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Fudan U. Coming To Hungary. Should We Worry?

A top Chinese university is building an outpost in Europe. What does this say about East vs. West?
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Readers, here in Budapest, the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban recently struck a deal with the Chinese to build a campus of Fudan University here in Budapest. The Shanghai university is one of the top-ranked in the world. But some people — including me — are deeply concerned that the Hungarians are providing an espionage platform for Beijing. I was talking about this with a friend who works for Mandiner, the top Hungarian conservative magazine. He asked his colleague Mátyás Kohán, who writes about foreign policy for the magazine, to brief me on the situation. Kohán sent me a briefing in Q&A form, but when I offered to publish it on my blog, he reformatted it as an op-ed.

I still cannot get comfortable with Beijing’s extraordinary push into Europe via this university. I understand why Hungary doesn’t want the wokeness of corrupt Western universities, but this seems to me to be a deal with the devil. Still, I present to you Mátyás Kohán’s viewpoint to help American readers understand the thinking of conservative Hungarians who support this move. — RD

By Mátyás Kohán

Hungary is poised to welcome China’s Fudan University to Budapest in 2024. The $1.5 billion project brings the world’s 34th best university to Central Europe – but its geopolitical implications provide fodder for merciless liberal opposition. What is a conservative to think of America’s great adversary coming to its mistreated ally?

We need to face the ungainly reality: Hungary’s universities rank very poorly in any kind of global comparison. If Quacquarelli Symonds’ established ranking system, which does not seem to have a significant geographical bias, is anything to go by, we do not have one single university in the global top 500. Central European countries that are similar in size (take Austria, for example – the University of Vienna, is #150) or geopolitical position (Prague’s Charles University is #260, Poland’s University of Warsaw is #323, the Jagiellonian University in Kraków is #326) have at least one or two institutions that drive progress and scholarly innovation so that the rest of the higher education sector can follow suit. In Hungary, differences between the quality of university education are only significant within the country – on a global scale, Hungarian universities are bad to almost the same extent. If ambitious Hungarian youngsters wants to get an education outside the fields of law or medicine, the country offers no reasonable alternative to Austrian, German, British, Swiss or American universities. In absence of significant competition within the country, even top Hungarian universities have settled for mediocrity – and this is especially true for economics, business, management, STEM or international relations (the latter is a well-established laughing stock in Hungary), the fields Fudan plans to cover in its Budapest project.

We do not specifically need the university that shakes up the still waters to be Chinese – the significant factor is that Shanghai’s Fudan ranks #34 in the QS survey. However, it most certainly does not hurt that Fudan is Chinese. We are in the decade when China is set to overtake the U.S. in terms of nominal GDP, and with a skyrocketing business potential comes massive influence in several regions of the world – there are some areas of Chinese expansion the West pay attention to, like Southeast Asia, and some in which it is taken by surprise, like Africa. The necessity of good ties to China and thorough understanding of who they are, in both linguistic and cultural terms, will soon cease to be a matter of personal predilection. It is unlikely that China would earn a special place in the heart of Hungarian youth anytime soon, but if it establishes a firm cultural and linguistic presence in their heads through thousands and thousands of them receiving an education that is either in Chinese or based on a Chinese mindset, we are set to gain a significant competitive edge.

As to why the Chinese might want to build a university in Budapest – well, there are obvious reasons of vanity, reasons of soft power strategy, and socioeconomic reasons. For Beijing, a giant Chinese university in the heart of the European Union is undoubtedly a pleasant sight and a powerful statement to the rest of the world. In terms of soft power diplomacy, Fudan Hungary would also be a very effective addition to the network of Confucius Institutes – China already dotted much of Europe with those. It is not an irrelevant consideration that Fudan’s research in economics, business studies and IR, which is obviously a showpiece of the Chinese mindset, would geographically make its way into the European scientific world through Budapest. Operating on two campuses and catering to a global student body would further enhance Fudan’s prestige, both in China, where competition between universities is nothing short of cutthroat, and abroad. Also, the concrete that will be home to Fudan Hungary is a $1.5 billion Hungarian investment into the Chinese construction sector, which comes in very handy as China is going out of its way to secure projects abroad to deploy as much of its population as possible into markets that are less saturated than its own.

$1.5 billion dollars, which is the current ballpark figure for what the Hungarian government wants to spend on building Fudan Hungary University, is very serious money. Fudan Hungary shapes up to be the third most expensive university construction project in China’s current construction schedule, with the first two being Hong Kong Technical’s new Foshan campus and Sun Yat Sen University’s Zhongshan project. The Hungarian government will have to do significant work explaining what exactly this money is used for, what opportunities Hungarian students get in return, and how it’s going to keep costs down to their planned level.

There is a popular – and partly warranted – talking point that is used by the Hungarian opposition, which questions the choice of the university involved – if the government is spending the equivalent of $1.5 billion on a university, it could at least have been Western, or so their reasoning goes. In terms of why this money is not used for a Budapest campus of the University of California, McGill, Harvard, Oxford or some other prestigious Western university, the answer is simple – they did not express any strategic interest in Hungary. Usually, it’s the university that reaches out to the government or a partner institution in the target country. If Western universities are not interested in coming to Hungary, a financial incentive alone is unlikely to make them interested.

Another topic that crops up frequently in critical opinions about the Fudan project regards George Soros’ Central European University – as part of an ongoing campaign to move Hungary out of the democratic Euro-Atlantic space into the authoritarian East, the opposition says, Hungary’s leaders expelled CEU, the West’s great contribution to Hungarian higher education, and invited in the Chinese Communist Party’s university instead. CEU has indeed been at odds with the Hungarian government since 2017 because of their disagreement on the legality of handing out American diplomas without the backing of an American university that actually does research or teaching work in the United States. CEU’s programs that offer an American degree have moved to Vienna since, other courses remain in Budapest. Ever since, the government sticks to legalese on the matter, and the Hungarian opposition parrots a witch hunt narrative, according to which CEU was partly eased out of the country because of its investment in postmodern grievance studies: gender studies, postcolonialism, and postmodern critical nonsense.

It was, in fact, possible to receive a master’s degree at CEU with theses like Becoming and being: the experiences of young feminist men in Iceland, Dispossession and futurelessness: at the confluence of Marxism and queer theory, or “Qu(e)’erying the Qur’an: How non-heterosexual Muslims in London articulate sexual citizenship narratives,” which might in fact have aroused second thoughts in Hungary’s government or any fair-minded person – but the issue is significantly more complex, and the Hungarian right, including myself, is torn about it. The core flaw of this argumentation with respect to Fudan is that comparisons of CEU to Fudan are egregious examples of a false equivalency. CEU was a very good university by Hungarian standards, but Fudan plays in a completely different league. It is a global top university, the merits (and rankings) of which are unrivaled in the entire European Union – the European universities that can compete are located in Switzerland and the UK. CEU is by no means anywhere close to being global top university.

CEU’s curricular policy brings us to the issue of Communism, and whether Fudan University is in fact run by the Chinese Communist Party. The short answer is that everything in China is run by the Chinese Communist Party – to some extent. But at the same time, China is not the Soviet Union. They have been thoroughly schooled on how micromanagement by the party leads to mismanagement, culminating in a significant competitive disadvantages. The only way to explain the success of China’s top universities (Tsinghua, Beijing, Fudan and the like) is that they are being run as competitive universities, not as party schools. Hungarian Fudan alumni confirmed to me that the party was not at all making its influence felt in Fudan’s education – it is just, plainly and simply, a high quality university.

As regards Marxism, erudite American conservatives have firsthand experience with the way grievance studies, based on postmodern-infused Marxism with a deconstructionist undertone, destroy the best university programs in the world – because it’s happening in your own country. The sad reality is that the Chinese could not outperform American universities in terms mind-blowingly stupid Marxist educational precepts, even if they wanted to. We have no reports from alumni on Fudan’s academic content being Marxist in any way, especially as they do not focus on the humanities back home and they do not plan to do so in Budapest, either. Contrary to popular belief in America’s academia, there isn’t really a Marxist – or, really, political – way to teach STEM, International Relations or business administration if you also want to be a top university at the same time. In all earnesty: there would be significantly more reason for concern about Marxism if an American university offered to teach social sciences in Budapest.

Another interesting question that pops up across the board is – will the Chinese spy on us using Fudan University? Yes, they will, as they already do. There is no way to exclude the possibility of Fudan expanding China’s already vast intelligence capabilities, but there is also no way to exclude the possibility of such expansion without Fudan’s construction – and this paradox makes this concern all but irrelevant. At the same time, the widespread Hungarian preconception of every graduate of Moscow’s MGIMO diplomacy academy being a KGB asset is malarkey, and the same goes for China – using a university for the recruitment of intelligence officers, as opposed to teaching, would, again, interfere with peer-reviewed, quality education.

For the United States, then, there remains the problem of whether or not Hungary receiving a Chinese university is a threat to the interests of the United States. Fudan, like China in general, is a threat to U.S. interests. Fudan’s presence in Budapest is also a clear message to the United States that the self-inflicted, Marxism-induced deterioration of its scientific, geopolitical and economic capabilities will carry a hefty price tag all around the globe. If the Trans-Atlantic partnership were, indeed, a partnership in which the parties dealt with each other in a respectful manner without meddling with each other’s internal affairs, which the United States has done several times in Hungary in a staggeringly shameless manner, there would be no need for Hungary to compound its unipolar, NATO-based military policy with a diplomacy of great power balancing, known in Hungary as the „egg dance,” which relies on simultaneous economic and cultural cooperation with the U.S., the EU, Russia, China, and the global South. It is safe to say that Fudan Hungary University does not in any way serve the United States’ interests in Hungary, but the fault for this consideration being completely irrelevant now lies with several consecutive American administrations that have shown massive disrespect for Hungarian political sovereignty, leading to a decrease in mutual trust and goodwill.

The last consideration is whether or not Fudan Hungary University is a textbook example of Chinese colonialism. And the answer to that is – yes and no. The two major arenas of Chinese colonialism are the former Soviet Central Asia and Africa – both of them are regions rich in a variety of natural resources but woefully weak on infrastructure, as regards both the economic and the human kind.

In these regions, Chinese colonialism always follows roughly the same template. China hands out gargantuan loans for infrastructure to countries that are clearly incapable of serving such debts. These loans are to be spent on construction work by Chinese construction companies, while the governments’ inability to serve their debts leads to a chance for China to strong-arm said governments into disadvantageous decisions about their natural resources. Other strategies, mainly used in Africa, include providing kleptocratic governments with shiny new projects (theaters, stadiums, hospitals, roads, bridges) in and around election years to help with their reelection – and then gaining control over forestry, mining and farming opportunities by buying off said kleptocratic elites with sizable bribes. In both cases, these countries (or their financially incentivized leaders) trade off their future for Chinese projects in the present.

One core element, the large Chinese loan that is to be spent on the work of Chinese construction companies, is present in the case of Fudan – the other ones, however, are not. Our government is neither a cohort of kleptocratic, myopic chieftains, nor does the Fudan Hungary University help their reelection chances in any way – if anything, it hurts them. Hungary is also known as a very reliable debtor, which decreases the chances of a debt trap strategy being applied successfully.

Hungary is very conscious of the strategic interest China has in building a university in Budapest. We are also aware of the fact that spending $1.5 billion on construction work done by Chinese companies is a great favor to them – which, in return, gives the Hungarian party ample room in negotiating the terms of the actual education at Fudan. This is the main reason to be optimistic about the project: with the ownership of the project being Hungarian, we can extract great advantages for Hungarian students that need scholarships to the best schools in the world as they don’t have any other way of paying for them. There are also possible advantages for Hungarian universities that are in dire need of cooperation, and Hungarian researchers that want funding as well as good academic infrastructure for their research projects. Fudan Hungary University is not China investing billions of forints into Hungarian higher education – it’s us buying a university from China, a deal that we can tailor to our own needs in order to best suit the interests of our own higher education, which is very much in need of a significant quality boost.

Our watchful eyes will, thus, not need to be fixed on the Chinese. What is more interesting is the challenge to the Hungarian negotiators to make this as good a deal for Hungary’s higher education as it can possibly only be.



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