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Chinese university project poses security concerns in Hungary

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) – Piles of rubbish, discarded debris and abandoned buildings are scattered around a post-industrial area on the left bank of the Danube, just south of the awe-inspiring city center of Hungary’s capital, Budapest.

The area has been idle for decades, languishing in post-socialist decadence in the 30 years since anti-Communist embers pressed for an end to Soviet rule in Hungary in the late 1980s.

But it is here that one of those early reformers, Hungarian right-wing nationalist prime minister Viktor Orban, plans to build a gigantic university that has pledged allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party.

This week, Hungary signed a strategic agreement with Shanghai-based Fudan University to open a campus in Budapest by 2024. It would be the school’s only foreign outpost and the first university campus. Chinese in the European Union to 27 countries.

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

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

“They want to bring in a university, which is indeed a serious university at the international level, but its charter requires that it represents the worldview of the Chinese Communist Party,” said Budapest mayor Gergely Karacsony, who said opposes the plan. “We see very serious national security risks in this investment.”

Government documents obtained in April by the Hungarian investigative journalism center Direkt36 show that the pre-tax construction costs of the 64-acre (nearly 26-hectare) campus are estimated at $ 1.8 billion, more than Hungary’s. spent for its entire higher education system in 2019.

The state plans to finance about 20% of the project from its central budget, and the rest through a $ 1.5 billion loan from a Chinese bank. According to the documents, the construction will be carried out using mainly Chinese materials and labor.

“The Chinese do everything, while we only do one thing: pay,” Karacsony said. “Any prestigious university in the world would open a campus here if the Hungarian taxpayers paid for everything.”

The Hungarian government, which fights frequent battles with the EU, has pursued an economic strategy called ‘opening up to the East’, which promotes diplomatic cooperation and increased trade with countries such as China, Russia, Turkey. and others in Central Asia.

Karacsony said the policies had made Hungary “a kind of forward bastion for the great eastern powers of the European Union”.

Last year, Hungary agreed to take out a $ 2 billion loan from China’s Exim bank to build a railway line between Budapest and the Serbian capital of Belgrade, as part of the global initiative ‘ China’s Belt and Road.

Hungary is also home to Chinese telecommunications company Huawei’s largest supply hub outside of China and is the only country in the EU to have approved a Chinese COVID-19 vaccine.

According to Peter Kreko, director of the Budapest-based think tank Political Capital, Fudan’s development is part of China’s efforts to expand soft power and its influence through educational programs and investments. He echoed the Budapest mayor’s concerns that the project could open the door to espionage.

“In recent years, Hungary has become a sort of spy hub for Russian and Chinese spies due … to the intelligence forces’ unwillingness to repel malicious foreign influence,” Kreko said.

The US Embassy in Budapest has expressed reservations about the Chinese university coming to Hungary “given Beijing’s proven experience in using academic institutions to advance a malicious influence agenda. and stifle intellectual freedom ”.

Neither the Hungarian government spokesperson nor the ministry responsible for the project responded to multiple requests for comment.

Orban has decried the Western powers for their commitment to “liberal imperialism” and defends what he calls “illiberal democracy” in Hungary, based on right-wing populism and strong opposition to immigration.

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

In 2018, the Central European University, one of Hungary’s leading postgraduate institutions, was effectively expelled from the country after the adoption of amendments to a higher education law that was widely seen as targeting university.

After sending the private university “into exile,” Karacsony said, “they are now bringing another one that represents the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party and costs Hungarian taxpayers billions of dollars.”

In 2019, a rare student protest erupted on the Fudan campus in Shanghai after the Chinese Ministry of Education amended the university’s charter, removing references to “academic independence and freedom of thought.”

The charter states that the school “adheres to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (and) fully implements the party’s educational policy.”

During a recent visit to Tsinghua University in Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping said the country’s universities should form a new generation “loyal to the socialist cause” and to the CCP.

The site on the Danube, planned for the Fudan campus, had previously been chosen to host a “student town” that would provide accommodation, recreation and sports facilities for 8,000 Hungarian students.

Krisztina Baranyi, mayor of the Budapest district where the project is planned, said the interests of the capital and its students were being overridden by the Fudan project. She said she would launch a local referendum to block construction.

“There is no dialogue, they don’t include us in anything,” she said. “I think the referendum is the only way to show that we do not agree with this.”

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