BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Prime Minister Viktor Orban is known for his outspoken hostility to migrants and has built a razor-wire border fence to keep them out, but he has also quietly opened Hungary’s doors to foreigners rich enough to pay to live in the country.
A “residency bond” scheme, launched in 2013, has attracted thousands of mostly affluent Chinese keen to enjoy the cleaner air, educational opportunities and the more relaxed pace of life that Europe offers - and, unlike the refugees fleeing conflicts in the Middle East, these immigrants feel very welcome.
“It’s a successful scheme because it brings money into the country and not a penny leaves the country,” Orban told parliament on Monday in reply to opposition questions.
Yan Ding, who arrived in Budapest with his wife and young daughter in April 2015, is not untypical of the nearly 10,000 Chinese who have moved to Hungary under the scheme.
After selling property he had inherited from his parents, Beijing native Ding bought a bond worth 300,000 euros that gives him and his family the right to live for five years in Hungary, which is a member of the European Union.
“I came not for myself but solely for my daughter’s education, her future,” he told Reuters through an interpreter.
His daughter, Xue Er, now enrolled in a local school and able to speak some Hungarian, has received warm support from teachers and administrators who have gone out of their way to accommodate her, Ding said.
“In China the economy is developing rapidly but pollution is bad and the cities are growing so fast that you can’t get the kind of education you would like for your child,” he said.
He said he wanted to spare his daughter the extreme competition among students in China which he attributed to the high number of pupils in each class. Hungary typically has up to 25 pupils in a class, which he said was very low by Chinese standards.
Participants in Hungary’s residency scheme must stomp up funds not only for the bond but also for a hefty commission fee of 50,000 euros to the agency processing their application. But when their bond is redeemed after five years, they recover their 300,000 euros and keep the right to stay in Hungary.
Several other EU countries operate similar schemes but Hungary’s is less expensive than most and offers residency rights straight away.
The red carpet rolled out for these well-heeled foreigners - the vast majority are Chinese, official statistics show - is in stark contrast to the opprobrium Orban has heaped on the hundreds of thousands of migrants who have fled to Europe over the past year, mostly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Orban says those migrants, who are mostly Muslims, pose a threat to Europe’s security and Christian civilization.
He successfully lobbied Hungarians to reject in an Oct. 2 referendum migrant quotas the EU had proposed for member states. Turnout was too low to make the poll valid but he shows no sign of compromising on his refusal to take in migrants.
Ding rejects any comparison between the migrants now barred from Hungary by the new fence and bond purchasers like himself.
“Chinese immigrants are in completely different shoes,” said Yan. “They have savings in China, property, therefore they have expectations. It is a different demographic.”
“I doubt either the government or Hungarian society fail to see the difference ... Things are positive here (for us), nothing negative happens.”
Many of the Chinese bond buyers have an entrepreneurial background and are keen to seek new investment opportunities.
Ding has co-founded a company to advise new arrivals on ways to invest their money in Hungary and beyond.
“We want to export Hungarian technology, good solutions to China,” said Zhang Jinjun, Ding’s business partner, adding that the new arrivals had invigorated commercial ties between Hungary and China, the world’s second biggest economy.
“I have been here for 20 years. We have gone the classic route, clothes, shoes, and we are deep in that business. With new people come new ideas ... The money is just hanging around here and we are yet to put it to work.”
One recent sunny day Ding showed two newly arrived couples around a Budapest loft by the Danube where Chinese-owned businesses have offices to consider investment opportunities. Among companies examined was Oxytree, which sells a fast-growing tree bio-engineered for industrial and energy use.
Wang Minjun, who arrived in Hungary in February after selling audio systems in Guangzhou, China’s largest metropolitan area, said he was optimistic about the business prospects ahead.
“Once I get to know the local market I may carry on (selling stereos). But if not, I will invest in something else.”
Editing by Gareth Jones