Hungary’s Plan to Establish First Chinese University in Europe Stirs Security and Propaganda Fears

Hungary has announced plans to launch a branch of a Chinese university in the capital Budapest. Critics fear the first Chinese campus in Europe will be used by Beijing to spread Chinese Communist propaganda and could pose a national security threat.

A “Student City” is planned for a former wholesale market site outside Budapest, centered on a branch of Shanghai’s prestigious Fudan University.

Hungary says this will raise the standard of higher education, teaching 6,000 students from Hungary and China, among other places, while bringing Chinese investment and research to Hungary.

Steve Tsang, director of the China Society at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, said this is an important milestone for China. He told the Voice of America, “Until recently, China was bringing in foreign universities to set up campuses in China. Now they’re exporting a branch of a Chinese university to an EU member state in Europe. I think it’s very significant for them to show that China has risen.”

Changes in Hungary’s education laws forced the country’s prestigious Central European University to move out of Hungary two years ago and to Vienna. Central European University is backed by U.S. financial tycoon Soros. The Hungarian government has accused Soros of political interference in Hungary, which Soros denies.

Gergely Karacsony, mayor of Budapest and a member of the Dialogue for Hungary Party, a Hungarian opposition party, said Hungarians were betrayed.

“Let’s compare the two [universities],” he told the Associated Press, “There is one that offers open education, doesn’t cost Hungarian taxpayers a penny, is recognized in Hungary and has gone into exile. Now the government is introducing another school that represents Communist ideology and costs Hungarian taxpayers billions of dollars.”

Leaked government documents published by the Hungarian investigative news agency Direkt36 estimate the price tag for the Chinese university branch at $1.8 billion, more than the entire Hungarian higher education system will spend in 2019. Most of the money will come from a loan from a Chinese bank, and construction of the branch campus will use mostly Chinese materials and labor, the documents show.

Fudan University is one of the top 100 universities in the world, Zeng Ruisheng said. Its entry into Europe is part of the Chinese government’s effort to control public opinion about China.

We are dealing with the humanities and social sciences in our curriculum,” Zeng said, “and it is clear that the Communist Party will exercise control. Fudan University has just significantly changed its directives on the university’s relationship with the party-state in the past two years and now clearly declares that its primary responsibility is not to maintain academic integrity but to follow the party’s lead.”

The Hungarian government has pursued a strategy of “Eastern Opening” that seeks to increase cooperation and trade with countries like China and Russia. Hungary received a $2 billion loan from the Export-Import Bank of China to build a rail link from Budapest to the Serbian capital Belgrade, which is part of China’s Belt and Road Global Initiative program.

Hungary is also the only member state of the European Union to have approved China’s Sinopharm New Crown vaccine.

Karasonyi shares the fear of many that the Fudan University branch could pose a national security threat through Chinese spies.

He said, “The Hungarian government clearly benefits from its EU membership status, for example by receiving a huge amount of EU support in the coming months. He is at the same time a bastion of advancement for a major Eastern power.”

A Hungarian government spokesman said in an email to the Voice of America that “Fudan University is ranked 34th among the best universities in the world according to the prestigious QS World University Rankings. Hungary’s Ministry of Innovation and Science and China’s Ministry of Education reached an interdepartmental agreement last February to support Fudan University in establishing a world-class research-focused multidisciplinary university in Budapest.

A spokesman said, “Many people from Soros to President Obama have given speeches at Fudan University, one of the best universities in the world that will not engage in ideological education but will offer economic courses.”

The European Union has not yet officially responded to the university plan. German Foreign Minister Francois Maas on Monday criticized Hungary’s “absolutely incomprehensible” decision to block an EU statement criticizing Beijing’s crackdown on pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong.

Speaking to reporters after attending a meeting of the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council, Maas said, “I think everyone can guess the reason, because China has good relations with Hungary.”

In a statement, the U.S. Embassy in Hungary expressed concern about plans to establish a Fudan University branch in Hungary. The statement said, “Because Beijing has a proven track record of using academic institutions to promote malicious influence programs and suppress intellectual freedom.”

The Fudan University branch is expected to be completed in 2024.