HUNGARY OCCUPIES A peculiar place in China-EU relations. The country is run by a populist, right-wing government led by Viktor Orban, who is as strongly anti-communist as he is Eurosceptic.
However, If anything, his rift with Brussels is widening. Beijing is nurturing him as a wedge ally in Europe, although it portrays warm relations with Budapest as a bastion against those trying to weaken the China-EU relationship.
The strategy is meeting with some success. Hungary recently blocked the EU from issuing a statement criticising China’s treatment of Hong Kong. It was the first EU country to accept shipments of the Chinese Covid-19 vaccine, Sinopharm, against Brussels’ wishes, and has plans to produce it locally. Orban is also advocating the ratification of the EU-China investment agreement, about which many member states are now having second thoughts. He awarded a multi-billon dollar project to upgrade the railway line between Budapest and the Serbian capital, Belgrade, to a Chinese consortium.
Yet this weekend, thousands of Hungarians took to the streets to protest against Fudan University opening what would be its first European campus in Budapest. The campus is due to open in 2024 with a student body of some 5,000 and 500 faculty.
The protesters claim that any government subsidies Fudan is receiving would be better spent on Hungarian institutions. The Hungarian government intends to borrow $1.8 billion from China Development Bank to build the campus, and will contract China State Construction Engineering Corp. (CSEC) to do the construction using Chinese labour and materials, according to Direkt36, a Hungarian investigative-journalism site.
CSCE was on US President Donald Trump’s blacklist of companies deemed to have connections with the People’s Liberation Army, although not on the Biden administration’s new list.
The estimated construction cost is more than the Orban government’s annual budget for higher education. This is being reduced by converting public universities into independent non-profits. In 2017, Orban pushed through a higher education law that forced the Soros-funded Central European University to move from Budapest to Vienna to continue functioning as a US institution.
In April, the government amended the law so that foreign-based educational institutions could operate in Hungary if they do so under an inter-governmental agreement. This opened the door for Fudan. The Sino-Hungarian international agreement also seemingly lets the construction bidding be exempt from EU competition law.
A further complaint is that the campus will occupy land previously designated to house domestic university students. The left-wing mayor of Budapest has shown his displeasure by proposing renaming three streets around the campus as Free Hong Kong Road, Dalai Lama Street and Uyghur Martyrs’ Road.
That may be more to do with next year’s elections in Hungary than anything; the mayor is seeking to lead an opposition coalition to contest Orban’s Fidesz party. But the street renaming would be a provocation Beijing would find difficult to ignore.
Update: Following the protests, Orban’s chief of staff suggested that the Fudan University project could be put to a referendum in 18 months’ time. This co-opts an opposition proposal but would let the government defer a vote until it is too late to cancel the project. The opposition’s election campaign will likely have a strong anti-corruption and anti-Chinese theme.