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Hungary: thousands protest Fudan campus

Thousands took to the streets in the Hungarian capital of Budapest over the weekend to protest the construction of an overseas campus by Fudan University.

BudapestProtestors flooded the streets on Saturday. Photo: Karácsony Gergely/Facebook

"The €1.5 billion campus will cost more than the entire Hungarian education budget in 2019"

Shanghai-based Fudan first signed an MoU with the Hungarian government in 2019 to base the campus in the capital, where it also collaborates with Corvinus University to provide an MBA Double Degree Program.

Opposition has mounted against the campus, which is slated to open its doors in 2024, following an investigative report by local outlet Direkt36, which revealed that the project would be mostly financed through Chinese loans.

The €1.5 billion campus will cost more than the entire Hungarian education budget in 2019, with the construction work and supply of materials done by Chinese companies using imported labour.

In addition, the site of the campus had previously been earmarked for affordable student housing.

Estimates of the number of attendees at the protest vary, with one AFP photographer having estimated around 10,000 people. The Facebook event lists more than 6,500 users as having “went”, while over 18,700 expressed interest.

Protestors carried banners with slogans such as “We won’t be colonised”, “Never forget Tiananmen”, and “No Fudan, no cry”.

“It is difficult to find housing in Budapest, and now the student housing space is being given to China,” one student in the city told The PIE News.

“Where’s the benefit for Hungary?”

“Where’s the benefit for Hungary?”

The government and supporters of the project have argued that the chance to host the campus of one of the world’s most prestigious universities represents an opportunity for developing the country’s higher education provision.

“If we compare the position of Hungarian universities, and the lack of internationalisation and cooperation, this is definitely a step ahead,” Paweł Paszak of the Poland-based think tank Warsaw Institute previously told The PIE.

“Especially in the fields of economics and business management, obviously there will be more chances for high-level contacts and to actually create a network of business contacts.”

However, he continued that in addition to questions of sustainability and funding, concerns about academic freedom on the campus were also causing concerns.

Fudan University made headlines in 2019 when an amendment to its charter removed references to freedom of thought and inserted paragraphs on the promotion of Xi Jinping Thought.

Having already chased one international university – the George Soros-backed Central European University – from the country in a move which was later ruled to violate international law, the Hungarian government under Viktor Orbán enjoys close ties with China.

“Generally speaking, they’re diplomatically isolated in the EU,” added Paszak.

“So Viktor Orbán is trying to create the impression that he has powerful allies and is skilfully balancing between great powers.”

The protest also included a speech from Budapest Mayor Gergely Karácsony. Since mayoral elections two years ago, authorities in Budapest have been controlled not by Orbán’s Fidesz party but by the opposition.

Speaking in front of a blown-up version of the iconic “Tank Man” photo with a plushie Winnie the Pooh – to whom Chinese leader Xi Jinping is said to bear a resemblance and has since become a symbol for dissidents – resting on the podium, Karácsony declared that Budapest wanted a student city on the campus site, not an elite Chinese university funded by Hungarian taxpayers.

In the preceding days, the Budapest authorities renamed streets around the campus after victims of alleged human rights abuses in China, including “Free Hong Kong Road”, “Uyghur Martyrs’ Road” and “Dalai Lama Road”, an action which China foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin branded “utterly despicable”.

“Transnational joint education programs, a common model of international educational cooperation nowadays, serves as an important platform to promote mutual understanding,” Wang said following the protests.

“We hope relevant individuals in Hungary will remain objective and rational”

“It is in keeping with the trend of the times and the interests of all. We hope relevant individuals in Hungary will remain objective and rational, follow the science, and avoid politicising or stigmatising normal cultural and people-to-people exchanges with China to uphold overall friendly bilateral relations.”

According to some sources, the Hungarian government may now hold a referendum on the project in 2023. A recent national poll has suggested around two thirds of Hungarians oppose the construction of the Fudan University campus.

But with elections coming up in 2022 – during which Karácsony will be running for prime minister against Orbán – experts suggest the fate of the campus could be dragged further into the political arena.

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