Hungary is to host the only Chinese university operating inside the EU in a sign of deepening ties between the government of Viktor Orban and Beijing.
The Hungarian government will donate €2.2m to the Shanghai-based Fudan University for its new Budapest campus, which the authorities said would start operating in 2024.
The announcement comes a year and a half after Central European University, founded by the billionaire philanthropist George Soros and previously the top-ranked institution in the country, was forced into exile by Mr Orban’s nationalist regime, after almost 30 years in the Hungarian capital.
In October, the European Court of Justice said the move against CEU violated Hungary’s commitments under the World Trade Organization, and infringed the provisions of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights relating to academic freedom.
Agnes Szunomar, a researcher at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, said the government’s accord with Fudan “is about unconditional love between Hungary and China”.
“Quite a lot of countries in Europe have different agreements with Chinese universities, and many European universities collaborate with Chinese counterparts,” Ms Szunomar said.
However, she added that the agreement to bring Fudan to Budapest was evidence that Hungary is willing to undercut its own education system by bringing in a foreign competitor with greater global prestige and more resources than any domestic institution. Fudan, Ms Szunomar said, with its enormous budget and capacity to issue dual degrees, could lure away top academic talent from Hungarian universities, causing a “brain drain”.Fudan, which is ranked 34th in the QS Global World University Rankings, will offer programmes in international relations, economics, medicine and technical sciences to up to 6,000 students. Until the Budapest campus opens, joint degree programmes with four Hungarian universities will be offered.
“When it comes to prestige, I would have expected [Fudan] to settle down in London, Berlin, Paris,” or a similar global capital, said Tamas Matura, founder of the Central and Eastern European Centre for Asian Studies and an assistant professor at Corvinus University in Budapest.
But today’s Hungary, in which Mr Orban’s allies have steadily consolidated control over the media and many of the country’s institutions, is “politically a very safe environment,” he said.
“In western Europe, they [Fudan] may face political turmoil or scrutiny, but in Hungary, they don’t have to be afraid of anything.”
Ties between Hungary and China have grown since Mr Orban returned to power in 2010. Hungary hosts telecom group Huawei’s largest supply centre outside China. The company accounts for 0.5 per cent of the country’s employment, 0.4 per cent of Hungary’s total gross domestic product and 0.4 per cent of its total tax revenue, according to a study by Oxford Economics, a British marketing and consulting firm.
Last year, Hungary took a 20-year, $1.9bn loan from Beijing to build a railway link with the Serbian capital Belgrade. In April, as the Hungarian parliament voted to give the government extraordinary emergency powers, the legislature also voted to classify all details regarding the project, saying it would be necessary to secure the loan from the Chinese ExIm Bank.
Hungary also hosts five Confucius Institutes, which China says help promote language learning and foster friendship between peoples. Critics in the US and Europe say the institutes facilitate the spread of pro-Chinese propaganda and are a mechanism for spying on students and faculty.
A spokesman for the Hungarian government said Fudan’s “Budapest campus will considerably facilitate the creation of high-quality education infrastructure and raise the standard of education”. He also said that he expected the opening of the campus to “give a boost to further Chinese investment, especially the establishment of research and development centres of Chinese enterprises in Hungary”.
In the wake of the departure of CEU, many observers have criticised attacks on academic freedom in Hungary. In 2018, the government removed “gender studies” from the list of degrees that could be issued in the country. Some critics worry about the effect that Fudan’s presence in the country could have.
In 2019, in the midst of wider crackdowns on Chinese academics, Fudan removed a commitment to “freedom of thought” from its charter, sparking protests at the university. It added a clause stating that Fudan “adheres to the leadership of the Chinese Communist party and will fully implement the party’s educational policy”.
Mr Matura noted that as the Chinese crackdown has continued, “those who tried to be a little bit even constructively critical about China and its affairs” were being penalised. “That is indeed a concern to us too,” he said.