Ruckus over campus

Overseas-education | Justin Spoke 4 May 2021

Piles of garbage, discarded debris and abandoned buildings are scattered across a post-industrial area on the left bank of the Danube River, just south of Hungary's capital, Budapest.

The area has been unused for decades, languishing in post-socialist decay for 30 years.

But it's here that one of those early reformers, Hungary's right-wing nationalist prime minister, Viktor Orban, envisions building a gigantic university that has pledged its allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party.

Last week, Hungary signed an agreement with the Shanghai-based Fudan University to open a campus in Budapest by 2024. The school's only foreign outpost will be the first Chinese university campus in the European Union.

Hungarian officials insist that Fudan, ranked among the top 100 universities in the world, will help raise higher education standards in Hungary, providing courses to 6,000 Hungarian, Chinese and other students as well as bringing Chinese investment and research into the country.

But critics say the massive investment places an undue financial burden on Hungarian taxpayers and shows Orban's warming ties with autocracies in Moscow and Beijing.

"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.''

Government documents show that pretax construction costs for the 26-hectare campus are estimated at US$1.8 billion (HK$14.04 billion), more than Hungary spent on its entire higher education system in 2019.

The state plans to finance around 20 percent of the project from its central budget, and the rest through a US$1.5 billion loan from a Chinese bank.

Recent changes to the management of Hungarian universities renewed claims that Orban seeks to expand his control over the country's educational and cultural institutions.

In 2018, Central European University, one of Hungary's premier postgraduate institutions, was effectively forced out after amendments were passed to a higher education law that were seen as targeting the university.

"After sending the private university into exile," Karacsony said, "now they bring in another one which represents the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party and costs the Hungarian taxpayers billions."

In 2019, a rare student protest erupted at Fudan's Shanghai campus after China's Ministry of Education changed the university's charter, removing references to "academic independence and freedom of thought."

The site slated for the Fudan campus was earlier chosen to host a "Student City" that would provide accommodation, recreation and sports facilities for 8,000 Hungarian students.

Krisztina Baranyi, the mayor of the Budapest district where the project is planned, said the interests of the city and its students were being supplanted by the Fudan project.

She will launch a local referendum to block the construction. "There's no dialogue, they don't include us in anything. I think the referendum is the only way to show that we don't agree with this,'' she said.

Associated Press

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