Hungary has announced plans to open a branch of a Chinese University in Budapest. Critics fear the development — the first of its kind in Europe — will be used by Beijing to spread Chinese Communist Party propaganda and could pose a threat to national security.
The so-called "Student City" will be built on the site of a former wholesale market outside the nation's capital, with its centerpiece a branch of the prestigious Shanghai-based Fudan University.
Hungary said it will raise the standard of higher education, offer courses to 6,000 students from Hungary, China and further afield, while bringing Chinese investment and research to the country.
For China, it’s a significant milestone, said professor Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London. “Until relatively recently, China was importing foreign universities onto Chinese soil, having branches in China. Now, they are exporting a Chinese university branch on European soil, a member of the European Union. This is, I think, tremendously important from their perspective in how it shows that China has risen,” Tsang told VOA.
Two years ago, Hungary’s famous Central European University, which is backed by Hungarian-born, U.S.-based financier George Soros, was effectively forced out of the country through changes to education law and has since relocated to Vienna.
Hungary’s government accuses Soros of political interference in the country, which he denies.
Budapest Mayor Gergely Karacsony, a member of the opposition Dialogue for Hungary Party, said Hungarians are being betrayed.
“Let's put the two [universities] next to each other,” he said. “There was something which has offered an open education, did not cost a penny for Hungarian taxpayers, was a well-established university in Hungary and was exiled. And now, the government brings in another one which represents the ideology of the [Chinese] Communist Party and costs the Hungarian taxpayers billions,” he told The Associated Press.
Leaked government documents published by the Hungarian investigative journalism organization Direkt36 estimate the cost at $1.8 billion, which is more than Hungary spent on its entire higher education system in 2019. The documents suggest most of the funding will come from a Chinese bank loan, and construction will be carried out using mostly Chinese materials and labor.
Fudan ranks among the top 100 universities in the world. Its expansion into Europe is part of Beijing’s efforts to control the narrative on China, Tsang said.
“When we are dealing with the humanities and social sciences side of the curriculum, it is clear that the Communist Party will keep control of it. It was only in the last two years that Fudan University changed clearly its instructions on its relationship with the [Chinese] party state, now clearly declaring that its first mission is not to uphold academic integrity but to follow the leadership of the party,” Tsang said.
Hungary's government has pursued a strategy it calls "Eastern Opening," seeking increased cooperation and trade with countries such as China and Russia. It has taken a $2 billion loan from China's Exim Bank to build a railway line between Budapest and Serbia's capital, Belgrade, as part of China's global Belt and Road initiative.
Hungary is also the only country in the European Union to have approved the Chinese-made "Sinopharm" COVID-19 vaccine.
Karacsony is among many who fear the Fudan University development could pose a threat to national security through Chinese espionage.
“While the Hungarian government visibly enjoys the benefits of European Union membership — since, for example, it will receive an astronomical amount of EU support in the coming months — it is meanwhile a kind of advanced bastion of eastern great powers,” he said.
In an email to VOA, a Hungarian government spokesperson said, "According to the prestigious QS World University Ranking, Fudan is the 34th best university in the world. … The Ministry of Innovation and Technology of Hungary and the Chinese Ministry of Education concluded an interministerial agreement finalized in February this year to support Fudan University in establishing a world-class, research-oriented, multidisciplinary university in Budapest.
"From George Soros to President Obama, a lot of people have given lectures at Fudan University, and it is one of the best universities in the world that will not be engaged in ideological education but will provide economic courses," the spokesperson said.
The EU has yet to officially respond to the university plans. Meanwhile, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas criticized Hungary Monday for what he called an "absolutely incomprehensible" decision to block an EU statement criticizing Beijing for the crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.
“I think everybody can work out for themselves what the reasons are, because there are good relations between China and Hungary,” Maas told reporters, following a meeting of the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council.
In a statement, the U.S. Embassy in Budapest expressed concerns over the plans to open a branch of Fudan University in Hungary, "given Beijing's proven track record of using academic institutions to advance a malign influence agenda and stifle intellectual freedom."
The Fudan University branch is expected to be completed by 2024.