Stop playing politics and focus on academic freedom

Hungary’s democratic opposition has used protest against the government’s plans to set up a Fudan University branch campus in Budapest to galvanise its supporters and unify its ideologically disparate parties ahead of next year’s general election.

Borrowing a trick frequently used by the authoritarian government to manipulate public opinion, the opposition mayor of the district where the campus is to be built, Krisztina Baranyi, announced a “consultation” in which people are invited to answer four questions about Fudan that are likely to generate strong opposition. (One such question is “Do you agree that a university in Hungary should operate with public funding, but provide no free education to Hungarian students?”)

As of 14 June, over 30,000 replies have been received, 99% of them negative. Based on these, Budapest’s opposition mayor and prime ministerial candidate Gergely Karácsony announced that “99% of Budapest residents say no to Fudan”, which he consistently refers to as “a Chinese Communist university”.

Regardless of whether playing the China card will provide sufficient traction in the election, it is unfortunate that liberal opposition politicians and commentators should resort to the bogeyman tactics characteristic of their nationalist opponents.

They describe the plans as a Trojan horse of Chinese “Communist” indoctrination and spying in Europe, imposed by China on a Hungarian government that is all too willing to sell out national interest for some cash.

Prominent opposition MP Bernadett Szél calls it “treason”. Media scholar Sükösd Miklós accuses the Hungarian government of betraying not just democracy but Western civilisation in its fight against a “Confucian” China building a global colonial empire.

Valid concerns

Such knee-jerk reactions stand in the way of reasoned debate. There is no question that the Hungarian government should not be able to override by executive fiat a long-planned student housing project and grant premium city land to a private Fudan Hungary Foundation that a future government will have no control over.

While a non-public university is not subject to public procurement laws, contracting planning and construction lock, stock and barrel to a Chinese engineering company that employs Chinese labour – as early reports suggested – would go against urban planning regulations and labour laws, though it would not be the first time for the government to invoke a “national strategic project” clause to do so.

Building the campus at a public expense equivalent to more than the yearly funding of Hungary’s entire public higher education is unjustifiable. Using risky Chinese loans to secure that funding is questionable.

Yet none of this means that a Fudan campus whose planning and construction respects local preferences and accords with Hungarian and European law could not, if carefully conceived and managed, reinvigorate higher education in Hungary and provide a platform for open intellectual exchange between China and Europe.

Rather than a Chinese government offensive, the project appears to have been pushed by György Matolcsy, governor of the Hungarian National Bank and a senior member of Hungary’s ruling nomenclature who presides over a semi-private education and research network that runs on money siphoned off from the bank and has already cooperated with Chinese institutions, including setting up a joint business degree between Fudan and the Corvinus University of Budapest.

The memorandum of understanding signed by the two governments appears to have been cobbled together hastily from suggestions by the Hungarian and Chinese parties (economics and artificial intelligence by the former, international relations and Chinese language by the latter) and lacks an overall vision.

Ironically, in announcing the agreement, Fudan illustrated the strength of Hungarian economics research by mentioning János Kornai, an economist widely known in China who has recently cautioned against Western scholars’ engagement with China in ways that may strengthen the Chinese government’s hand.

Protecting academic freedom

To be sure, Hungary’s announcement of the Fudan plan fits a worrying political rapprochement that has seen Hungary honouring China’s foreign minister with a state decoration, while vetoing European Union statements condemning rights violations in China.

Its current government, which has stripped the Central European University of its accreditation and universities of their autonomy, has little interest in academic freedom.

But under a different government, Fudan’s Budapest campus may yet be turned into a platform for uncensored academic conversation and teaching. Hungarian, and by extension European, accreditation will be an important factor in attracting both Chinese and non-Chinese students. It will also be important for Fudan and for the Chinese government, as it provides access to European academic networks with the recognition (and funding) they entail.

Accreditation should be conditional upon strict provisions that ensure respect for academic freedom, transparency and institutional and departmental autonomy in the recruitment of staff and students, in developing a system of scholarships and in regulating mobility between the Shanghai and Budapest campuses, backed by institutional guarantees.

If Hungary’s opposition politicians are truly concerned with academic freedom and fairness, they should, rather than rejecting Fudan as a “communist Trojan horse”, introduce legislation that makes requiring such guarantees possible and make it clear that they will support the campus if, and only if, these conditions are met and a transparent and fair planning process is implemented.

Whether Fudan and its government minders will accept such conditions is anyone’s guess, but given the high stakes attached to the reputation of the first Chinese university campus in the West, it is not inconceivable that they might.

If they do not, this will at least start a thinking process that will need to accompany the likely globalisation of Chinese higher education in the near future. And if they do, it will be a valuable achievement not only for those who are keen to engage with Chinese scholars and students but are unwilling to sacrifice academic freedom, but also for Fudan faculty and students whose fetters may be loosened when they spend time in Budapest.

Pál Nyiri is professor of global history from an anthropological perspective at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in the Netherlands.