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What's Next For China's Fudan University Campus In Hungary?


A demonstrator holds a placard depicting Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban as Mao Tse-tung during a protest against the planned Chinese Fudan University campus in Budapest in June 2021.

BUDAPEST -- A few months after leaked documents first showed the Hungarian government's plans to use an estimated $1.8 billion in taxpayer funds to build a satellite campus for a Chinese university, more than 10,000 people took to the streets in Budapest to protest the controversial project.

The June 5, 2021, protests signaled a mounting public backlash against plans to host Shanghai's prestigious Fudan University in the capital and represented a high-water mark for Hungary's disparate opposition as it targeted Prime Minister Viktor Orban's warm ties with Beijing.

In the wake of the protests, the government sought to distance itself from the project and other Chinese investment projects in the country that have drawn accusations of corruption and misuse of state funds, with Orban saying the future of the campus would be put to a referendum -- which was a demand of the protesters.

But a year later, the government is backtracking on that pledge, with the Constitutional Court ruling on May 18 that the referendum on the Fudan University campus in Budapest -- which reached the court after opposition activists gathered more than 200,000 signatures -- was unconstitutional, as it concerns an international agreement between Hungary and China.

The decision is part of a wider set of moves by the nationalist Orban following his April 3 landslide victory that analysts say is designed to consolidate his hold on power and use the court to sideline the political opposition while clearing the way for the Chinese project.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban celebrates with supporters after the announcement of preliminary results showing his reelection in Budapest on April 3.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban celebrates with supporters after the announcement of preliminary results showing his reelection in Budapest on April 3.

"The court's ruling on the referendum was a political decision," Andras Jambor, an activist who helped organize the June 2021 protests and was elected to parliament in April for the left-wing Spark Movement, told RFE/RL.

The ruling Fidesz party has been accused by activists and watchdog groups of stacking Hungary's top court with its own candidates in order to further support its agenda and remove obstacles to the democratic backsliding that the country has undergone in the last decade.

Jambor says that while the decision to block the referendum is another step forward for the Fudan campus, the ruling should be seen primarily as part of Fidesz's postelection strategy of preventing the opposition from having "any or even partial successes" to point to.

The Hungarian prime minister's office did not respond to RFE/RL's requests for comment.

Pushing Forward

Since the election, the government has also returned to more explicitly endorsing and defending its plans for the Chinese campus.

"If we do not build Fudan University [it] would be like voluntarily cutting off one of our arms," Culture and Innovation Minister Janos Csak said at a May 18 parliamentary hearing. "We in Hungary have to look both to the East and to the West, just as Western countries do. We need to understand both worlds -- not for political reasons -- but because this kind of knowledge is also needed for innovation in Hungary."

The deal would make Fudan the first Chinese university in the European Union and the first foreign outpost for the Shanghai-based school, which the Hungarian government has argued will raise higher-education standards in the country.

The logo for Fudan University on the door of its Shanghai campus
The logo for Fudan University on the door of its Shanghai campus

Csak continued with this justification in a June 1 interview with the pro-government outlet Mandiner, where he called Fudan "one of the best universities in the world" and said Hungary "needs to understand China on a level that we understand Western civilization," and that a Chinese university would be a great tool for this.

Hungary remains China's closest ally in the EU and Orban has capitalized on the bloc's requirement for unanimity in crafting foreign policy to block numerous resolutions targeting Beijing and Hong Kong and gain political room to maneuver with Brussels amid rule-of-law violations by Budapest that could block billions of euros in funding to Hungary.

But despite the high-level endorsement from Beijing and Budapest, plans for the university will need to overcome several obstacles.

Jambor says that the Fudan campus still faces economic and political problems. The total price tag for the campus is $1.8 billion, with $1.5 billion paid for with a Chinese loan. Concerns around funding and debt could be an issue, especially as the university is not a standalone construction project but rather bundled with a wider development venture for an entire neighborhood that will require navigating local politics in Budapest.

Activists hold up a Tibetan flag on a street renamed Uyghur Martyrs' Road, near the planned site of the Fudan University campus in Budapest.
Activists hold up a Tibetan flag on a street renamed Uyghur Martyrs' Road, near the planned site of the Fudan University campus in Budapest.

He also warns that the campus could find itself targeted by the EU as it becomes stricter about monitoring Chinese investment within the bloc that could create further headaches for Orban. Similarly, Jambor says that concerns are currently being raised about whether Hungary will want to use taxpayer money for the costly project amid a gloomy global economic picture for the coming years.

"I've met government officials who have knowledge on this investment, and they've subtly hinted that the investment is not on solid ground at all," Jambor said.

Too Big To Fail?

Despite these obstacles, analysts believe that the project is too important for Hungary's relations with China for it to not come to fruition.

Charles Dunst, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told RFE/RL that the project could pave the way to further Chinese investment inside Hungary, "which could benefit Orban politically depending on how he plays it."

Strengthening ties with Beijing by building the campus despite opposition could be valuable for Orban as his warm relationship with Moscow and resistance to sanctions against Russia comes under further scrutiny amid the Ukraine war.

"Orban could wield stronger ties with China to extract more benefits from the EU," Dunst said. "Just as Budapest blocked the EU's proposed Russian oil embargo until Brussels gave Hungary some special carve-outs, Orban could...use his Chinese ties to demand more from the EU."

Tamas Matura, an assistant professor at Corvinus University in Budapest and the founder of the Central and Eastern European Center for Asian Studies, told RFE/RL that given the high-level endorsement from both Orban and Chinese President Xi Jinping that the university has received, neither party is likely to walk away from the agreement.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping (not pictured) during a 2019 bilateral meeting in Beijing.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping (not pictured) during a 2019 bilateral meeting in Beijing.

"Based on what we know about the financial agreement, Beijing does not have anything to lose if the project gets implemented, while abandoning it may be perceived as a loss of face," Matura said.

Domestic pushback to the project is not gone, however. Opposition politicians and activists against the project are currently exploring new avenues following the court ruling, with Krisztina Baranyi, the mayor of Budapest's ninth district, where the campus would be located, telling the Hungarian outlet ATV on June 1 that preparations were already under way to organize a local referendum as opposed to the nationwide vote that was struck down in May.

Opposition lawmaker Jambor says a local referendum could be a valuable political tool in resisting the campus and that he and other politicians are currently exploring any other legal tools available for stopping the investment moving forward.

But he adds that Hungary's opposition parties are deflated and regrouping after their decisive loss in April.

"This means the opposition is not ready to organize any counteraction or larger demonstration at least in the next few months," Jambor said.

Written and reported by Reid Standish in Prague with reporting by Akos Keller-Alant in Budapest
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    Akos Keller-Alant

    Akos Keller-Alant is a correspondent with RFE/RL's Hungarian Service based in Budapest. He previously worked at Magyar Narancs, and he has been published abroad as well,  including in Balkan Insight, Deutsche Welle, and Internazionale. He has been awarded several times in Hungary and abroad for his work as an investigator.

  • 16x9 Image

    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China's Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.

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