Special Report: Chinese Uni Campus Plan Creates Controversy In Budapest

  • 6 May 2021 5:56 AM
Special Report: Chinese Uni Campus Plan Creates Controversy In Budapest
Standing on the proposed new home in Budapest of a top Chinese university, the local district mayor Krisztina Baranyi is squaring up for a stand-off with powerful Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government.

"They want to plant a giga-university without anyone here agreeing to it," Baranyi, a combative independent politician, told AFP at the windswept former industrial site beside the river Danube.

Currently derelict, the area is to house Fudan University's first European campus in a half-million-square-metre (five-million-square-foot) complex by 2024, according to a deal signed between Hungary and the Shanghai-based university's president last week.

But the sprawling project has fed growing unease about Hungary's diplomatic tilt from West to East and its soaring indebtedness to China.

Internal documents leaked to investigative journalism website Direkt36 last month revealed that China is expected to give a 1.3-billion-euro ($1.6-billion) loan to cover most of the estimated 1.5-billion-euro costs.

A Chinese construction firm has also already been earmarked as main contractor without a bidding process, according to the documents.

- 'No plan B' -

"I was shocked when I found out. Everything is opaque. No one was consulted," Baranyi complained.

She plans to let local residents have their say on whether the municipality should hand over the site to the state in a referendum later this year.

"If local people said 'no', it would surely be a step too far, even for the government, to then infringe the district's ownership rights," she said.

Details of the referendum are yet to be worked out but Baranyi hopes it could emulate the success of a 2017 petition launched by young activists that led to Hungary dropping its expensive bid to host the 2024 Olympics.

Budapest's liberal mayor Gergely Karacsony has also blasted "Chinese influence-buying" in Hungary and urged Orban not to force projects on the capital against its will.
 

"Until the government fully publishes the contract details, we do not consent to the construction," Karacsony said last week.

However, other than backing the district's referendum drive, city officials privately concede that they have limited powers to block the project, whose cost exceeds Hungary's annual higher education budget.

The government argues that a prestigious outpost of Fudan University, ranked 100th in the Shanghai Ranking, would permit thousands of Hungarian, Chinese and other international students to acquire high-quality diplomas.

It would also fit in with previously agreed plans to build a 10,000-capacity dormitory for Hungarian students at the site, it says.
 

"There is no plan B," said the government minister in charge of the project Laszlo Palkovics last week, adding the campus would be "good for Hungary, China and the community".
 

- 'Lost economic sovereignty' -

Fudan is the latest landmark in Orban's foreign policy of "Eastern Opening", which analysts describe as a geopolitical balancing act, while critics portray the nationalist premier as China and Russia's "Trojan horse" inside the European Union and NATO.

Alone in the EU, Hungary has used Chinese and Russian coronavirus jabs to accelerate its vaccine rollout, one of the fastest in the bloc.

Russia's nuclear agency Rosatom is expanding Hungary's only nuclear power plant with a massive Russian state loan, while Budapest brushes off US fears that Chinese telecoms giant Huawei's involvement in its 5G mobile network rollout can pose national security risks.

Another vast project, a high-speed railway between Budapest and Serbia, part of Beijing's "Belt and Road" global infrastructure plan to help deliver Chinese goods to Europe, is also mostly financed by a two-billion-euro Chinese loan.

But with Chinese workers set to build the university campus and Hungarian taxpayers footing the bill "it is hard to see any advantage for Hungary in Fudan," a Budapest-based analyst Peter Kreko told AFP.

He said that the loan also meant a "loss of economic sovereignty" and pointed to Budapest's stated rejection of the EU's coronavirus recovery credit line last week as a signal it preferred debt "without strings attached like 'rule-of-law' conditions".

"We are becoming extremely indebted to China, and that can be dangerous," Kreko added.

- 'Freedom of thought' deleted -

The courting of Fudan, which deleted references to "freedom of thought" from its charter in 2019, also compounds rising alarm about academic freedom in Hungary.

Fudan provides China with "a foothold to spread its influence in Europe", the US embassy in Budapest warned last week.

The Hungarian parliament, dominated by Orban's Fidesz party, also approved last week the transfer of most state-run universities into lavishly funded pro-government quasi-private foundations.

The foundations should avoid an "internationalist globalist" approach and focus on "national interest" and "national thinking," Orban said Friday.

In late 2018, the Central European University, founded by liberal US billionaire George Soros, said it was "forced out" of Budapest to Vienna after a bitter legal dispute with Orban.

Source: AFP
Republished with permission 

Related links

Opposition Claim Fudan University Campus In Budapest Would Pose “Serious Security Risks” For Hungary, EU, & NATO

Local Mayor Initiates Referendum On Construction Of Chinese Uni Campus

Fudan University Site "Won't Rob Space From Student Quarter Project", Says Minister

Special Report: Massive Chinese Loan To Cover 'Fudan Hungary University', Raising Espionage & Corruption Concerns

Updated: Hungarian Opinion: Chinese Fudan Campus Plans In Budapest Stirs Up Controversy

Ruling Party Lawmakers “Sabotaged” National Security Meeting On Fudan Uni In Budapest, Says Committee Head

  • How does this content make you feel?

Explore More Reports

  • Demo Held in Front Of Public Media HQ in Budapest

    Demo Held in Front Of Public Media HQ in Budapest

    • 7 Nov 2022 6:13 AM

    A demonstration organised by independent lawmaker Ákos Hadházy was held in front of the public media headquarters in Budapest on Friday evening. The demonstration began with a minute of silence in honour of the revolutionaries of 1956.

  • Hungarian Opinion: Weeklies on the Anniversary of the 1956 Revolution

    Hungarian Opinion: Weeklies on the Anniversary of the 1956 Revolution

    • 24 Oct 2022 6:40 AM

    Opposition-leaning weeklies excoriate the Prime Minister’s latest remarks comparing the war in Ukraine to the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956. A pro-government commentator advises Hungarians to draw strength from the example of the revolution in facing today’s hardships.

  • EU Leaders Agree to Russian Oil Ban After Compromise with Hungary

    EU Leaders Agree to Russian Oil Ban After Compromise with Hungary

    • 31 May 2022 11:38 AM

    European Union leaders have agreed in principle to cut 90 percent of oil imports from Russia by the end of this year, cutting off a vital source of funding for Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, after reaching a compromise deal with Hungary.

  • Hungarian Opinion: Weeklies on the Row Over Banning Oil Imports from Russia

    Hungarian Opinion: Weeklies on the Row Over Banning Oil Imports from Russia

    • 24 May 2022 8:51 AM

    Opposition-leaning weeklies accuse the government of conniving with Moscow, by rejecting the proposed ban on importing Russian crude oil without significant compensation from the European Union. Pro-government commentators, on the other hand, argue that Hungary’s position is dictated by plain common sense.