Connecting the Narratives of Slovakia, Hungary & China

[The following piece was published March 20, 2012, on The Mantle.]

MASERU, Lesotho – Last week was one filled with nostalgia and melancholy.

Li Yu survived the Wenzhou train crash. (Photo: mjj)

From my new base in Lesotho, three other adopted homes – Hungary, Slovakia and China, all dear to my heart – each resurfaced in the news with depressingly familiar story-lines. From thousands of miles away, they reminded me of past reporting – and how little changes.

First up, Slovakia, where I recently lived for five years. One of its historic, hilltop castles burns to the ground – apparently caused by two kids, 11 and 12, messing with cigarettes on a windy day. From an adjacent village, they accidentally set fire to some dry grass, whose embers floated upward, igniting the castle’s timber roof.

Poof! In minutes, a gothic, seven-century-old memento, gone.

The Slovak and Czech reaction? Gypsies! It must’ve been those damned Gypsies! More than a rush to judgment, it was a virtual blood-libel against Europe’s largest and most marginalized minority, known more respectfully as Roma. Over the years, I’ve chronicled countless times [like here, here and here] how post-Communist Central Europe always finds something to blame on the Roma. (Even if there’s no love lost in Slovakia for castles that are essentially relics of Hungarian overlordship, while Slovaks toiled as serfs.)

This fire came on the heels of public outrage over a galling corruption scandal, followed by an election that ousted the ruling coalition. If a beaten child has no recourse toward his parents, he turns to kick the dog. Especially in a region saddled by congenital resistance to introspection, which much prefers to point the finger of blame elsewhere.

Though in this case, soul-searching is well warranted, as a Slovakian art historian asserted. The brushfire threat around the castle always existed, he charged, and state authorities were negligent to protect and preserve it.

“It is forbidden to burn grass and it is certainly wrong to do so, but it is just as sick to put the blame on ‘unidentified perpetrators’ who are allegedly members of a minority in the interest of distracting attention from one’s own responsibility,” said the art-historian, Július Barczi.

Next in the news, China.

I’ve spent the past three fall semesters teaching in Hong Kong – “China with an asterisk,” I call it – and explored a sizable chunk of the mainland. Like last October, when a former journalism student and I ventured to Wenzhou, to profile a city that was scene of the deadly, July 23 high-speed train crash. A fatal combination of lightning strike, technical malfunction and human error caused the train plunge off a viaduct, killing up to 40 commuters.

The world’s emerging superpower was traumatized, spewing rage into the Chinese blogosphere about how Beijing’s blistering pace of modernization shows reckless disregard for ordinary folk.

Then, on March 12 – just weeks after China’s Ministry of Railways ramped up hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of new high-speed rail line – official media conceded a section collapsed amid heavy rain.

I recalled the words of Li Yu, a Wenzhou train-crash victim, whom we interviewed – and I photographed during his physical-therapy session to rehabilitate a crushed right foot. Near the end of our visit, Yu lamented how little lives are valued in the world’s most populous country.

“China always competes to be the biggest, the best, the first – why can’t we compete to be the safest?” Yu told us, while sitting gingerly on the edge of a hospital bed. “Maybe it’s that China is too large: if one, two or hundreds die, who cares?”

China is already rattled by the people-power that drove the Arab Spring, and, post-Wenzhou, is whittling away at social media. When, if ever, will we see a tipping point for the Chinese public?

Finally, there was Hungary. Oh, Hungary! Forever in my blood – and that of my children. My father was born there, I lived there for six years, my wife’s from there, and my kids enjoy dual citizenship. So, yes, I have a vested interest in its present and future. Still, I worry I’m too rough on the place, focusing unfairly on the unflattering. Although last year, I produced comeback-kid narratives here and here after a toxic spill of “red sludge” killed 10 Hungarians.

Still, Hungary has clearly slipped from post-Communist front-runner to the region’s bad boy, in terms of its sickly economy, noxious politics and cowed media. The capper was a “constitutional coup” sealed in January by a ravenous government wielding absolute parliamentary majority. Brussels howled in protest. Hungary, after all, had for years banged on the door of the exclusive European Union – to join the “winning side” of the Cold War – which it finally did in 2004.

Last week’s Hungary news began with a spark of hope. A Hungarian court rules that the country’s most independent-minded radio station, Klub Radio, could continue to broadcast despite efforts to seize its license. Then came March 15, and national commemoration of the Hungarian role in the 1848 revolutions against Vienna and the Habsburg Monarchy.

Hungary’s pugnacious premier, Viktor Orban, let loose with what may be par for the course for his domestic speeches, but reads from afar as nothing less than an anti-Europe diatribe comprised of a frightening mix of paranoia and delusion, megalomania and more scapegoating. He drew repeated parallels between today and not only the 1848 uprising, but the bloody 1956 Hungarian Revolution against the Soviet empire and its Communist puppets in Budapest.

“We will not be a colony! … Hungarians will not live as foreigners dictate it, will not give up their independence or their freedom … Freedom for us means that we are not inferior to anyone else. It means that we also deserve respect … We are more than familiar with the character of unsolicited comradely assistance, even if it comes wearing a finely tailored suit and not a uniform with shoulder patches … Our freedom fights always meant a step forward for the world. They meant progress because we were right. We were right even if everyone denied this … European bureaucrats look at us with distrust today because we said: we need new ways … You will see my dear friends that we will be proven right yet again … We are capable of standing our ground against the injustice of stronger empires. This is why we are respected by those who respect us. This is why we are attacked by those who are against us.”

Perhaps Orban has little left to offer his supporters beyond the bunker of angry, fearful, us-versus-them isolation: If only the world unshackled us, we would soar. From a far-right crank, it’s understandable. But from the leader of an EU state? Unacceptable.

European Commission President José Manuel Barroso responded in kind. “Those who compare the EU to the USSR show a complete lack of understanding of what democracy is and show a lack of respect for those who have fought for freedom and democracy,” said his spokeswoman.

Slovakia, China, Hungary … This fan, for one, hopes there’ll be better weeks ahead.

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