Hungary’s plans for Chinese university campus spark strong backlash
VIENNA – A Chinese university’s plan to build a satellite campus on riverside land donated to Budapest has sparked protests and threatens to derail Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s pro-Beijing agenda in a country that maintains close ties with China.
Hungary’s parliament on Tuesday approved the donation of state-owned land in the capital, where Shanghai-based Fudan University plans to build a new campus. The site is expected to open by 2024.
The planned campus is opposed by around 70% of the Hungarian public, according to a recent poll. A demonstration at the proposed site this month drew around 10,000 participants.
“We will not become a colony!” a cardboard sign read.
Critics say the country’s high-quality education system will suffer under the growing influence of the Chinese Communist Party. Prior to the protest, Budapest Mayor Gergely Karacsony renamed the streets near the planned campus “Free Hong Kong Road” and “Uyghur Martyrs’ Road”.
Construction of the project will cost 1.5 billion euros ($ 1.79 billion), according to Agence France-Presse. Chinese funding will amount to 1.3 billion euros.
It will “even leave our grandchildren in debt,” opposition politician and potential challenger to Orban told Nikkei Karacsony. “The Hungarian government which prefers Chinese interests to Hungarian interests is absolutely unacceptable.”
The row comes as ties between several European countries and China have started to unravel. This year, Beijing and Brussels have embarked on a series of tit-for-tat sanctions for alleged human rights violations against the Muslim Uyghur population in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region. Beijing likely wants to maintain close ties with Hungary, the only country in the EU to use Chinese coronavirus vaccines.
The new campus, on the banks of the Danube, will occupy 520,000 square meters. Fudan University is said to be the first Chinese higher education institute to build a campus in the EU.
The controversy on campus has hurt Orban’s ruling right-wing Fidesz party ahead of next year’s general election. An opinion poll shows that support for Fidesz is wallowing at 48% as of June 9, while the opposition coalition is practically neck and neck at 47%.
Orban retaliated by accusing opponents of playing politics. According to this year’s QS World University Rankings, published by Quacquarelli Symonds, specializing in international education, Fudan ranks 34th, while Hungary’s leading university does not reach 500th. The government maintains that the campus project could lead to research and development centers and new investments.
Orban said he plans to hold a referendum on the campus project so he can get a term, but the timing of the vote has not yet been set.
The Hungarian Prime Minister is a source of concern in the EU due to his government’s suppression of press freedom and its interference in judicial processes. In 2017, Hungary passed a law that forced the Central European University, an institution founded by billionaire hedge fund manager George Soros, to move out of Hungary.
Soros, a Holocaust survivor born to a Jewish family in Hungary, donated much of his fortune to humanitarian causes. But Orban’s government saw him as an enemy.
Even as EU countries become increasingly hostile to China, Hungary’s pro-Beijing stance has not wavered.
As part of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, Hungary has received aid to renovate a 350 km railway line connecting Budapest to Belgrade, the Serbian capital. A huge solar park backed by a Chinese company was completed in May.
China has agreed to provide $ 5.5 billion in investments and contracts over the past decade through 2020, according to figures from the think tank American Enterprise Institute. There are strong fears that Hungary will fall into a “debt trap”, opening the nation to pressure from Beijing on the domestic and foreign policy fronts.
Last month, Lithuania announced that it was withdrawing from the 17 + 1 economic cooperation framework formed between China and the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Romanian President Klaus Iohannis enacted a bill last Friday to ban Chinese telecommunications provider Huawei Technologies from the country’s 5G network.
Italy accepted in 2019 to participate in the Chinese “Belt and Road” framework. But following the Group of Seven Rich Nations summit which ended on Sunday, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi called China “autocracy.”
“With regard to this particular [Belt and Road] Okay, we’ll assess it carefully, ”Draghi said.