Fudan Hungary campus branded geopolitical pawn as backlash grows

Part of a nexus of deals between Hungary and China, the project has become a flashpoint in local politics after it emerged locals will foot the bill

May 18, 2021
An attendant carries a Chinese flag on to a stage with another attendant in front carrying a Hungarian flag as a metaphor for the Chinese campus being built in Hungary.
Source: Getty

Opposition is mounting to a planned multibillion-euro Chinese campus in Hungary, which observers say is part of a wider geopolitical play by the authoritarian state to move closer to Beijing and decrease reliance on the European Union.

Hungary’s government insists that Fudan University Hungary, which should open its doors to students in 2024, will bring top-quality education to local and international students in Budapest.

But in recent weeks the project has been dogged by accusations that it will saddle Hungary with Chinese debt and even risk compromising Hungarian national security.

“It’s part of a more general warming towards China,” said Kim Scheppele, Laurance S. Rockefeller professor of sociology at Princeton University and an expert on Hungary.

Under the increasingly authoritarian rule of prime minister Viktor Orbán, Hungary has become a rare friend of Beijing, just as much of the rest of the European Union grows more wary of China.

The country has agreed to a China-financed railway between Budapest and Belgrade, taken Chinese coronavirus vaccines, and last month vetoed an EU resolution condemning China’s crackdown in Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, multiple Hungarian cities have sprouted Chinatowns as business links between the two countries grew, said Professor Scheppele.

As the EU edges towards tougher transparency rules on handouts to Hungary, the government is seeking alternative sources of money, she said. “The Chinese arrangements are a substitute for the EU.”

The campus has become a focus for local criticism after a Hungarian news outlet, Direkt36, obtained a leaked draft document that revealed Hungary would have to shoulder a €1.3 billion (£1.1 billion) Chinese loan to cover the construction costs.

The project will largely use Chinese labour and building materials, the draft says, and there appears to be a Chinese construction firm already lined up to take on the work.

Tamas Matura, a China expert at Corvinus University of Budapest, said the arrival of a “high ranking” university like Fudan in Hungary could be “good news”.

However, he said the leaked financing conditions were “highly unusual” and meant Hungarian taxpayers would pay out a “huge amount of money”.

Subsequent leaks have suggested sky-high salaries for lecturers – up to $250,000 (£177,000) a year for some full professors – and tuition fees of $8,000 a year at bachelor’s level, which was “pretty expensive” for central Europe, said Dr Matura.

“The main audience of the university will be well-off families in Europe and China,” he said. “I assume most of the students will be Chinese.”

The Hungarian government did not directly comment on the project’s funding but said the details “are now under consideration”.

Ultimately hosting 6,000 to 8,000 students and 500 lecturers in economics, humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, engineering and medicine, the campus will allow Hungarian and central European students to “study in Budapest and graduate from one of the best elite universities in the world”, a government spokesperson said.

But the mayor of Budapest, opposition politician Gergely Karácsony, has vowed to fight the campus, threatening a referendum and warning it jeopardises a badly needed student accommodation project called Student City. The government insists the Fudan campus will not encroach on Student City, although some facilities will be shared.

The deeper cause of unease among the opposition, however, is the alignment with China that the Fudan campus arguably represents.

“This is a big political game,” said Bernadett Szél, an opposition MP who has been a vocal critic of the campus.

“We do not want Chinese loans,” she said. She attacked the “double standards” of welcoming the Fudan campus after chasing the Central European University largely out of the country.

She also cited Hungarian investigative reporting indicating that Fudan had cooperated with China’s own intelligence agencies, and raised fears over academic freedom at the proposed campus. In 2019, Fudan dropped “freedom of thought” from its charter and added a vow of loyalty to the ruling Communist Party.

Dr Matura argued that the opposition’s claims of spying and propaganda were likely overblown, not least because Chinese companies already had a major presence in Hungary, and the new campus was likely to focus on less politically sensitive subjects.

The government spokesperson argued that bolstering higher education links with China had been a priority for at least a decade, predating the current administration.

Yet, with elections set for next year that could challenge Mr Orbán’s grip on the country, there is also a risk that a new administration would scupper the project. “The opposition is against it in a unified way,” said Ms Szél.

Fudan had likely opted for Budapest rather than London, Berlin or Paris because Hungary could offer a politically “safe space” for a campus, said Dr Matura. But if the opposition wins the election next year, they would try to “shut down” or financially “renegotiate” the project, he cautioned.

Fudan did not respond to a request for comment.



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