This article is a part of the project “The Role and Influence of the People’s Republic of China on Visegrad Group Countries” funded by the International Visegrad Fund. Author of the article is Pawel Paszak.
On December 16, 2019, the Minister for Innovation and Technology of Hungary – László Palkovics, and the rector of Fudan University – Xu Ningsheng, signed an agreement in Shanghai to establish the first foreign Fudan campus in Budapest. In mid-September 2020, there were also reports in the Hungarian media that the campus is to be completed by 2024 with a goal of educating 5-6 thousand students. These plans should be approached with great caution, as there is often a gap between the Chinese authorities’ ambitious announcements and their actual actions. This is reflected in the limited progress of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects, the political failure of the 17+1 format and the low level of direct investment in CEE countries, among others. However, the efforts of both sides to deepen educational cooperation require attention, as the implementation of these plans would result in Fudan gaining a strong position in Hungarian higher education.
Educational cooperation with the Chinese Fudan University may seem to be an attractive opportunity due to potential financial gains and strengthening the international position of Hungarian universities. According to the QS Global World Rankings 2021, Fudan was ranked on 34th position among the best universities in the world. The education would take place in five faculties (economics, international relations, medicine, engineering sciences). Chinese academics would also be responsible for “training” their Hungarian counterparts.
The Hungarian side hopes that establishing new contacts would bring know-how to higher education, which would allow to improve the quality and internationalization of the education process. Simultaneously there are plans to develop cooperation in the most innovative areas, such as fintech or artificial intelligence. One of the main patrons of the project and a former graduate of Fudan University – Levente Horváth, drew attention to these themes in an interview with the Index website. He is currently the Head of Department at the National Bank of Hungary (Magyar Nemzeti Bank) and Head of the Budapest office of the European Investment Bank (EIB).
It is worth noting that the initiative has a strong support not only from the Bank, but also from Prime Minister Viktor Orban. On October 31, 2019, he hosted the delegation from Fudan, led by Rector Xu Ninsheng, in Budapest and expressed political support for the idea. The official announcement stated that the campus would be located in the former Buda City Hall (Úri utca). In November 2019, Minister László Palkovics announced that under the agreement concluded for the period of three years (2019-2022) with the Vice Minister of Education of the PRC, Zheng Fuzhi, 230 scholarships were guaranteed, covering undergraduate and graduate programs as well as short-term research internships.
The focus of Shanghai-based University on business and management degrees also opens the way for building an informal network of personal connections that can facilitate business cooperation. Moreover, founding a new campus is an opportunity to attract students from other CEE countries within the 17+1 format. The best universities in the region are located at the end of the third (University of Tartu, Charles University) or at the beginning of the fourth hundred (University of Warsaw, Jagiellonian University) of the aforementioned ranking. In turn, the best Hungarian university – the University of Szeged – is on the 501-550 position.
In addition to economic opportunities, this initiative also generates additional risks associated with the construction of informal influence, which can be used to promote the political agenda of the PRC, to gain operational contacts and reduce criticism of the CCP. A symbol of such risks is the fact that the December cooperation agreement was supervised by the CCP Party Secretary of Fudan University – Jiao Yang (焦扬). In 1986-1995 she served as deputy director of the Foreign Propaganda Department of Shanghai Municipal Party Committee (中共上海市委宣传部), and in 1995-1997 as director of this institution. If formal authority over the development of cooperation is given to party officers, it is reasonable to say that it will also be subject to the objectives of the CCP. This line of action is also indicated by the removal of the “freedom of thought” passage from the University’s constitution in December 2019 and the addition of numerous paragraphs concerning the subordination to the Party, commitment to Marxism and devotion to the consolidation of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
It is worth recalling that in December 2018, as a result of the introduction of the law proposed by Zoltan Balog, the Central European University was forced to cease its activities in Hungary. One of the main arguments put forward by the government was that the University was issuing dual diplomas (American and Hungarian ones) without any actual educational activity in the United States. Most researchers and observers, however, pointed to the conflicting nature of the relationship between the founder of the university, George Soros, and the government of Viktor Orbán. Soros was one of the main sponsors of organizations opposing the changes introduced by Fidesz.
Nevertheless, educational cooperation between China and Hungary is not limited solely to plans to open a campus and expanding exchange programs. At present, there are also five Confucius Institutes in Hungary, the most recent of which was opened in November 2019 at the University of Debrecen. The Institutes are active in the promotion of Chinese culture and Chinese language learning as well as are recognized as a tool for building a “soft power” in Europe and the world. Unlike their Western counterparts, such institutes are established on the basis of a bilateral agreements between foreign universities and the main center in Hanban, China. On the basis of the agreement, the Confucius Institutes formally become part of the foreign universities, in fact reporting to the Chinese Ministry of Education.
The joint initiative of the Hungarian and Chinese authorities is part of the broader cooperation between the two countries. Under Viktor Orbán, Budapest remains Beijing’s closest political partner in Central and Eastern Europe under the 17+1 format. The increased emphasis on cooperation with China, Japan and South Korea is linked to the implementation of the “Eastern opening” (Keleti Nyitás) concept in foreign policy. It was adopted as a consequence of the global financial crisis (2007-2012), which led to five years of stagnation in the Hungarian economy. At the time, the Orbán government considered that excessive dependence on Western companies and capital posed a huge risk and it was necessary to balance the sources of raising funds. The growth of the economic power of the PRC, currently the second largest economy and third investor in the world, made Beijing the most appropriate partner. A comparable level of cooperation is found only in the case of Serbia ruled by Aleksandar Vučić, which remains keen to attract Chinese direct and infrastructure investments in addition to tourists. Enhancing educational, research and business cooperation is in line with the “multivector policy” pursued by Budapest, which assumes that it is necessary to develop several paths of cooperation at the same time, without excessive focus on one partner. From the perspective of the Fidesz government, enabling the establishment of a Chinese university campus in Hungary is less of a threat than the Central European University. The policy of the PRC aims at building sustainable political, economic and intersocial influences in Europe, which would allow for a free implementation of the economic agenda. However, the Chinese authorities do not intend to support organizations with a liberal left agenda, which are the main opposition in Hungary.
Given the difficult economic situation caused by the pandemic and pessimistic forecasts for Hungary’s GDP (-7% according to the European Commission), it could be expected that Budapest will further strengthen contacts with Beijing. An additional advantage of the Chinese partner is the lack of involvement in promoting the human rights agenda. In recent years, relations between Brussels and Budapest have deteriorated rapidly as a result of the authorities’ increased control over the judiciary, media and education. These processes have been accompanied by plans to link EU funding to rule of law. Education and educational system are one of the many areas of cooperation. Signs from the Hungarian authorities indicate that a scenario of full exclusion of Huawei from the telecommunications market and 5G infrastructure is unlikely. The pro-Chinese attitude of the Fidesz government as well as the PRC’s financial and technological potential indicate that the collaboration between the two governments will intensify in the coming years. Hungary therefore remains an exception in comparison with the other Visegrad Group countries, which have taken a more assertive and cautious approach to technological and economic cooperation with China in recent months.