Budapest, Hungary, is one of the loveliest old cities of Europe. Millions of people visit the Hungarian capital each year. Most explore the old town area where they can see many beautiful buildings that are many hundreds of years old.
South of that area and across the Danube River there is another part of Budapest that few people would want to see. Empty buildings in disrepair fill this disorderly area. It was abandoned thirty years ago when the Soviet Union came to an end.
But now, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban wants to build a new, large university, headquartered in Shanghai, China.
This week, Hungary signed an agreement to become the first European Union member country to open a Chinese university. The government’s unusual partnership is with the Shanghai-based Fudan University. The Budapest site is designed to serve about 6,000 students. It is to open by 2024.
Fudan is a respected university. Experts consider it among the top 100 universities in the world. Hungarian officials say Fudan’s presence will help raise the country’s higher education standard and bring in Chinese investment and research. The University also has sworn its loyalty to the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
But there is opposition to the plan. Some critics argue the economics. They say the massive government investment would be an unfair hardship for Hungarian taxpayers. Other opponents object to the politics. They note that Fudan has sworn loyalty to the ruling Communist Party. They say a partnership with Fudan shows that Orban is seeking warmer relations with autocratic governments like Russia and China.
“They want to bring in a university, which is indeed a serious university on the international level, but its charter requires that it represent the worldview of the Chinese Communist Party,” said Budapest mayor Gergely Karacsony.
“We see very serious national security risks in this investment,” he added.
In April, an organization of Hungarian reporters got possession of several Hungarian government documents connected to the project. The documents showed that building costs for the university are estimated at $1.8 billion. That is more than Hungary spent on its total education system in 2019.
The state plans to pay around 20 percent of the project from its central budget. The rest will come from a $1.5 billion Chinese bank loan to Hungary. The documents say that all the work will be done by Chinese, not Hungarian, workers and all the material will be Chinese.
“The Chinese are doing everything, while we’re doing only one thing: paying,” Karacsony said.
Hungary’s government follows the economic thinking known as “Eastern Opening.” It favors increased diplomacy and trade with countries like China, Russia, Turkey and others in Central Asia. Although it joined the European Union in 2004, the Orban government often has disputes with other E.U. members.
Peter Kreko is the director of the Budapest-based research company Political Capital. He believes the Fudan project is part of China’s efforts to increase soft power. And he said the project could help China’s spy operations.
Hungary is a popular place for Russian and Chinese spies because the government shows, Kreko said, “the lack of willingness of intelligence forces to push back malign foreign influence.”
Neither the Hungarian government’s spokesperson nor the ministry leading the project answered requests for comments.
Hungary lost a leading university in 2018, when new laws forced Central European University out of the country. Orban’s government targeted the university with the new laws, opponents say.
Karacsony noted the expelled university and said, “now they bring in another one which represents the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party and costs the Hungarian taxpayers billions.”
The area where the Fudan campus will be built had been planned for a housing and sports complex for 8,000 Hungarian students. The mayor of the area is Krisztina Baranyi. She is opposed to the project and plans to hold a referendum on the subject.
“I think the referendum is the only way to show that we don’t agree with this,” she said.
I’m Susan Shand.
The Associated Press reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.
Words in This Story
standard - n. a level of quality, achievement, etc., that is considered acceptable or desirable
autocratic – adj. a government that rules with total power
charter – n. a document that describes the basic laws, principles, etc., of a group
malign – v. to say bad things about (someone or something) publicly
referendum - n. a public vote on a particular issue
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