It’s a story that has played out over the last few years, from debate over Confucius Institutes and the Thousand Talents Program, to institutions’ financial dependence on tuition fees from Chinese students and research collaboration.
In the case of the latter, even as calls grow for a decoupling in many countries, universities say that there is simply no other option than to work with China in order to remain financially viable.
The president versus the mayor
With the Orbán government having a reputation for a cosy relationship with China that is far less rocky than its relations with the EU, opposition leaders such as Budapest mayor and 2022 presidential candidate Karácsony Gergely have taken up the cause against the Fudan Hungary campus.
He and other politicians, including Krisztina Baranyi, mayor of the district where the proposed campus site is located, have emphasised the lack of transparency around the agreement, the financial burden it will place on taxpayers, fears about foreign influence, and – one of Gergely’s favourites – the fact that the site of the proposed campus had previously been earmarked for much-needed affordable student housing.
Both joined the protests last month, with Gergely making a speech in which he alluded to the the Fudan University issue being about “whether we will be a free nation”.
Baranyi also made headlines after renaming roads around the site after the Dalai Lama and Free Hong Kong.
As with other Chinese education projects overseas, experts are divided as to whether academic freedom is really at risk.
“Fudan is actually one of the most liberal institutions according to Chinese standards. So I don’t expect them to spread Maoism or Leninism or whatever in Hungary,” Tamás Matura, a China analyst and assistant professor of Corvinus University of Budapest, explained during a recent webinar 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 that. First of all, the Chinese are not interested in indoctrinating foreigners. They don’t do that even to foreign students studying in China.
“Secondly, I don’t think they are interested in risking a major scandal, because can you imagine the enormously high level of scrutiny the university would receive.”
He further added that Hungarian opposition and western partners “have been quite explicit about their concerns that China may try to use Fudan as a spying HQ in Central and Eastern Europe”.
“There are 30,000 Chinese people living in this country, we have major Chinese corporations and banks in this country. Why would they need Fudan?“
The real problem
“The major problem is, and grab your chairs because this is shocking, Fudan’s annual budget is actually more than the total combined budgets of all Hungarian universities,” continued Matura.
“The story goes like this: I, as a Hungarian taxpayer, and 10 million other Hungarians, we actually give €1.5 billion to the Chinese to build the campus, for the university to be run by the Chinese side. That’s really strange.
“And just to give it a twist, we give the money to the Chinese in a way that we take a loan from China. [This is] a very typical Belt and Road Initiative model, that China covers 80-85% of the expenditure of building the university. And then we have to repay both the interest rates and the down payment.
“Hungarians taxpayers give a huge and enormous campus to the Chinese side. Plus, we pay interest to the Chinese bank financing the whole project.”
“So at the very end of the day, Hungarian taxpayers give a huge and enormous campus to the Chinese side. Plus, we pay interest to the Chinese bank financing the whole project. And that is something I have never heard of.”
Stakeholders working in TNE have concurred that such a financial set up for the sector is unprecedented. Furthermore, the construction of the campus will import workers from China, hire Chinese construction companies and use Chinese materials, as is common with Belt and Road infrastructure projects.
Post-construction however, the financial arrangements given in the leaked documents continue be curious.
“Based on these documents, Fudan would offer extremely high salaries to professors,” said Matura.
“When it comes to professors of management, the offer for top ranking professors would be $250,000 a 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, not to mention the UK or the Western European countries.
“But even lower ranking professors would earn $150,000 a year. That is 10 times more than what Hungarian professors earn.”
The rumoured salaries are also far in excess of the average salaries of professors in China.
“I mentioned that they plan to have 6,000 master-level students,” added Matura.
“The total size of the university would be half a million square metres. That is twice as big as the biggest Hungarian university, which has 30,000 students. So nobody can really explain why do they need such an extremely large university?”
The Fudan University campus has become a major political issue in Hungary that is likely to play out over the next year as the country gears up to elections in 2022. Following the protests, the government changed its stance, saying it would offer a referendum on the university – but only after the general elections.
Fudan itself has been quiet about the developments, not releasing statements or speaking to press about its reaction to the events. Within China, the controversy has received little if any coverage in local media.
But as China continues to develop its higher education sector, it is likely to continue to seek new forms of cooperation abroad. As it does so, it will have to be content with accusations of underlying motivations. However, it will also have to deal with some very real problems in the set up of the foreign outreach that are much more apparent.
“China has invested a lot in its education sector,” said Andrea Braun Střelcová, a member of the Lise Meitner Research Group China in the Global System of Science and a predoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science.
“If you have recently been visiting campuses, you might have noticed that they really have grown [their] infrastructures.
“This university in Hungary, it’s a natural consequence of going global”
“As a result, they also started to expand abroad. This university in Hungary, it’s a natural consequence of going global. So we are probably going to be seeing more and more different forms of cooperation of Chinese actors brought.”
One issue that has repeatedly reared its head in China relations with the world in recent months is the notion of reciprocity; critics argue that other countries give access to Chinese projects in a way that they would never be given to China in reverse.
“When a Western country or whatever country goes to China and wants to start a campus there, they need a Chinese partner to do it with,” she continued.
“We couldn’t just go into China and open a campus there. There really is no reciprocity here, and I think that’s another crucial difference and crucial problem.”
Ultimately though, Střelcová admits she cannot see the present Fudan University agreement going ahead. “There would be a huge corruption and huge financial risk for Hungary,” she said.
“I hope that the way it’s specified now in the framework agreement won’t really happen.
“What is interesting that in the cooperation agreement of Fudan Hungary, it was not the Ministry of Education who signed it, it was the Ministry of Innovation and Technology. So there’s a lot of players and a very complex situation,” she said.
“There would be a huge corruption and huge financial risk for Hungary. And I can’t see really in such a large scale manner it happening anywhere right now.“