Two years ago, Hungary’s nationalist leader Viktor Orbán wanted rid of his country’s most prestigious international university because he disliked its founder, the financier George Soros.
The Central European University, which had operated in Budapest for 30 years, was forced to move operations to Vienna because Orbán had set Soros up as a straw man – a rich liberal financier who wanted to flood Europe with migrants. It didn’t matter that Orbán himself had taken a Soros scholarship back in the 1980s to study at Oxford University, or that Soros repeatedly denied Orbán’s claims about immigration issues – it was politically expedient to attack Soros and the university he had founded.
Now Orbán is once again playing politics with higher education: this time by inviting China’s Fudan University to set up a campus in Budapest.
Details of the plan published on the investigative website Direkt 36 in April showed the Hungarian government planned to cover the entire cost of the $1.8 billion project, $1.5 billion of which would be financed by a loan from the China Development Bank.
The project would be a huge coup for China. However, it also sparked protests in Budapest earlier this month, leading Orbán to promise that a final decision had not been made. Yet on Tuesday Hungary’s parliament, which is largely filled with Orbán’s party, voted to donate land to the project.
A number of foreign universities have set up branches in China in recent years. Some of the more notable examples include the New York University’s campus in Shanghai and the Tsinghua–UC Berkeley Shenzhen Institute.
Fudan University’s Budapest campus is planned on a site originally slated for low-cost housing for students of other local colleges. This partly explains why the plan is unpopular among Hungarians. A recent poll suggests two-thirds of locals are against it.
Critics including the mayor of Budapest Gergely Karacsony have accused the national government of selling out to China and of rejecting the values Hungary committed itself to when Communist rule ended three decades ago.
Orbán, who regularly criticises the European Union for its liberal values, has made closer relations with China a key tenet of his premiership, signing up to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative in 2015 and blocking EU statements critical of China. Hungary also hosts the largest Huawei supply centre outside China.
“For the Chinese, Hungary is the gateway to the rest of Europe,” Paul Stronski, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has said.
The university deal obliges Hungary to use Chinese building materials, a Chinese construction company and Chinese labour. There is also a clause that obliges Hungary to protect the project through legislative means so construction cannot be interrupted once started.
The planned university would be China’s first purpose-built, Chinese run campus in Europe and is scheduled to open in 2024.
But ahead of Hungary’s general election next year, it has become a touchstone issue for those unhappy with Orbán’s illiberal policies and Chinese involvement in the Central European country.
Sensing the political mood, experts quoted in the Global Times are now cautioning Fudan to hold off. “I recommend the project be suspended until there is a stable political environment in Hungary after the general election next year. The project should not be turned into a political tool by the opposition to attack China and the current Orbán government anymore,” said Zhang Hong, an associate research fellow at the Institute of Russian, Eastern European and Central Asian Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Orbán has now promised a referendum on the university in 2023, so there is little the project’s backers can do before then. If Orbán loses the next election, the Budapest campus of Fudan University might never be built.
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