Among the 23 sub-districts of Budapest, the ninth district, Ferencváros, has been called a “rustbelt” – a former industrial area now in decline that is awaiting revitalization. But for me, a resident here, Ferencváros is a vibrant place. Not far from the center of Budapest, it edges up to the Danube. The central area has beautiful old buildings, museums, universities, and one of Budapest’s largest and oldest markets. The place teems with young people, bars and a rich nightlife. The residential area on the outside of the district is equally rich in character, and the building I live in, named for the Hungarian poet Attila József, is green and flowery, drawing together a tapestry of young parents, pets and older retired people.
If you open up Google Maps and scan across the ninth district, you will notice certain changes: several streets here have suddenly had their names changed. On June 2, four streets along the Danube in the ninth district underwent sudden name changes. You can now find “Dalai Lama Road,” “Uyghur Martyrs Road,” “Liberate Hong Kong Road” (a reference to the slogan used during the 2019 protests in Hong Kong) and “Bishop Xie Shiguang Road” (referring to a bishop of the underground Roman Catholic Church in China who died in 2005).
A few days ago, I met up with Krisztina Baranyi, mayor of the ninth district, near one of the new road signs. As a car eased past us it suddenly came to a stop. The man inside rolled down his window and said to Baranyi: “Nice job!” Baranyi laughed. So far, she said, the only person who has voiced displeasure and criticism with the street name change has been Wang Wenbin (汪文斌), the spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs who said at a press conference in June that the action in Hungary was “a disgraceful way for certain politicians to use China-related issues to gain attention.”
But gaining attention was exactly why Baranyi made the decision to rename the streets surrounding the district site chosen for the planned building of a campus for China’s Fudan University. The street names are designed, Baranyi says, to provoke the Chinese government, precisely because the ninth district does not want Fudan University to be located here. “It’s a show of support,” she says, “and a show of our strength.”
Shanghai’s Fudan University is one of China’s leading universities, ranked 70th in the world and third in mainland China according to the 2021 Times World University Rankings, after Tsinghua University and Peking University. If constructed, the Hungarian branch would be Fudan’s first overseas campus. But this campus, which has yet to break ground, has already been labelled by some as a “Chinese Trojan Horse,” and has even been regarded by some opponents as an act of treason against Hungary.
A Costly Campus
In the fall of 2018, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban asked his cabinet to draft an agreement with China for the establishment of a Hungarian branch of Fudan University. In spring 2019, a two-year “Fudan-Corvinus Master of Economics” program was launched through a collaboration between Corvinus University of Budapest, Fudan University and the Hungarian National Bank. The first batch of around 35 students was admitted to the program later that year.
In September 2020, Levente Horváth, who joined the Hungarian National Bank after studying tourism management at Fudan University, described the future of the Fudan University branch in Budapest in an interview. Beginning in 2024, he said, there would be 5,000-6,000 students, 500 teachers and four to five separate faculties, including economics and medicine.
In late 2020, an investment proposal for the Fudan campus was announced, estimating a cost of 800 million forints, about 2.8 million US dollars, for the entire project. No location was specified at the time. It was not until April 2021, and thanks only to leaked internal government documents obtained by the investigative outfit Direkt 36, that the Hungarian public was informed of the full plans for the Hungarian campus of Fudan University. According to these documents, the total project cost will reach 540 billion forints (USD 18 billion), for which the Hungarian government plans to obtain loans from China for the hiring of Chinese workers and purchase of imported Chinese building materials to complete construction of the campus.
The documents specified that Chinese builders would not have to compete with other contractors through an open bidding process, as the Hungarian government had already agreed that Chinese contractors would take charge of the project. China Construction Group Corporation (CSCEC), a state-owned general contractor, had already signed a contract with Fudan University to help build what would be university’s first campus in the European Union.
For its part, the Hungarian government has assigned László Palkovics, the head of the Hungarian Ministry for Innovation and Technology, to be in charge of the project. Palkovics has said that the entire project will cost about 450 billion forints (USD 1.5 billion), and that an additional 100 billion forints (USD 330 million) will be necessary for the construction of peripheral facilities for the campus.
These cost estimates would mean that the Fudan branch would cost far more than total spending by the Hungarian government on higher education in 2019, which amounted to 380 billion forints, or 1.27 billion US dollars.
According to the plan, the Hungarian government will provide 100 billion forints for the project, and the remaining cost will be financed by a loan from China, the exact terms of which have not yet been made public. In the leaked document, the Hungarian Ministry for Innovation and Technology also provides a calculation of future expenses, with 100 billion forints (USD 338 million) required to operate the campus for the five years from 2023 to 2027, and 15.5 billion forints (USD 52 million) required each year after that – an amount the ministry is counting on China to cover.
Soon after these revelations, the planned location of the new Fudan campus became clear. It would be built in Ferencváros, Budapest’s ninth district, a place of urban dynamism with large green areas, popular with middle class residents and young people alike after a decade of gentrification – and a good location too, apparently, for a foreign university.
There was just one problem. The ninth district did not want Fudan University to build a campus here.
26 Precious Acres
Prior to the Fudan project, there were other plans for this site in Budapest’s ninth district. Initially, the Orbán government had planned to develop the site as an Olympic Village for the 2024 Olympic Games in Budapest, but once the city’s Olympic bid was rejected there were plans instead to build a “Student City.” According to the development concept, a dormitory complex of 8,000-10,000 rooms would be constructed, along with other rental apartments and public facilities, recreational areas and a large green space, all centered around an historic Budapest market listed as a World Heritage site.
As plans to offer the land to Fudan for its branch campus came to light, the government initially insisted to the public that there was nothing to be concerned about, that both the Student City and the Fudan campus would come to fruition. On June 15, however, the Hungarian Parliament approved the government’s proposal to provide 20 of the 26 available acres to the Fudan Hungarian Foundation (复旦匈牙利基金会) as a state donation. This private foundation would be responsible for overseeing the university’s operations and repaying the Chinese loan. This entire decision-making process had bypassed the government of the ninth district.
In the eyes of the locals in Budapest, Student City and the Fudan University branch represent very different visions of the future.
According to Baranyi, the district mayor, the ninth district welcomes the plan to turn the Olympic Village into a Student City. “It is in the public interest and will provide affordable, quality accommodation for students from Budapest and the countryside, as well as for teachers and people starting out in their careers,” she says. András Jámbor, a former social activist and journalist who has actively opposed the Fudan project, says that inexpensive, quality rental housing in in short supply in Budapest: “Student City offers a practical solution for many people.”
Budapest is the educational heart of Hungary, but of the 30,000 or so university students who attend university here each year, just 20-30 percent are able to find housing in dormitories. Many students, particularly if they come from rural areas or from outside Hungary, must work full-time jobs to earn rent.
Baranyi refused early on to relinquish district land for the Fudan campus, and she says brusquely that the ninth district still owns the roads and other public spaces surrounding the campus. “They will still have to go through us to start building, and we’re not going to give it up,” she says.
Another issue raising questions is the cost of a Fudan education. According to the Ministry of Innovation and Technology estimates, the future undergraduate tuition at Fudan will be 8,361 US dollars, and graduate tuition will be 12,375 US dollars. As Ágnes Szunomár, an economist and associate professor at Corvinus University in Budapest, said during a recent public discussion on the Fudan issue: “The average Hungarian family simply cannot afford to pay for their children at Fudan University.”
Using precious land and expending such resources in the capital for the construction of a foreign university whose development appears to come at the expense of Hungarian students and faculty is hard sell for many Hungarians. Quite contrary to the justifications given for the development of Student City, the Fudan University development bears the risk of substantial loans from China, lack of transparency and conflict of interest, ideological confrontation, and the loss of tangible housing supply.
The planned construction of the Fudan branch is not the first project in Hungary involving Chinese funds. Another major project in which China is involved is the reconstruction of the Budapest-Belgrade railway, which connects Budapest to the capital of Serbia 350 kilometers to the south. Conflicts of interest have already been evident in the case of the Budapest-Belgrade project, for which one of the largest subcontractors is Lőrinc Mészáros, an old friend of the Hungarian prime minister who in recent years has become the country’s richest individual.
Péter Krekó, a political analyst from the Budapest-based think tank Political Capital, sees two possible scenarios for the future of the Fudan University campus: “Either it will be similar to the Budapest-Belgrade railway, involving the interests of those close to the [Hungarian] government,” he says, “or the Fudan project will be part of a larger package deal between the two countries that people just don’t know about yet.”
Gergely Karácsony, the mayor of Budapest and from the Hungarian green political party Dialogue for Hungary, said in a statement to the media: “Student City is a fortunate exception in an otherwise poor relationship between this government and the capital, something on which we finally had agreement.”
Shunting the Student City project aside to make room for Fudan, said Karácsony, “is one of the biggest betrayals of this administration.”
The “China Factor” Enters the Election Agenda
On June 5, thousands of people took to the streets of Budapest to oppose the construction of the Fudan branch. Most of the young people in the protest were most concerned about the fate of Student City, but the Fudan project was also a source of public grievance against the government. András Jámbor, the former social activist and journalist, who is now also running as an opposition candidate in the ninth district primary, said the protest, which he helped to organize, was the first in Budapest for a long time owing to Covid-19 restrictions. The controversy over the Fudan branch, he said, had given the public an opportunity to vent frustrations that have been pent up over the last year and a half.
People in Hungary have been angry, unsettled and dissatisfied in the face of the Hungarian government’s moves to grant itself further special powers using the pandemic as a rationalization. Over the past 18 months, the government has slashed the opposition’s budget, classified “Belt and Road” related projects with China as state secrets, further eroded the rights of the LGBT community, made it more difficult for single-parent families to adopt children, and has reformed the management of higher education.
In the eyes of many Hungarians, the promises offered by transnational cooperation in higher education become less attractive in light of a host of other concerns that come along with this word “China.” Older participants in the protest said they did not want to see a Fudan University campus in the capital not just because Hungary would incur debt as a result, but also because they find it unacceptable that Hungary is cosying up to Russia and China rather than looking to the West.
This is why the protest on June 5 went beyond opposition to Fudan, with sentiments like: “We don’t want to be a colony!”; “All dictatorships are doomed to fail”; and “Represent us, not your pocketbooks.”
For the moment, Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party is maintaining its silence about the project. The opposition, meanwhile, is doing its utmost to keep it on the agenda.
“What happened concerning the Fudan campus could play well for the opposition in the election campaign,” says political analyst Péter Krekó. “First, it is not in Hungary’s public interest to take out a huge loan to build something that probably won’t be used by most Hungarians. Second, the Fidesz party is nominally an anti-communist party, and if they establish close ties with China, they are vulnerable to attack on these grounds. Finally, Orbán will also be attacked by the opposition because he always claims to put the country’s interests first, and they can now say that he seems to be a puppet of the Chinese Communist Party.”
Back in March, the European Union imposed sanctions on China over human rights violations in Xinjiang, a move that drew lone criticism from Hungary’s foreign minister. Hungary is currently the only EU country to welcome the use the Sinopharm vaccine, which China has been keen to promote as a diplomatic tool. There are other countries in the EU that have been friendly to China, Krekó says, such as Greece and Italy, but “Hungary is very special in the sense that Orbán chooses China over the West on all sorts of matters concerning the public interest, business, and cooperation projects.”
In the wake of the protests, the government seems to have become hesitant about the Fudan project, venturing only to remark that it will not impact plans for Student City. Gergely Gulyás, a current minister of the Prime Minister’s Office, has even suggested that a referendum will be held on the issue, but that this will only happen after the spring 2022 elections – at which time, he insists, all details about the Fudan project will become clear.
Despite these assurances, the formation of the Fudan Hungarian Foundation was announced on June 15, just 10 days after the protest. Fidesz still insists on pursuing its plan. Conscious of resistance, however, and wary of the upcoming elections, the party appears to have become more cautious. And it has tried to focus public attention on other issues. On the same day the establishment of the foundation was announced, the party passed an anti-LGBT+ law that banned dissemination of LGBT+ content to minors in school textbooks and TV programs. The new restrictions drew public attention for a while, and the Fudan issue gradually faded from view.
András Jámbor still hopes to keep people’s attention on the Fudan plans. There may be more demonstrations in the future, he says, or actions similar to the renaming of streets – encouraging the public to fight for international media attention to the issue.
The biggest question is whether the government can put the project on hold until after the election? And after the election, what will happen then? With so much uncertainty surrounding both the election and the project, few can envision a moment when it will be possible to reverse course on the project entirely. Under the current process, the government must submit a final plan for the project to parliament by the end of 2022, following the April 2022 elections.
Baranyi has supposed that if an international agreement has already been made between Hungary and China, it may be too late to reverse course, and the cost of doing so might be too high under loan arrangements with China already made. If there is a change in government in Hungary after the elections, meanwhile, China could find itself dealing with a completely different partner in order to complete the project.
The opposition has said it wants to hold a national referendum on the Fudan project, but this would now be impossible. Facing the pandemic, the government declared a state of emergency, and though this was to have been lifted in May, it was extended through the fall. Under such a state of emergency, a referendum could not be held.
Both ninth district mayor Krisztina Baranyi and Budapest Mayor Gergely Karácsony have said they will hold a referendum after the state of emergency ends. Karácsony was a candidate for prime minister in the primaries, and has become a leading candidate opposing Orbán. He joined five other candidates in June to write an open letter to Chinese leader Xi Jinping, making clear that if any of them became prime minister, they would prevent the Fudan project from going forward. Nor, they said, would they allow the Budapest-Belgrade railway, that other signature Sino-Hungarian project, to continue.
Is There a Global Future for Chinese Higher Education?
According to a public survey conducted from June 3-14 by the mayor’s office of the ninth district, which gathered the opinions of more than 30,000 residents, 99.18 percent of respondents said they disagreed with the investment plan and the Chinese loan. Nearly 95 percent opposed the cancellation of the plan for Student City, and nearly 99 percent said they opposed the idea of using Hungarian public funds to establish a foreign university that would not provide a free education for Hungarian students.
For Pál Nyiri, a professor at the Free University of Amsterdam who is from Hungary, the ninth district survey posed questions in such a way that it might easily stimulate strong public opposition. “Unfortunately, liberal and opposition politicians have fallen into the same tricks used by their nationalist opponents,” Nyiri wrote in a commentary on the issue.
While Nyiri says there are obvious concerns about this project, “This does not necessarily mean that Hungarian higher education cannot be invigorated, and an open platform for knowledge exchange created between China and Europe, by a Fudan University that is respectful of local preferences and complies with Hungarian and European laws, with careful design and management.”
Others ask whether such an ideal situation, with academic freedom bringing open exchange, is even possible any longer? Fudan University’s entry in Hungary comes at a time when the Central European University (CEU) has been forced to withdraw from the country. Despite Orbán’s insistence that China does not wish to impose its ideology, it is hard for some not to see ideological and geopolitical implications in these efforts to uproot the CEU, which is US-accredited and is associated with a democratic governance agenda, and invite a Chinese university to Budapest. The ideological lines have also become a powerful tool for the opposition, with Karácsony insisting that investment for the Fudan campus poses a national security threat because Fudan, while recognized as a world-class university, states in its charter that it is committed to representing the world view of the Chinese Communist Party.
In the area of Ferencváros were the plot of land has been “given” to Fudan University, past the brand new street signs, there is a rundown industrial area where occasionally large trucks pass by. Here sits one of the city’s largest and oldest market halls, long since fallen into disrepair and in urgent need to renovation. It is surrounded now by a protective fence. It remains to be seen whether Fudan will be able to build a branch campus here, but as some observers have noted, the Chinese government no longer seems particularly interested in sending young students overseas for further study. If this is the prevailing trend, will these Chinese universities have an incentive in the future to set up campuses overseas?
It is equally unclear, then, what lessons Fudan’s efforts and experiences in Hungary will have for the future of Chinese higher education.
This article was originally published in Chinese at Initium.