Viktor Orbán wants a Chinese university in Hungary. Opponents see chance to turn nationalist rhetoric against him
But that was before Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s populist government announced a controversial plan for a prestigious Shanghai university to open its first overseas campus there in 2024 – which Hungarians would apparently pay.
Now protests about the future of this indescribable site galvanized the Hungarian opposition and united them in an attempt to topple Orbán’s ruling party in next year’s general election.
Not that it hurt Orbán’s political fortunes. His right-wing Fidesz party won overwhelming electoral victories, without a serious political opponent outside Budapest.
But the proposed campus of Fudan University has become a significant problem.
Orbán has drawn a great deal of political capital from the promotion of “traditional” Hungarian values. The opposition now appears to be serving the populist leader a dose of his own medicine.
“To some extent at the moment, the opposition has turned Orbán’s rhetoric against him,” said Péter Krekó, director of Budapest-based think tank Political Capital.
Krekó said Orbán adopted an image of himself as “the greatest defender of sovereignty – of the United States, of Brussels, of Berlin”.
Now the prime minister is effectively opening the door to Chinese interests – and “it’s hard to explain” to voters, he said.
“China’s image in Central and Eastern Europe is not very favorable,” Krekó added. “It is something that can be easily exploited by the opposition.”
Orbán looks east
In a drastic gesture, six of the Hungarian opposition parties put aside their political differences to stand jointly against Fidesz in the legislative elections of 2022.
They include the Green Party of Karácsony, Dialogue for Hungary, the former far-right Jobbik party and the young centrist Momentum party.
This opposition coalition has yet to announce its candidate for prime minister, although pro-European Union (EU) Karácsony is seen as the frontrunner.
But just like the university campus, the railway has come under fire in Hungary for its lack of transparency in government relations with China.
Controversial business ventures are all part of Orbán’s “opening to the east” policy. In the wake of the global financial crisis and growing tensions with the EU, the prime minister has increasingly sought to attract Chinese investment.
“I think Orbán really believes deeply in the decline of the West and the rise of the East,” Krekó said of the prime minister’s ideology. “And so, if you have to bet on who the future leaders of the world are, then it is better to look to China, than to the United States.”
A broad alliance
This is not the first time that the Hungarian opposition parties have joined forces. The same tactic paid off in the 2019 municipal elections when Karácsony won a shock victory over the Fidesz-backed mayor of Budapest.
Whether they can replicate this success at the national level is another question.
If Orbán were defeated, it’s no secret that European lawmakers would largely breathe a sigh of relief, said Dermot Hodson, associate professor of political economy at Birkbeck College, University of London.
For European leaders, “Orbán has been a real headache in many ways,” Hodson said, describing Hungary as a “difficult government”.
“Pushing back the European Union, but wanting to stay there, is a very damaging combination,” he added.
After the recent protests, the government announced a public referendum on the university, but said it would be held after the election.
On the same day, parliament also passed its anti-LGBTQ law, sparking further protests in Budapest and outrage from EU leaders in Brussels.
The timing for the anti-LGBTQ legislation was “all part of an effort to distract from Project Fudan,” Krekó said. “Because the government thinks it is something dangerous for their identity.”
The law also served another purpose for Orbán: it split the opposition alliance after Jobbik joined Fidesz by voting for it.
“Decline of the West”
A major sticking point for critics of the university’s project is the cost – apparently more than the budget of the entire Hungarian education system.
The construction work, on land initially intended for Hungarian student accommodation, would be carried out by a Chinese contractor, he added.
Critics raised eyebrows at the nature of a deal under which Hungarian taxpayers would effectively pay for Fudan to establish his campus.
According to the Direkt report36, the so-called Hungarian Fudan University is established and maintained by a Sino-Hungarian asset management foundation – suggesting joint revenues from the project.
CNN reached out to Fudan University for comment on the loan, but had not received a response at the time of publication.
The Hungarian government has also not commented on the reported cost of the loan in a lengthy statement to CNN.
However, it was said that 6,000-8,000 students from “Hungary, China and other countries” would learn from 500 professors at the campus economics, humanities, engineering and medical science facilities.
The Hungarian government added that Fudan University already collaborates with five German universities, 24 Scandinavian universities and has an academic partnership with Yale University in the United States. “If they manage to protect their national security interests, then we can too,” he added.
And the academic controversy could affect Orbán’s supporters outside Budapest, said Tamás Matura, assistant professor at Corvinus University in Budapest and founder of the Center for Asian Studies in Central and Eastern Europe.
He pointed to Direkt36’s investigation revealing that the original student housing planned for the site would be scrapped.
“Average people who would like to send their children to the capital to study at university” understand that there is “a chance that their own children will have less access to cheap housing, because the Chinese have taken this opportunity away from them.” , did he declare. .
The Hungarian government told CNN in a statement that the proposed campus “will not take space” from planned student accommodation.
Matura said that Fudan is one of the best universities in the world. But he also feared that the Shanghai institution’s rich financial pockets would attract the best professors and students from “underfunded” Hungarian universities.
Fudan is a “kind of second part of this unfolding political story,” Hodson said. “It is a setback against Orbán’s continued assault on freedoms,” he added, but stressed that “there is a kind of progressive bastion in Budapest”.
Hodson questioned that protests in the capital could seriously reduce Orbán’s chances of re-election elsewhere in Hungary.
To protest against the university’s plans, local authorities in Budapest are renaming the streets near the campus after important human rights causes to which the Chinese government is sensitive, including the Dalai Lama and the Uyghurs.
These are literal signs of protest. The big question is whether this resistance in Budapest also paves the way for meaningful change in Hungary.