1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Planned Chinese university in Hungary fuels anger

Felix Schlagwein
June 4, 2021

Plans to set up a Chinese university in the Hungarian capital, Budapest, are proving unpopular. Two-thirds of the country’s population are against the project, while the opposition is threatening to block construction.

Protesters with a Tibetan flag
Activists hold up the Tibetan flag at the renamed 'Dalai Lama Street' in BudapestImage: ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP

There are no signs of any excavators or cranes yet in the Budapest district of Ferencvaros. But Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government is hoping to see them roar into action soon. China's renowned Shanghai-based Fudan University intends to open its first foreign campus here in 2024 as the first Chinese university in the European Union.

But the plan has met with considerable opposition. According to a recent poll by Budapest's Republikon Institute, 66% of Hungarians oppose the construction project, including many supporters of the ruling Fidesz party. The opposition is trying to prevent the campus with all means at its disposal, above all, Budapest's mayor, Gergely Karacsony of Hungary's green-liberal party Parbeszed. He wants to enter the race against Viktor Orban in next year's parliamentary elections for the united opposition list.

Budapest Mayor Gergely Karacsony
Gergely Karacsony has been the mayor of Budapest since 2019Image: Laszlo Balogh/AP/picture alliance

Karacsony has the support of the independent but opposition-backed district mayor of Ferencvaros, Krisztina Baranyi. On Tuesday, Baranyi renamed streets around the planned construction area as ”Dalai Lama Street," "Street of Uyghur Martyrs" and "Free Hong Kong Street," in reference to issues and conflicts that have sparked international condemnation of China for human rights abuses.

"When we name public places after social groups and people who are victims of the Chinese state, we are standing up not only for them, but also for the ideal of freedom and solidarity," Karacsony said at the inauguration of the street signs this week.

Government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs sharply criticized the renaming of the streets. He told the internet website Telex that the opposition seemed to have "lost its common sense."

An expensive gift for China

The renaming of streets has further fueled the monthslong simmering conflict over the Fudan University in Budapest. It's now increasingly becoming an election issue. The main sticking points are the size and cost of the project: The new campus is to cover more than half a million square meters (64 acres), which would make it considerably larger than all other Hungarian universities. In April, investigative portal Direkt36 also revealed the cost of the project: the Hungarian government apparently wants to spend around €1.5 billion ($1.8 billion) on it, exceeding its budget for the entire Hungarian higher education system in 2019.

Entrance to the Fudan University in Shanghai
Shanghai's Fudan University is internationally renownedImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Wenpeng

A large part of the costs are to be covered by Chinese loans, and the construction is to be carried out by a Chinese company. The size and cost of the project are particularly surprising because only up to 8,000 students are to be taught on the Fudan campus. That would make the university small in comparison with other universities in Budapest.

Hungary hopes to polish educational image

The government of Viktor Orban, however, has rejected any criticism. Officials argue that numerous universities in Europe and the US already have close collaborations with Fudan. A dedicated campus of a world-class university, they say, would increase Hungary's attractiveness as an educational location and make Hungarian universities more competitive. Critics counter that Orban himself forced one of the world's best universities, the Central European University (CEU), to leave Hungary in 2018.

Protesters holding placards in Budapest
The closure of the Central European University in Budapest sparked protests in 2018Image: Imago/ZUMA Press/O. Marques

Tamas Matura, assistant professor at Budapest's Corvinus University and founder of the Central and Eastern European Center for Asian Studies, is ambivalent about the new Fudan campus. "Fudan is indeed one of the best universities in the world and could allow Hungary to progress, for example technologically," Matura told DW.

However, he fears the Chinese university with its reputation and ample financial resources could weaken other Hungarian universities by attracting the country's best professors and students. The fact that the new campus is being financed with Hungarian tax money and is thus a gift to China is also problematic, he adds.

China's 'Trojan horse' in Europe

Other critics have gone even further. They fear the new university could be a gateway for Chinese influence in the EU. In its statutes, Fudan subscribes to "fundamental socialist values" and submits to the leadership of the Communist Party. That has led Hungarian opposition politicians to refer repeatedly to the planned campus as a "Trojan horse." Jozsef Palinkas, long-time president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and minister of education under the first Orban government, spoke to DW of a "Chinese fortress in the middle of Europe."

Viktor Orban und Xi Jinping
Hungary and China have steadily deepened ties in recent yearsImage: Andrea Verdelli/AFP/Getty Images

In recent years, the government of Viktor Orban has indeed intensified its relations with China. Most recently, Hungary's foreign minister criticized sanctions imposed by the EU on China for massive human rights violations. In early May, a Hungarian veto forced the EU to shelve plans to issue a statement condemning China's Hong Kong policy. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Hungary became the only EU country to rely on the Chinese vaccine Sinopharm.

Protest for planned ‘student city'

For China expert Matura, it is obvious that the growing ties between the two nations have led to the choice of Budapest as the location for China's new university: "In Berlin or Paris, the Fudan University would have had to fear political scrutiny. Budapest, on the other hand, is a politically safe space for China. No one will attack it here, at least not as long as this government is in power," he said.

Budapest Mayor Gergely Karacsony has now scheduled a consultation on the construction of the Fudan campus. It will also discuss another housing project that had long been planned in Budapest: a "student city" that was originally intended to provide affordable housing for around 12,000 students.

But the Fudan construction is now expected to significantly tamp down this project even though the Orban government had previously given assurances that the two construction plans would not collide. A protest march is planned for Saturday in Budapest under the slogan "For the student city, against Fidesz." 

This article has been translated from German