaks of its Strategic Autonomy, a clever Gallic rhetorical artifice to maintain a balance between China and the United States, so as not to be accused of either Sinophilia or Americophilia.

If this division, or fragmentation, of the world into different standards was already obvious, the emergence of AI, the new manna for which everyone is clamoring, has only made it more so. AI is generating divisions at the global level, particularly evident in the field of semiconductors and technical standards.


More than a few analysts, among them Ian Johnson, argue that China is falling into what is known as the Berlin Wall trap, that is, building security walls around the country, and in all areas, to preserve it, decouple it, uncouple it, disengage it, or whatever you want to call it. In reality, this is happening globally: a spiral of wall-building to keep the barbarians at bay; this is what the US Department of Commerce’s successive restrictions on the export of advanced chips and chip manufacturing technology are. On the Chinese side, we are seeing export controls on rare earth minerals such as gallium and germanium, needed to manufacture the coveted chips, as well as other types of restrictive measures.

Meanwhile, John Gray considers it a mistake to think that Marxists and neo-liberals, the latter led by Milton Friedman, belong to fundamentally opposed systems of ideas simply because they were on opposite sides during the Cold War. He argues that for both currents, what is truly decisive is technological progress. This is what drives economic development and shapes society. Politics and culture – the basis of soft power – are secondary phenomena, sometimes capable of retarding human progress, but ultimately unable to prevail in the face of technological progress and the growth of production. Neoliberals have reproduced the weakest features – Gray continues – of Marxist thought, namely, always underestimating nationalist and religious movements and maintaining a unidirectional view of history.

Conceptual traps

The great theories, the great concepts, the great names, such as capitalism, Marxism, or civilization are intellectual architectures, within which individuals are framed and live. However, “it is not peoples who make history, but the people and the connections they create among themselves,” according to historian Josephine Quinn. In her recent book How the World Made the West, she dismantles what she calls civilizational thinking. The concept of civilization did not appear until the middle of the eighteenth century, and only manifested itself at the end of the nineteenth century, at the time of imperialist expansion, serving to legitimize colonialism. Colonization was legalized because the civilization of the colonizing countries was considered superior to that of the colonized. In the same way, the term Silk Road was coined in the 19th century. Before, in all that vast region, people lived, traded, thought, and believed, but no one was aware that they were doing so on the Silk Road. Now that the idea has been revived, it seems that Hungary and Serbia are aware that they are two more stops on the New Silk Road, and so they are acting as firm allies of the Land of the Center.

On the world’s stage at the moment, apart from the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, and in the Middle East, not to mention a myriad of other problems, Xi and Macron have spoken of working toward an Olympian Truce for all theaters of war. In his book A Barbarian in Asia, Henri Michaux wrote: “What the Chinese know best is the art of avoidance.” The book, a hit when it was written in the early 1930s, has aged in some respects. Xi may see things differently, and is not known for avoiding what he sees as problems.

The world order depends on the leaders of the great powers to be connected, to talk, to make their presence felt, regardless of their differences, so they can reach agreement. As Churchill sagely suggested, “meeting jaw to jaw is better than war”. Everything points to the global chariot being pulled by more beasts of burden than appear at first sight, and politics and culture, with religion thrown in, even if they do not have a place on the yoke, are absolutely fundamental, so fundamental, that they are as much the cause of the ferocious, spiraling, and widespread wall-building referred to above. Job, either we tame the beasts, or we will do worse than exhaust your saintly patience!


This article originally ran in Spanish on The Conversation.


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