Chinese Fudan University plans in Budapest spark protests in Hungary


Four years ago, thousands spilled onto the streets of Budapest to keep the acclaimed Central European University (CEU) there following Prime Minister Orbán’s witch hunt against its 1991 founder, the Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros and the institutions related to him. Despite massive national and international support for CEU, the government used a complicated set of accreditation requirements to push the university to relocate its American-accredited programmes and the bulk of its operations to Vienna.

Protests again the planned Fudan University campus
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Protests again the planned Fudan University campus.

Now the Hungarian government’s spectacular plan to build the first European campus of the top-ranking Shanghai-based Fudan University in Budapest by 2024, with a budget of around 540 billion HUF (approximately 1.5 billion EUR),  - involving mainly Chinese loans, materials and workers but ultimately to be paid for by Hungarian taxpayers - has sparked widespread dismay, raising fears that the project could be a Trojan horse allowing Chinese interference with Hungary. Furthermore, the industrial zone allegedly allocated for the construction of the Fudan campus collides with the planned Budapest Student City in District 9-Ferencváros, a project to provide affordable accommodation to thousands of Hungarian students.

Two-thirds of Hungarians against plans for a “Brave New World”

A recent survey by the liberal think-tank Republikon Institute showed that two-thirds of Hungarians disapprove of the Fudan construction plan, which brought thousands of citizens and members of the opposition into the streets of Budapest on 5 June. Renowned economists wrote an open letter warning that the conditions of the Chinese loan are untransparent, that its interest rate will be six times higher than an EU loan the government recently rejected (allegedly to avoid over-indebtedness), that the Fudan tuition will be beyond the reach of most Hungarian students, and that the Fudan Hungary University will create market disadvantages for other Hungarian universities. The opposition has carried out a national poll, demanded a referendum, and the different candidates among the opposition hoping to become the next prime minister have taken a joint stand against the Fudan project, which has become a major topic for the 2022 elections in Hungary.

In an act of protest, the Mayor of District 9, Krisztina Baranyi, together with Mayor of Budapest Gergely Karácsony, has renamed the streets surrounding the planned campus so as to raise awareness about Chinese human rights issues. “We are going to give Brave New Names to these streets.”, she posted to Facebook. The four new street signs include Free Hong Kong Road, Uyghur Martyrs' Road, Dalai Lama Street and Bishop Xie Shiguang Road.

Hungary between China and the USA

This move led to an intense reaction from the Chinese Embassy in Budapest.  The American Embassy expressed its reservations towards the Fudan project to the media outlet Magyar Hang, "given Beijing's proven track record of using academic institutions to advance a malign influence agenda and stifle intellectual freedom." In a Facebook post reacting to the critical words of the Mayor of Budapest about the elite university and China’s human rights issues during the 5 June protest, the Chinese Embassy judged it “unseemly to criticize the internal affairs of another country” and referred to Karácsony’s criticism of the “Tiananmen Square protests”, “democracy” and “human rights” as “groundless and a smear of China”.

Following the mass demonstration, the Hungarian government seemed to retreat, saying that the Fudan project was only in the planning phase and that the citizens could have their final say later in a referendum. However, Innovation and Technology Minister László Palkovics had already signed a strategic cooperation agreement between the government of Hungary and Fudan University in April, and in June the government voted in favour of a law creating the Fudan Hungary University Foundation. The investigative journalism outlet Direkt 36 had earlier warned that this would enable the government to avoid “the legal obligation to launch public procurements for the construction and operation of the university” and thus leave room for petty corruption.

Plan uncovered by investigative journalists

The affair became public on 6 April, when Direkt36 leaked the details of the Hungarian government’s Fudan plan. According to the government documents obtained by Direct36, the construction would cost around 540 billion HUF (around 1.5 billion EUR, almost “one third of the entire budget to develop Hungary’s higher education sector”) and the documents stipulate that “it is necessary to reach a [legal] point beyond which the investment cannot be stopped”, meaning that the project could potentially be pushed through even in case of an opposition victory in 2022.

Direkt36 revealed that the decision to build Fudan’s campus in South Pest dates back to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Budapest in July 2019. The construction of the Fudan campus would occupy most of the territory on which the Budapest Student City was supposed to be built.

Budapest Student City – a green project

The idea of building the Student City as the successor to the Budapest Olympic Village emerged in the period between 2015 and 2017, when Budapest was in the running for the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games. In 2018, the Norwegian architecture office Snøhetta won the Budapest South Gate International Masterplan Design Competition to create “a new neighbourhood for 12,000 students along with educational, recreational and sports facilities […] on the 135-hectare site”, as announced on their website.

Kriszina Baranyi, the Mayor of District 9, told the author of this article that she had been working on the preparation of the Student City construction with the Budapest Innovation Centre for a year, only to find out from the Direct36 article in April that it might never happen in its planned form. Though the government continues to claim that Student City will be built, Baranyi says that instead of 26 hectares, only 5.5 hectares will be made available for it. “It was like being kicked by a horse. I thought it couldn’t be true and I hoped the Innovation and Technology Minister could reassure me that it was not so. Unfortunately, he couldn’t. We got into a surrealistic semantic dispute during which he argued that the Student City had been a university project and so is Fudan Hungary, so nothing is wrong. However, with these Fudan plans a huge area will be taken away from a project that was supposed to offer cheap accommodation facilities to Hungarian students, and it will be turned into a Chinese, elite university.”

A further clash between the Government and the Municipality of Budapest

The issue of Fudan campus has further strained the tense relationship between the government and the oppositional Mayor of Budapest, who is also a candidate for the 2022 national elections.

Mayor Gergely Karácsony reacted with fury on Facebook: “The world famous architecture firm Snøhetta has designed its plans for a Student City in Budapest-Ferencváros. This could be a green, modern environment with functional buildings connected to the water. More than 10 000 Hungarian students could live there. This is what we agreed upon with the government in the Council of Public Development, this is what the General Assembly of Budapest has decided upon. However, the government has secretly breached our agreement. […] We do not want Hungarian taxpayers to be indebted to China. […] We do not want a university where […]freedom of thought will be replaced with the orders of the Chinese Communist Party to take the place of the Student City.”

Fudan versus “anti-communist” Orbán – liberals are the new communists

Certain critics of Fudan see the 2019 removal of “freedom of thought” from the university’s charter and the inclusion of a pledge to follow the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership, as reported by the Guardian, to be tantamount to brainwashing. Considering that Orbán became famous in 1989 by making an anti-communist speech on the occasion of the reburial of Imre Nagy, the martyred prime minister of Hungary who was executed following the 1956 revolution, the ideological twists and turns he seems to have undergone between then and now are hard to grasp.

Why would the once staunchly anti-communist FIDESZ party now argue for building a university operating under communist ideology in the Hungarian capital? Political scientist Zoltán Gábor Szűcs believes anything is possible at the level of rhetoric.

Szűcs told the author of this article: “Any term can be given a different meaning. Today liberals are the new communists, they have become the enemies of Orbán. The public broadcast media are totally centralised, they broadcast extremely shallow programmes, making it impossible to hold politicians accountable for what they say. CEU fit with the government’s business considerations for a while. Then the winds changed, so the government attacked CEU on an ideological basis. By the same mechanism, FIDESZ politicians are now explaining in Parliament how patriotic an alliance with China is. Ideologically it fits with the ‘Decline of the West’ narrative and the pursuit of an ‘Eastern Opening’, with Orbán’s tilt towards Russia and China in recent years.”

The government’s motivation to create a Fudan campus in Hungary

Zsolt Enyedi, Professor of Political Science and former Pro-Rector for Hungarian Affairs at Central European University, believes the Hungarian government has invited the Chinese university for geopolitical reasons. As he told the author of this article: “China will not criticise Hungary for our lack of checks and balances, for issues related to human rights or the freedom of education. China is communist in a sense, yet it is also capitalist and more and more nationalist. The worldviews of Orbán and China are gradually growing closer to each other.” 

As for China’s interests in the Fudan project, Szűcs explained that the country tends to convince countries to take on gigantic Chinese loans to develop infrastructure regardless of their capacity to repay them. Montenegro is such an example – that mountainous, tiny country mortgaged itself to China to build a motorway and is now asking for the help of the EU to pay back the debt.

Last year Hungary and China signed an at least 1.6 billion EUR deal to build a railway link between Budapest and Belgrade and classified the construction details as “secret” for 10 years.

Enyedi says he first welcomed the invitation of Fudan University to Hungary before he knew about the details of the plan.  “CEU brought a lot of money into Hungary and cooperated harmoniously with many other Hungarian universities, giving Hungarian students significant scholarships,” he says. “Unfortunately, that counted for nothing. Now the government’s motivation is neither the benefits to education or society, but its own political calculations and the opportunity for corruption.”

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