Hungarians protest encroaching Chinese Influence

Hungarians protest encroaching Chinese Influence

Recently, Hungary’s President Orban has faced a wave of protests in response to plans to build a Chinese satellite campus at a Budapest University at the cost of $1.8 billion. The Hungarian public have objected on the grounds that the project could undercut the country’s higher education and increase the influence of China’s communist authorities in Hungary and across Europe. If the project goes ahead, there could be benefits for Sino-Hungarian relations but at the cost of Hungary’s relations with its European neighbours and the stability of Orban’s premiership. 

What is happening in Budapest? 

In recent weeks, Hungarians have taken to the streets to protest the Hungarian Government’s plans to build a Chinese University campus at a local university. Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who is in favour of building the campus, has argued that as a world-leading educational institution the Shanghai based ‘Fudan University’ will provide world-leading educational provision to Hungarian students. However, the general public and the mayor of Budapest, object to the project on account of China’s poor human rights record. To demonstrate their opposition, citizens have proposed to name the four streets next to the future campus after the “victims” of the Chinese autocracy, such as the Dalai Lama Road and the Free Hong Kong Road.

The Progress of the Project

The project is part of the “Belt and Road Initiative”, a Chinese infrastructural project launched in 2013. The purpose of the project is to spread Chinese economic influence and soft power to Europe and Africa. The Fudan project was announced in 2019 after Chinese Foreign Affairs minister Wang Yi visited Hungary, and forms an instrumental part of the Eastern-European branch of the initiative.

It is estimated that the project will be completed by 2024, but cost and funding restraints might delay this deadline. The projected cost stands at $1.69 billion which is more than the annual investment made by the Hungarian government in its domestic universities in 2019. However, a Hungarian investigative journalism outlet has claimed that as much as £1.5 billion of this could be financed by a Chinese bank, demonstrating the extent of the project’s financial incentive for Hungary.

Cooperating with China: Risk or Opportunity?

The vastness of China’s soft power and economic reach make them an increasingly irresistible diplomatic partner. Orban and his party, the nationalist party known as Fidesz, want to take advantage of the opportunity to attract wealthy foreign students to Hungary who will invest heavily in the economy whilst studying there. As well as financial investment, the project is an opportunity to promote Hungarian cultural and political values as far afield as China, in what would be a mutually beneficial cultural exchange for the countries.

However, Hungary must be careful to ensure that Chinese investment doesn’t become a burden on the country’s long term economic health. Many African countries whose economies and infrastructures initially benefited from Chinese finance now owe huge debts to the Chinese Government. The experience of these countries should be a warning sign to Orban.

Orban must also navigate the international perception of Hungary’s relations with a country notorious for human rights abuses. To maintain positive diplomatic relations with Beijing, Orban strategically denies that China violates human rights. However, the EU harbours deep-seated suspicions about China’s intentions on the international stage and has publicly condemned China’s human rights abuses. Orban will need to carefully balance Hungary’s political relations in Europe with Orban’s economic interest in China.

The Hungarian President will also need to mitigate concerns that Fudan University will import communist ideology to Europe. Fudan University, which is known for its communist leanings, has educated 25% of the Chinese Communist Party. European countries have a negative perception of communism; thus, Hungary’s ever-closer relationship with China could undermine Hungary’s credibility within the EU.

As well as his international reputation, the project could damage Orban’s domestic reputation. The Hungarian electorate would prefer money to be redirected from the Fudan project towards Hungarian universities which are suffering from a lack of funds. Improved access to good quality higher education would create a more skilled, cosmopolitan workforce. It would also reduce unemployment, which is now at 4%, by encouraging R&D which would drive innovation, create jobs and boost economic growth. In turn, this would reduce the emigration rate, which would also fire up the economy. By channelling funds into the Fudan project, Orban bypasses the benefits of developing Hungary’s domestic higher education sector.

The most well-known opponent of the Fudan project, Budapest Mayor Gergely Karácsony, has announced his plan to launch a referendum on the issue which Orban has agreed to hold. According to a recent survey, around 2/3 of Hungarians object to the project.


Should the result of the referendum reflect the current public mood, it is likely that President Orban will be forced to reconsider the plan to protect the stability of his premiership. This is particularly true given the project has served as uniting issue between opposition parties which could, in the future, weaken Orban’s own position.

If the project goes ahead, the possible economic rewards should be balanced against the risk of undermining European trust in Hungary. Orban’s Chief of Staff has already responded to the protests saying that the plans to build the University are on hold until 2023 which suggests the Orban administration are in the process of evaluating the strategic risks of the project.

Categories: Eurasia, Politics

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