Hungary refuses to disclose Chinese chemical hub project documents, Direkt36 sues

“The suggestion is not serious, such a chemical hub factory will not be built. You can sleep well at night [you shouldn’t worry about it],” Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said in Parliament on July 3. He was replying to a question by an opposition MP after Direkt36 had written based on government documents that a Chinese railway chemical trade hub could be set up in the XXIII district of Budapest (Soroksár), and in Záhony, a town at the Ukrainian border, through which China could supply chemical plants and battery factories with various chemical raw materials not only in Hungary but all over Europe. (In Direkt36’s article and the documents obtained, however, there was no mention of building a “factory”, the project is about rail transport and logistics of Chinese chemicals.)

In its public communications, the Orbán government strongly denied the leaked plans. However, in response to a public information request by Direkt36, the government replied in a way that suggests that preparations for the project have been made.

In our previous article, we reported that according to one of the leaked documents, Antal Rogán, the head of the Prime Minister’s Cabinet Office in charge of the project, wrote a letter of support to Chinese counterparts in February 2023. When we tried to obtain this letter (and other related documents) from the Cabinet Office in a public information request, Rogán’s ministry refused to release it, claiming that the letter is considered “data used for supporting a decision”. So the ministry did not deny the existence of such a letter, but refused to show it to us because its disclosure would prevent the ministry from carrying out its official tasks.

Because of this, Direkt36 is suing the Prime Minister’s Cabinet Office for the disclosure of the documents, with the help of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU).

After our article was published on Telex’s website, the government, repeating Orbán’s words, responded to Telex that “the Prime Minister and the government have made it clear that they do not support the establishment of a chemical trade hub and therefore no such facility will be built in Hungary. Everything else is just scaremongering and fake news.”

According to internal government documents previously obtained by Direkt36, the decision on the Chinese rail chemical trade hub project was made this spring, and the documents also indicated that the formal agreement between the Hungarian and Chinese parties is planned to be signed in September 2023. These documents, which were drafted in the Prime Minister’s Cabinet Office, referred to the rail project as the “Europe-China Chemical Trade and Dual HUB System”.

The documents also stated that China could send up to 2 million unit containers of chemicals to Europe by rail in a year. One of the locations chosen as the European logistics center for this project is a facility in Soroksár which is in the immediate neighborhood of residential areas, and which had a capacity of only 230,000 unit containers per year in 2021.

”I can assure you that no establishment will take place”

After the publication of our article, Gergely Karácsony, Mayor of Budapest, described the project as a “toxic dump”, and the Municipal Assembly of Budapest – with the support of Fidesz mayors –immediately adopted a resolution in an attempt to prevent the establishment of the chemical trade hub. Following fierce protests, government officials even began to deny the existence of the plans, including the Fidesz-backed mayor of Soroksár. The government told RTL’s evening news program after Direkt36’s report that “no such decision has been made, so all questions are premature.” Fidesz vice-chairman Szilárd Németh wrote on Facebook that “this is a lie of Kari Geri [Gergely Karácsony] and a fake news of the Soros media (Direkt36, Telex).”

Even Antal Rogán, head of the Prime Minister’s Cabinet Office involved in the preparation of the project, denied the plans for the chemical trade hub. This is according to a letter that was sent by Rogán to Soroksár mayor Ferenc Bese on July 7, then published by Bese on Facebook. In the letter, titled “Information regarding the chemical trade hub investment”, Rogán wrote the following: “Dear Mr. Mayor, I have received your letter and can inform you of the following. In the case referred to in your letter, the Government is not negotiating and I can assure you on behalf of the Prime Minister that no chemical trade hub will be set up in Soroksár or anywhere else. Please acknowledge my statement!”

Afterwards, Direkt36 sent several questions to the Mayor of Soroksár. Among other things, we asked whether Bese was reassured by Antal Rogán’s answer, whether he had met personally either Rogán or then-State Secretary Bence Tuzson, who had previously negotiated the Chinese chemical project, and whether he had asked to see the documents on the Chinese chemical trade hub prepared by the Prime Minister’s Cabinet Office. However, the Soroksár Mayor’s office, as before, has not responded to our request.

”Data supporting decision-making”

Because of the contradiction between the government’s public communication and the internal government documents we obtained, Direkt36 has submitted a public information request to the Prime Minister’s Office for the disclosure of the correspondence between the Prime Minister’s Cabinet Office and the Chinese partners of the chemical trade hub project, including the letter in which Antal Rogán – according to the leaked documents – officially supported the Chinese chemical trade hub’s plans on behalf of the Hungarian government. One of the documents states that “for the project to be implemented in Hungary and to take advantage of this unique opportunity, Minister Antal Rogán sent a letter of support to the Chinese side on February 3, 2023.”

Although the Cabinet Office refused our public information request on July 18, their reasoning behind the refusal implied that they were indeed working on the preparation of the chemical trade hub project and that some sort of decision-making process had been initiated.

The Cabinet Office wrote that the requested package of letters – containing Rogán’s letter of support and the replies sent by the Chinese counterparts – was “data supporting decision-making”, which they were not obliged to release under the law “if the data also serves to support a future decision, or disclosure of the data would undermine the lawful functioning of the public authority or the exercise of its functions and powers free from improper external influence, in particular the freedom of the source of the data to express its views in the preparation of decisions.”

Response from the Prime Minister’s Office to our public information request

Rogán’s letter was also requested by opposition MP Márton Tompos (Momentum party) through a similar public information request. “Please provide me Antal Rogán’s letter of support sent to the Chinese on February 3, 2023 on the implementation of the dual chemical trade hub system in Hungary,” wrote Tompos. On July 28, he received the same rejection as Direkt36 with the Cabinet Office using the same excuse, that the letter is “data supporting decision-making.” (Tompos shared this correspondence with us.)

After this, Direkt36, with the help of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU), is filing a lawsuit against the Prime Minister’s Cabinet Office headed by Antal Rogán to obtain Rogán’s letter and the Chinese responses to it.

What could Rogán have written to the Chinese?

As we have revealed in our previous article, the Europe-China Chemical Trade and Dual HUB System project is linked to Antal Rogán and his entourage on several fronts. The Chinese side has negotiated with two companies, the Austrian state-owned Rail Cargo Hungaria and a newly founded Hungarian company with unknown ownership, Acemil Plc. The latter is linked to Rogán’s confidant, lawyer Balázs Kertész, and, according to a Chinese online report, Kertész was personally involved in one of the negotiations on the project.

The Chinese chemical trade hub project in Hungary also needs government support, and according to leaked documents, this is provided by the Prime Minister’s Cabinet Office. On the Ministry’s side, former State Secretary Bence Tuzson – who has since been promoted to Minister of Justice – personally attended a meeting at the BILK Terminal in Soroksár, the logistics facility that would be the location of the chemical trade hub facility in Budapest. We also learned from these leaked documents that the government’s official letter of support was sent to the Chinese by Antal Rogán.

Although we have not received this specific letter because of the Cabinet Office’s decision, the documents we obtained earlier include a longer section titled “The Next Step”, which describes the wording of the government’s letter of support and exactly who should receive it.

According to this chapter, the implementation of the project requires the Hungarian government to express its “willingness to participate and support in writing”. In addition, the letter should refer to “the close Hungarian-Chinese bilateral relations, mentioning that Hungary was the first European country to join the Belt and Road Initiative, one of the most important projects of Chinese President Xi Jinping”. The letter also stresses Hungary’s good potential: “Hungary has an extremely good geolocation, perfect for establishing a logistics and transshipment hub (…) Our country wants to become a gateway to Europe [for China], which has already been recognized by several Chinese companies”. The text also mentions that the Hungarian side proposes Záhony and the BILK Terminal in Soroksár as the location for the Europe-China Chemical Trade and Dual HUB System project.

Text of the document “The next step”

If the court decides that Rogán’s letter is a matter of public interest, it may be revealed to what extent its content is identical to these proposals.

We used the Opten service to obtain company registration data.

Illustration: Péter Somogyi  (Szarvas) / Telex

  • Szabolcs Panyi

    Szabolcs graduated from Eötvös Loránd University where he studied Hungarian language and literature. Between 2013 and 2018, he was an editor and political reporter at At Arizona State University, he studied investigative journalism on a Fulbright Fellowship in 2017-2018. In the fall of 2018, he joined Direkt36, where he mainly works on stories related to national security and foreign policy. Meanwhile, he helped launch, a Warsaw-based cross-border investigative journalism initiative for the Visegrád region, where he is currently leading the Central Eastern European investigations. He received the Quality Journalism Award and the Transparency-Soma Award four times each, and he was also shortlisted for the European Press Prize in 2018 and 2021.

  • Kamilla Marton

    Kamilla graduated from the Budapest Metropolitan University in Communication and Media Science. She started her career at Direkt36 as a junior journalist. She is mainly interested in the cultural background of underground subcultures and social inequalities. In 2023, she won the Transparency-Soma award together with Zsuzsanna Wirth for her series of articles exposing the hidden situation of hospital-acquired infections. She loves extreme sports.