Hungary is a natural gateway between East and West
Successful nations are those that preserve their traditional values and are not satisfied with mere material progress, says János Csák, Minister for Culture and Innovation.
Hungary is a natural gateway between East and West

Hungary is a natural gateway between East and West

Photo: Róbert Hegedüs
Mariann Őry 02/05/2024 09:00

For Asia, connectivity is a natural path to development, and for Hungary, too, it is vital that East and West meet in Hungary, said János Csák, Minister of Culture and Innovation, who also told Eurasia why Europe lags behind Asia in innovation and what we can learn from Singapore.

How does connectivity, a key element of the Hungarian strategy, apply in the field of innovation?

World history is primarily determined by geopolitical factors. The ecology and geopolitical situation determine the manoeuvrability of individual countries and social entities - either through existing knowledge or through innovation. The more turbulent a nation’s or country's environment is, the more innovative it will be, but of course only if its solutions can weather the storms. This is typical of us Hungarians. The aim of innovation, and technology in particular, is to make life easier, whether through product innovation or process innovation, in other words, through organisational capability. Asia successfully shifted gears after World War II, and with China’s opening up, it has now become a global powerhouse, and in many areas it is already setting the pace.

What role does China play in this connectivity?

China is now not only developing and exporting high-quality products, but also organising processes. The Belt and Road Initiative launched by President Xi Jinping is also a process innovation. Up to now, the West has organised the global processes - think of the World Bank or the IMF - but connectivity is a self-evident necessity for Asia, it is perfectly logical. Not only does China want to grow itself, but it also wants to include other countries in this network, essentially distancing from the West countries that have historically belonged to it, like for example Pakistan, or African and South American countries.

Is the West reacting to this by building blocs?

The reaction of the transatlantic civilisation is a big question. In the last few years, all sorts of slogans have been created, like de-risking, de-coupling, I could go on and on. Connectivity is a fact, and so far no one has been able to stop it. Because where one have tried to do so, be it semiconductor production in China or even the sanctions against Russia, eventually everything that has been sanctioned developed more quickly. In Russia, the food industry has developed as a result of the sanctions. The Chinese were very comfortable without chip production, they were importing themselves, and as a reaction to the sanctions now they can produce chips down to five nanometres. There is no alternative to connectivity. In fact, under the slogan of de-coupling, there is only one way to radically and completely separate regions, and that is war. Therefore, it is important to see what level of de-coupling actually extends to which products, and which personal, product or service networks continue to operate. As I see it, today neither the United States nor China has an interest in war.

Photo: Róbert Hegedüs

What could be the reason for Asia being better than Europe in terms of innovation, in terms of many scientific indicators? Why are we lagging behind?

I can point to two interlinked factors. In January in Singapore, we were talking with former Foreign Minister George Yeo, and the Deputy Prime Minister for Research and Development and Higher Education Mr Heng Swee Keat about the higher education ecosystem in Singapore. They said that scores of young people from Malaysia, Indonesia and various small states in the South China Sea want to study in Singapore. They have much more enthusiasm and desire to learn than those who live in more affluent areas. An American professor friend of mine who teaches at Berkeley talked about this too. He said that if you take the diligence and achievement of American students as one unit, then a young person from Central Europe in the same subject has two units, and an Asian has four. In emerging societies, there is a tremendous drive to advance, to prosper. But the transatlantic world has moved beyond that. If you live in comfort you have less incentive to make the effort because you have no existential need to study, for example. Asia is also interesting because this has already happened in Japan. Or in Korea, where they have adapted to prosperity very quickly, demographics are plummeting, they don't want to share the good life that generations of peace time have created since the war with really amazing diligence. It is human nature. You have to be hungry, you have to existentially feel the need to learn, to perform, to create.

What is the second factor?

In 1961, Hungarian physicist Dennis Gabor predicted large-scale automation and warned us that if machines would start talking to each other - the term artificial intelligence was hardly used then - it would make people lazier and that in turn might reduce their intellectual capabilities. In the Western world we tend to see technology as a goal rather than as a means to create solutions that make life worthwhile. So these are the two factors: how existential is learning, how much you see it as a matter of getting by compared to having everything you need anyway by doing nothing, and how much you can manage the new technologies to achieve human goods.

You have visited many times the National University of Singapore, which is the best university in Asia and the 8th best in the world. What good practices you saw there could be adopted in the Hungarian higher education?

The most important issue is bringing together international networks with domestic universities, research and business networks. Not integrating them, but operating them as a network. The CREATE campus (Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise) was set up, to which eight to ten international universities, a mix of Asian and Western, were invited, directly linking university researchers. Moreover, the focus of the research was on the impact to be achieved, and also to involve companies into the process. This is the model that we will also adopt, with the participation of Singaporeans, and it will be called the Hungarian International Science Campus. We will set up foreign and Hungarian research teams in areas that we do well, that have roots and tradition in my country. For me, this was the greatest experience in Singapore. It was so obvious that we could have figured it out ourselves, there is no need to reinvent the wheel.

How does technological progress manifest itself in everyday life in Asia? What did you experience on your trips to China, Singapore or Korea?

One of the things you see both in Asia and Europe is that the generation of parents is amazed at how quickly their children learn to use new technologies, how quickly they can be preoccupied, and how hard it is to recapture their time and attention. I see this generation gap in China too, in Shanghai, for example, and even more so in other cities, the contrast is quite dramatic: between the old, still-preserved traditional neighbourhoods and the world of skyscrapers. We must remember that the role of technology is only to make our lives easier, not to overwhelm or even destroy them. And the most important things in our lives are human bonds, community. Korean professor Yuhyun Park's book ‘IQ, EQ, DQ’ is also about how we can at least manage the problems caused by the digital world.

You were previously a member of the Board of Directors of the Bank of China in Central and Eastern Europe. Based on your experience, what is it that attracts Chinese banks to our country?

Hungary has always been a platform country here in the Carpathian Basin. So in most cases, those who came here were not counting on Hungarian demand, but wanted to reach bigger markets through us. This is also true of the huge amount of foreign capital that has been coming in since 2010. Hungary is in the fortunate position of being able to produce more than it uses. We are an industrial, manufacturing platform, we can professionally combine energy, the know-how, the raw materials, the manpower, and we produce something - not just in manufacturing, but also in music, arts, sports - that is far beyond the level of Hungarian demand. We are now not only a manufacturing platform, but also a knowledge platform. Banks are attracted by the financial lending and investment potential of this global commercial opportunity. And what is most important in banking is political stability. Hungary's destiny has always been to connect different cultures and trade opportunities. In a word, it is connectivity which we do not invent but recognise, because our ancestors chose a geopolitical and ecological location where it is a fateful imperative.

Why is this so?

We cannot close ourselves in because people will come knocking at our door. Kunó Klebelsberg (Hungary's former Minister of Religion and Education) said in a speech in 1923 that if we, in this wonderful part of the world, do not take advantage of our opportunities and choose to live in huts, then those who are stronger, more competitive and more willing will come and take over this area. He said that he wants people who have the will to do in Hungary. So, to sum up, that is why the banks are coming. We have the right expertise, we have a good number of the industries of the future, and we have the strategic interest in connectivity. The point is that we are the meeting point of the West and the East. This is our destiny, this is who we Hungarians are.

The author is managing editor of Eurasia

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