Hungary has signed an agreement to open a Chinese university campus in Budapest by 2024.
The deal would make the Shanghai-based Fudan University campus the first Chinese university campus in the European Union.
Hungarian officials insist that Fudan, ranked among the top 100 universities in the world, will help raise the standard of higher education in Hungary, providing courses to 6,000 Hungarian, Chinese and other students, and bring Chinese investment and research to the country.
But critics of the plan say the massive investment places an undue financial burden on Hungarian taxpayers, and that it is indicative of prime minister Viktor Orban's closening ties to autocracies in Moscow and Beijing.
"They want to bring in a university which is indeed a serious university on the international level, but its charter requires that it represent the world view of the Chinese Communist Party," said Budapest mayor Gergely Karacsony.
He also sees very serious national security risks in this investment.
Government documents obtained in April by Hungarian investigative journalism center Direkt36 show that the pre-tax construction costs for the 64-acre campus are estimated at $1.8 billion, more than Hungary spent on its entire higher education system in 2019.
The state plans to finance around 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, construction will be carried out using mostly Chinese materials and labor.
Hungary's government, which engages in frequent battles with the EU, has pursued an economic strategy it calls 'Eastern Opening', which favors increased diplomatic cooperation and trade with countries like China, Russia, Turkey and others in Central Asia.
Karacsony said the policies had made Hungary "a kind of advanced bastion of Eastern great powers in the European Union."
China extending soft power
Last year, Hungary agreed to take a $2 billion loan from China's Exim Bank for construction of a railway line between Budapest and Serbia's capital Belgrade, part of China's global Belt and Road initiative.
Hungary also hosts Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei's largest supply center 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, the Fudan development is part of a trend of China extending soft power and influence through education programs and investments in the region.
"In the case of the Budapest to Belgrade railway line, and in the case of the Fudan university, China receives everything, it receives a lot of contracts for its companies, it can give a loan for a quite high interest rate and also it can buy the political influence. So, both the political and the economical beneficiary of these two projects are China on one hand and on the other hand, the Hungarian governmental elites", Kreko said.
He also echoed concerns by Budapest's mayor that the project could open the door to espionage.
In a statement to local media this week, the US Embassy in Budapest expressed reservations over the university coming to Hungary "given Beijing's proven track record of using academic institutions to advance a malign influence agenda and stifle intellectual freedom."
Neither the government's spokesperson nor the ministry responsible for the project responded to multiple requests for comment.
Orban has maligned western powers for engaging in 'liberal imperialism', and champions what he calls 'illiberal democracy' in Hungary, based on right-wing populism and a firm opposition to immigration.
Recent changes to the management of Hungarian universities renewed claims that Orban seeks to expand his control over the country's educational and cultural institutions and require that they instill patriotic values.
In 2018, Central European University, one of Hungary's premier postgraduate institutions, was effectively forced out of the country after amendments were passed to higher education law which were widely seen as targeting the university.
After sending the private university "into exile," Karacsony said, "now the government brings in another one which represents the ideology of the (Chinese) communist party and costs the Hungarian taxpayers billions. It is derogative for Budapest and derogative for Hungary."
In 2019, a rare student protest erupted at Fudan's Shanghai campus after China's Ministry of Education changed 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 train a new generation "loyal to the socialist cause," and to the CCP.