Accusations against China of foreign interference and even using university campuses to foster espionage networks are among the concerns fuelling a backlash in Hungary where the government plans to build Europe’s first Chinese university.
The plans were approved in April by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and are being promoted as a gesture of friendship by both Hungary and China, who already enjoy close diplomatic ties. Indeed, Prime Minister Orban has increasingly tilted toward China – and Russia – in recent years as part of his “Eastern Opening” strategy to increase cooperation on issues like trade.
But the university, set to open in 2024, is proving immensely unpopular in Hungary, with two-thirds of Hungarians opposed to it, according to liberal think tank Republikon Institute.
Many of them spilled onto the streets of Budapest on Saturday in their thousands rounding on the populist-led government.
Opponents said it puts the spurious interests of a foreign power over that of ordinary Hungarians who will have to pay back a loan from China for most of the €1.5 billion price tag for the university. They also raised more sinister concerns, with some calling the project a "Trojan Horse".
Direkt36, an online investigative news platform, published a tweet on Saturday stating, “Viktor Orban’s Eastern Opening policy helped Chinese intelligence set foot in Hungary, turning the country into a collision zone between China and the US.”
China defended the plan to build the university on Monday, saying critics who protested against it in Budapest over the weekend shouldn't politicise and stigmatise normal exchanges between the two countries.
But by Sunday the Hungarian government appeared to backpedal, with an Orban aide saying the university was still in the planning phases. The aide also said the final decision would rest with citizens via a possible referendum.
Fudan may well turn out to be China’s “Trojan Horse of intelligence on Hungarian soil”, said Daniel Hegedüs, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund specialising in central and Eastern Europe.
“It’s part of a deliberate plan which forms part of Hungary’s foreign policy. Other parts of the decision are about gaining more solid ground in society for illiberal policies and ideology.”
Many Hungarians, who have grown increasingly wary and weary over Orban’s authoritarian rule, are seeing the university plan as a bridge too far in building ties with China. Their concerns about China’s expanding sphere of influence are also shared by other Europeans.
In a study published Monday in which several European countries were polled, the German Marshall Fund found that a 62 percent majority of Europeans had negative attitudes towards China and its growing global influence.
Espionage networks and taxes
Budapest Mayor Gergely Karácsony, touted as a likely challenger to Orban in the next elections, said it was “unacceptable” for the Hungarian government to serve “the broadening of Chinese political-economic influence instead of Hungarian interests”.
Moreover, he said he harboured very real fears of national security threats that extend to Chinese espionage given China’s record for foreign interference in other countries.
“The role of the Fudan campus would be, first and foremost, to groom and co-opt Hungary’s political, business and intellectual elites,” said Clive Hamilton, a China specialist and author of the book “Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party is Reshaping the World”.
“In other words, the campus would be first a centre of Chinese Communist Party (CPP) political influence and only second an institution of higher learning.”
Claims universities are a vehicle for interference by foreign powers have been made in Hungary before.
US billionaire George Soros was forced to close renowned Central European University two years ago after Hungary’s government accused him of political interference in the country, which he denies.
In the case of China, however, there are grounds for real concern. Many of the world’s intelligence agencies have been sounding the alarm for some years, warning of potential threats to national security posed by China’s links to universities around the world.
The Confucius Institute, which acts as China’s flagship language and cultural exchange programme, has proliferated with outposts on campuses around the world. Critics say they help facilitate pro-Beijing propaganda and are used to spy on students and staff.
While addressing a US Senate committee inquiry in 2018, FBI former assistant director Bill Priestap warned the US government that the Confucius Institutes were “not strictly cultural institutes” but were “used to squash free speech”.
Hungary already has five such institutes and there are some campuses in other European countries.
However, many governments – including in the US, Canada, Australia and European countries such as Sweden and Germany – have begun to close or phase them out.
“That is because governments and universities understand that, beneath the veneer of cultural exchange and educational links, there is always a programme extending the CCP's political influence,” said Hamilton.
Australia’s intelligence services have been warning the government and the country’s university sector against complacency over China’s influence, saying in 2019 it had strong reasons to believe that universities had become important to the development of China’s military technology via research collaborations.
At Queensland University, the accusations sparked violent on-campus scuffles that broke out the same year that pro-Beijing students attacked an anti-Beijing student group protesting the university’s close links with China.
Questions vis-à-vis the influence of China in the sector led to the Australian government creating an integrity unit and advising on transparency guidelines to help universities identify foreign encroachment. Australia is the first country to produce such guidelines for the university sector, though it may not be the last.
China has universities in its sights because it “takes the realm of ideas very seriously”, said Hamilton.
“It understands the importance of intellectuals in a way we in the West no longer do.”
Leveraging EU power
In Hungary, seizing the economic opportunities offered by Chinese investment by opening the door to Fudan University could be viewed as part of Orban’s overall power play with Brussels and other liberal democracies.
Fudan University is not the first project to bring international institutions onto Hungarian soil which, according to Hegedüs, “can be hotbeds of intelligence against NATO or the EU”.
“Orban uses connections to various authoritarian countries as a sort of leverage,” explained Hegedüs.
“Especially against nominal and formal Western allies like US, EU, or in some cases, against NATO,” he said.
Hungary has demonstrated how far it is willing to push Brussels by repeatedly acting in support of China within Europe. It blocked a recent decision by the EU to issue a statement criticising Beijing for its violent crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.
Hungary was also the only EU country to approve the use of China’s Sinopharm Covid-19 vaccine.
“It demonstrates to Western allies that the regime has other opportunities for investment sources, especially if it comes to the triggering of various sanctions – then it has an alternative in terms of Chinese loans,” Hegedüs said.
The senior fellow added that he believed the Biden administration was reluctant to challenge Hungary over plans for Fudan University, taking a “watch and wait” approach instead to see how things develop.
The US did, however, issue a statement through its embassy in Budapest expressing its concerns over the planned Fudan University “given Beijing’s proven track record of using academic institutions to advance a malign influence agenda and stifle intellectual freedom”.
Fudan University is becoming so politically charged it’s likely to be a key issue in Hungarian elections next year. So far polls show the opposition parties, who are united against the Fudan University project, almost neck and neck with Orban’s Fidesz party.
Should Orban win the election he is sure to push ahead with the university, with or without a referendum. Hamilton concedes that while the Fudan campus is likely to be quite lucrative it would nonetheless be “a bad mistake” for Hungary to welcome the university.
“That is a bad idea for those Hungarians who value their national independence and democratic rights.”