Three years ago, the government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban forced the well-regarded Central European University out of Budapest, largely because of who funded it — Hungarian-born American financier and philanthropist George Soros, long a target of populist conspiracy theories and a critic of Orban's championing of “illiberal democracy.”
Now the Hungarian government is pressing ahead with plans to host the first Chinese university campus in the European Union, underscoring Orban’s determination to continue to seek closer ties with Beijing, despite rising U.S. and Western anxiety about China’s deepening influence over parts of Central Europe.
An initial agreement was signed last month for Fudan University, based in Shanghai, to expand to the Hungarian capital, Budapest. Now Orban’s government has said it intends to help financially support the planned campus, which is scheduled to open in 2024, when it will greet around 6,000 students. The Fudan campus will offer degrees in economics and international relations as well medical and technical sciences, and Hungarian officials say they hope the campus will end up boosting Chinese investment in the country.
The welcoming of Fudan is part of a courtship by Orban of China and Russia, say analysts. Orban “looks to China and Russia as the alternative to the West,” according to Andras Simonyi, a former Hungarian ambassador to the United States and to NATO, citing the planned campus. “The incoming Biden administration, in its efforts to rebuild transatlantic relationships, should take note,” he said in a commentary in The Hill, a Washington-based newspaper, last week.
In November, Hungary renewed a cultural, scientific and educational treaty with China, which a spokesman for the Hungarian government said was in line with Budapest’s support for China’s Belt and Road Initiative, an ambitious trillion-dollar transcontinental trade and infrastructure project spanning Eurasia, Europe, the Middle East and parts of Africa.
The initiative has prompted the disquiet not only of the United States, but also of European Union leaders, who have voiced concern about Beijing's growing political clout in Europe and its use of commerce, investment and education as tools of statecraft.
The Hungarian government says the new campus will “enhance” the educational standards of Hungarian universities, teaching knowledge and skills vital for the development of Hungary’s economy. Hungarian officials raised no objections to Fudan University amending its charter recently, which saw a commitment to “freedom of thought” being replaced with a pledge to follow the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.
Orban has cited Russia, Turkey and China as useful models for Hungary’s political development, and relations have warmed rapidly the past few years between Budapest, Beijing and Moscow. Eighteen months ago, the Hungarian government approved the relocation to Budapest of a Russian bank steeped in Cold War history headed by the son of a KGB (Soviet secret police) officer, who helped repress the 1956 Hungarian revolt against the Soviet Union.
U.S. and Western European officials have voiced increasing frustration with Orban’s pivot east and the burgeoning friendship with both China and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Orban has opposed Western sanctions on Russia and in 2014 he bucked the West’s diplomatic isolation of the Russian leader in the wake of the Russian annexation of Crimea, welcoming Putin to Budapest and agreeing on a controversial $12 billion loan deal with the Kremlin to upgrade a Soviet-era nuclear power plant in Paks, 100 kilometers south of Budapest.
The contract was awarded without any counterbids and the details were classified until a court ordered the government to divulge them.
Since his reelection in 2010, critics have denounced Orban for what they see as a sustained erosion of democratic checks and balances. In 2019, Freedom House, a U.S.-based research organization, described Hungary as only “partly free,” the first time in history it has withheld from an EU member state the designation “free.” It accused Orban’s government of having “moved to institute policies that hamper the operations of opposition groups, journalists, universities and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) whose perspectives it finds unfavorable.”
Nonetheless some analysts say that Orban’s political friendships with China and Russia aren’t based on any real ideological affinity, but more on the Hungarian leader’s assessment of the balance of power in Europe and his wanting to hedge his bets between the Eastern autocracies and Western democracies, playing them against each other in a bid to secure the best deals he can for Hungary.
Orban said on Friday that he was considering approving a Chinese COVID-19 vaccine for use in Hungary because the EU was not providing sufficient supplies of European-approved vaccines. “We’re unable to move faster with inoculating people not because Hungarian health care is incapable of carrying out mass vaccinations rapidly but because we have a shortage of vaccine supplies,” he said in an interview with public broadcaster Kossuth Radio.
He added: “The vaccination rate in the EU is below 1 percent due to the fact that there are not enough vaccines here.”
Orban’s tilt eastward has largely been overlooked by the Trump administration. The outgoing U.S. president saw Orban as a populist anti-immigrant ally. And Trump’s former adviser, Steve Bannon, described Orban as “Trump before Trump.”
But the incoming Biden administration is unlikely to be as friendly or view Orban’s warming ties with Beijing and Moscow with as much equanimity, say diplomats. In October while on the election campaign trail, Biden compared Orban’s Hungary and populist-led Poland to Belarus, saying NATO was at risk of “beginning to crack” because of an absence of American leadership. And last month at a research group event in Washington, Victoria Nuland, a Biden pick for a top job at the U.S. State Department, expressed her concern about European states backsliding on democracy.
Orban, who faces a likely tough election next year, was largely ostracized by the Obama administration for presiding over what Washington saw as an erosion of democratic checks and balances. Biden served as Barack Obama’s vice president. Orban also broke with diplomatic norms last year by publicly endorsing Trump in the White House race and making it clear he didn’t like working with Democrats, whom he dubbed “moral imperialists.”
He withheld congratulating Biden after the vote, only to do so belatedly in a letter, rather than with a phone call.