The battle for the € 1.5 billion Chinese university campus in Hungary
It’s a story that has unfolded over the past few years, from the debate over Confucius Institutes and the Thousand Talent Program, to the institutions’ financial dependence on Chinese student tuition fees, and the research collaboration.
In the latter’s case, even as calls for decoupling multiply in many countries, universities say there is simply no option but to work with China in order to remain financially viable.
The president versus the mayor
With the Orbán government reputed to have close relations with China that are much less difficult than its relations with the EU, opposition leaders such as the mayor of Budapest and 2022 presidential candidate Karácsony Gergely took sides against the Fudan Hungary campus.
He and other politicians, including Krisztina Baranyi, mayor of the district where the proposed campus site is located, highlighted the lack of transparency around the deal, the financial burden it will place on taxpayers, fears of a foreign influence and – one of the favorites – the fact that the proposed campus site had already been reserved for affordable and much-needed student accommodation.
Both joined the protests last month, with Gergely giving a speech in which he alluded to Fudan University’s question about “whether we will be a free nation”.
Baranyi also made headlines after renaming the roads around the site after the Dalai Lama and Free Hong Kong.
As with other Chinese education projects abroad, experts are divided over whether academic freedom is really threatened.
“Fudan is actually one of the most liberal institutions by Chinese standards. So I don’t expect them to propagate Maoism or Leninism or anything in Hungary, ”said Tamás Matura, Chinese analyst and assistant professor at Corvinus University in Budapest, in a recent report. online seminar on V4 educational cooperation with China.
“The Chinese are not interested in indoctrinating foreigners”
“The question is whether China would like to use Fudan as a propaganda tool. I don’t really buy this. First of all, the Chinese are not interested in indoctrinating foreigners. They don’t do that even to foreign students studying in China.
“Second, I don’t think they are interested in risking a major scandal, because can you imagine the extremely high level of control the university would receive.”
He further added that the Hungarian opposition and Western partners “have been quite explicit about their concerns that China might try to use Fudan as a spy headquarters in Central and Eastern Europe.”.
“There are 30,000 Chinese living in this country, we have big Chinese companies and banks in this country. Why would they need Fudan?“
The real problem
“The major problem is, and take your chairs because it’s shocking, Fudan’s annual budget is actually more than the total combined budgets of all Hungarian universities, ”continued Matura.
“The story is this: I, as a Hungarian taxpayer, and 10 million other Hungarians, we are actually giving the Chinese 1.5 billion euros to build the campus, for the university to be run by the Chinese part. It’s really strange.
“And just to put a twist, we’re giving the money to the Chinese in a way that we are borrowing from China. [This is] a very typical model of the Belt and Road, which China covers 80 to 85% of the construction expenses of the university. And then we have to pay both the interest rate and the down payment.
“Hungarian taxpayers give the Chinese side a huge and huge campus. In addition, we pay interest to the Chinese bank which finances the whole project.
“So at the very end of the day the Hungarian taxpayers give the Chinese side a huge, huge campus. In addition, we pay interest to the Chinese bank which is financing the entire project. And that’s something I’ve never heard of.
Stakeholders working in TNE agreed that such a financial package for the sector is unprecedented. In addition, the campus construction will import workers from China, hire Chinese construction companies, and use Chinese materials, as is often the case with Belt and Road infrastructure projects.
After construction, however, the financial arrangements given in the leaked documents continue to be curious.
“Based on these documents, Fudan would offer extremely high salaries to professors,” Matura said.
“For management professors, the offer for the best professors would be $ 250,000 per year. Prove me if I’m wrong, but as far as I know $ 250,000 would be an extremely high salary, even in the US, let alone UK or Western European countries.
“But even lower-ranking professors would earn $ 150,000 a year. This is 10 times more than what Hungarian teachers earn.
The assumed salaries are also well above the average salaries of teachers in China.
“I mentioned that they plan to have 6,000 master’s level students,” Matura added.
“The total size of the university would be half a million square meters. This is twice as much as Hungary’s largest university, which has 30,000 students. So nobody can really explain why they need such an extremely big university?
The Fudan University campus has become a major political issue in Hungary that is expected to play out over the next year as the country prepares for the 2022 elections. Following the protests, the government has shifted its stance , claiming he would offer a referendum on the university – but only after the general election.
Fudan himself has remained silent on the developments, has not issued statements or spoken to the press about his reaction to the events. In China, the controversy received little to no coverage in the local media.
But as China continues to develop its higher education sector, it will likely continue to seek new forms of cooperation abroad. In doing so, he will have to settle for accusations of underlying motives. However, it will also have to face very real problems in setting up openness abroad which are much more apparent.
“China has invested heavily in its education sector,” said Andrea Braun Střelcová, member of the Lise Meitner Research Group China in the Global System of Science and undergraduate researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science.
“If you’ve been to campuses recently, you may have noticed that they’ve really grown [their] infrastructure.
“This university in Hungary is a natural consequence of globalization”
“As a result, they also started to expand overseas. This university in Hungary is a natural consequence of globalization. So we’re probably going to see more and more different forms of cooperation from Chinese actors brought in. “
One of the problems that has repeatedly arisen in China’s relations with the world in recent months is the notion of reciprocity; critics argue that other countries are giving access to Chinese projects in a way they would never be given to China upside down.
“When a western country or any country goes to China and wants to set up a campus there, it needs a Chinese partner to do it with,” she continued.
“We couldn’t just go to China and open a campus there. There’s really no reciprocity here, and I think that’s another crucial difference and a crucial issue.
Ultimately though, Střelcová admits that she cannot see the current Fudan University deal moving forward. “There would be huge corruption and a huge financial risk for Hungary,” she said.
“I hope the way it’s specified now in the framework agreement doesn’t really happen.
“What is interesting is that in the cooperation agreement of Fudan Hungary, it is not the Ministry of Education that signed it, it is the Ministry of Innovation and Technology . So there are a lot of players and a very complex situation, ”she said.
“There would be huge corruption and a huge financial risk for Hungary. And I can’t really see on such a large scale that it’s happening anywhere right now.“