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Shanghai-based Fudan University is planning to build a satellite campus in Hungary. Photo: AFP

AnalysisFudan University’s planned Budapest campus runs into local opposition

  • Leaked documents suggest project will saddle Hungary with US$1.3 billion debt and threaten plans to build low-cost student housing in the city
  • Concerns have also been raised the facility could be used to spread Communist Party ideology in the former Eastern Bloc country
Fudan University’s plans for a satellite campus in Budapest – the first by a Chinese university in Europe – have run into a wall of protests after leaked documents indicated the project would saddle Hungary with debt and was negotiated without the transparency required by the European Union.

Shanghai-based Fudan, ranked in the top 100 universities worldwide, aims to open the campus in the Hungarian capital in 2024. The university’s president Xu Ningsheng called it a milestone in the institution’s development in 2019 after signing a memorandum of understanding with Laszlo Palkovics, Hungary’s minister for innovation and technology.


Chinese universities should train ‘builders and successors’ of socialism, says President Xi Jinping

Chinese universities should train ‘builders and successors’ of socialism, says President Xi Jinping

But opposition politicians have decried the project after Hungarian investigative news outlet Direkt36 obtained government documents showing it would cost as much as US$1.5 billion – more than the country’s entire annual higher education budget.

Nearly all of the amount would come from Chinese loans, and Chinese companies, workers and building materials will be used, according to the documents.

They indicated the campus construction contract would be awarded to China State Construction Engineering Corporation without a proper bid process, a manoeuvre to avoid EU regulations, Direkt36 reported.

A key document was a draft proposal by Palkovics which said the Hungarian government would have to repay US$1.3 billion to state-owned China Development Bank. According to Direkt36, the documents also showed the campus would be built in an area set aside for a low-cost housing project for 12,000 Hungarian students.

One of the project’s biggest critics is Budapest mayor Gergely Karacsony, leader of green opposition party Dialogue. He responded to the leak with a letter on his Facebook page addressed to Gergely Gulyas, who runs Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s office, expressing shock at the revelations and his opposition to the plan, which he said was in “the service of the privileged few over the future of the majority”.

Karacsony has also threatened to pull the plug on Budapest hosting the 2023 World Athletics Championships, the most important date on the athletics calendar after the Olympics.

In EU first, China’s Sinopharm coronavirus vaccines arrive in Hungary

Government officials have since said the campus and student housing projects were not in conflict, but Karacsony shared maps on Facebook suggesting Fudan’s campus included areas allotted to the student housing project.

The innovation and technology ministry did not respond to an email request for comment on the project. Two phone calls to the office of Chen Zhimin, Fudan’s vice-president, were not answered. Two phone calls to Fudan’s media relations office were not answered, nor were emailed requests for comment to three of the university’s departments.

Andras Jambor, a political activist and adviser to Budapest’s City Hall, started a petition opposing Fudan’s Budapest campus two weeks ago, saying it would penalise Hungarian taxpayers and cash-strapped students. It has since collected more than 7,000 signatures, he said in an interview.

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Tamas Matura, an assistant professor of international relations at the Corvinus University of Budapest who has researched central Europe’s relations with China for over a decade, said he believed the Fudan campus would be mostly attended by Chinese students.

While that could provide new revenue for the city, it would never cover the high construction costs, he said.

“It would be as if the Hungarian taxpayer were paying to build a new Tesco, it’s a little bit strange.”

Bernadett Szel, an independent member of Hungary’s National Assembly and a critic of China’s human rights record, said in an interview that the Fudan project reflected the “authoritarian tendencies” of Orban and his government, which preferred loans from countries like Russia and China that lacked the transparency required in the EU.

Hungary in 2015 became the first country in Europe to sign an agreement with Beijing as part of the Belt and Road Initiative to expand trading links from China to Europe through transport and infrastructure projects.

In the same year, the Belgrade-Budapest high-speed railway was announced, designed to connect central Europe to the port of Piraeus in Greece, which is run by a Chinese state-owned enterprise. The 350km (217-mile) railway connecting Hungary and Serbia’s capital will reportedly cost US$2.9 billion, with China providing a credit line.

Szel said Orban’s government had repeatedly denied her requests to see the contract negotiated between Budapest and Beijing, going so far as passing a law last year that made such information confidential.

Covid-19 gave Orban another opportunity to show his government’s goodwill towards Beijing.

On January 29, Hungary became the first European Union member to unilaterally approve a Chinese-made vaccine for emergency use. It ordered 5 million doses of the Sinopharm vaccine, enough for a quarter of its population.

Szel said she was concerned about debt from the campus project after nearby Montenegro ran into financial distress after taking loans from China.

China defends its US$944 million loan to Montenegro for motorway project

On March 26, Montenegro’s Finance Minister Milojko Spajic asked the EU for help in repaying a dollar-denominated loan signed with the Export-Import Bank of China in 2014 to build the first section of a highway linking the country with neighbouring Serbia.

The Financial Times reported that, with an estimated cost of US$23.8 million per kilometre, the highway was among the most expensive strips of road in the world, with the first repayments due in July.

Another concern, raised by several sources interviewed for this article, was the replacement in 2019 of Fudan’s charter on academic freedoms with a declaration of allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party – raising the prospect of Chinese government influence in Hungary through the university.

Szel said Hungary’s history as a satellite state of the former Soviet Union – which killed thousands of Hungarians in an uprising against Moscow’s rule in 1956 – made this an especially sensitive issue.

“There are some fears that there would be some form of ideological education on the Fudan campus,” she said.

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Li Xing, a professor of international relations at Aalborg University in Denmark, said Fudan’s ambition to expand in Europe was not surprising, recalling that Denmark and Germany had once competed to host a Fudan University research centre. In 2013, the Fudan-European Centre for China Studies was established in the University of Copenhagen.

However, Li said the rise and fall in popularity of Confucius Institutes – Chinese government-run centres for teaching Chinese culture and Mandarin overseas – was a cautionary tale for Fudan.

“Ten years ago, the whole world would compete for a Confucius Institute. In Denmark, all the universities wanted one; our university got one in 2009,” he said.

But many had since closed amid allegations they were used for the surveillance of Chinese students and industrial espionage. Aalborg University closed its Confucius Institute three years ago, Li said.

While Hungary under Orban was friendly to Beijing, Fudan’s project could be at risk if an opposition party came to power, he said.

“The Chinese government needs to understand that education is different from manufacturing, business or finance. It is ideological, so any activity in this field needs to be prudent. I don’t think Fudan building a campus in Budapest is necessarily a good idea.”