An estimated 10,000 people marched in the Hungarian capital of Budapest on Sunday to protest the construction of the first Chinese university campus in the European Union. Hungarian and Chinese counterparts signed an agreement in the spring to plan and build a campus for Shanghai’s elite Fudan University in Budapest. Although the deal is backed by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban – who touts an openly pro-Beijing position – local authorities in the capital are against the deal, citing concerns about academic freedom and quality of higher education, as well as broader apprehension about Beijing’s expanding influence and potential espionage in the Central European country. (The deal to open a Chinese university in Budapest also came just a few years after the forced relocation from Budapest to Vienna of the Central European University, founded in 1991 by George Soros with the mission to promote open societies.)
The mayor of Budapest, a prominent member of the opposition party, last week announced name changes to streets surrounding the area of the contentious planned university campus to highlight Chinese human rights violations. One street will be named after the Dalai Lama, another after a jailed Catholic bishop, a third will be called “Uyghur Martyrs’ Road,” and a fourth “Free Hong Kong Road.
Hungary’s leader, Orban, touted the project as an opportunity to educate more than 6,000 Hungarian, Chinese, and other students, as well as a value resource attracting research and investment to flow into the country. What is surprising, however, is that the planned university’s nearly $2 billion in construction costs exceed the total education spending of the Hungarian government’s 2019 budget.
Unsurprisingly, the construction of the 64-acre university campus was to be contracted out to a Chinese firm and funded in part by the central government and the remainder through a large Chinese loan, according to documents obtained by Direkt36, a Hungarian investigative journalism group. This mix of funding echoes a pattern of deals that mirror much of China’s expansive Belt and Road Initiative. (Hungary had previously taken a $2 billion loan from China’s Exim Bank to fund construction of a railway line between Budapest and Serbia’s capital of Belgrade.)
While Hungary may play a part in China’s overarching outreach to Central and European nations to bridge BRI projects from its periphery to continental Europe, Hungary under the leadership of Orban has also promoted an Eastern Opening policy, intended to balance out economic reliance on the EU. The promise of greater economic opportunity by looking to China, Russia, and partners in East Asia have not done much to alter Hungary’s economic realities, but Orban has willingly aligned himself rhetorically with Beijing, perhaps to some degree out of a desire to wrestle more leverage for Hungary in negotiations with the European Union.
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Meanwhile, the Chinese side remains firmly committed to seeing the university plans through. Wang Wenbin, spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told reporters, “Transnational joint education programs, a common model of international educational cooperation nowadays, serve as an important platform to promote mutual understanding.”
“We hope relevant individuals in Hungary will remain objective and rational, follow the science, and avoid politicizing or stigmatizing normal cultural and people-to-people exchanges with China to uphold overall friendly bilateral relations,” he added.
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This latest public outcry against the university and China’s increasing presence in Hungary may have prompted a response from the central government, led by Orban, even if only temporarily.
According to reports, Gergely Gulyas, Orban’s chief of staff, said that the project was not yet in the planning phase, and that once specifics were known, the government would support a referendum for locals to decide the fate of the planned university campus. In addition to the weekend’s protests, a recent poll found that nearly two-thirds of Hungarians oppose the launch of the Fudan university outpost in Budapest, including members of Orban’s ruling Fidesz party. In the face of public pressure at home, Orban may be poised to place the Fudan campus extension on the backburner, especially in the lead up to parliamentary elections, which are slated to be competitive and whose results will likely shape the future of China-Hungary relations.