Can a Lizard Compete With a Dragon?


The Fudan University website.

Photo by Postmodern Studio /

Hungary plans to establish the first overseas campus of China’s Fudan University in Budapest in 2024. The initiative raises an array of questions on the potential risks and opportunities the Hungarian higher education sector will consequently face.

Minister for Innovation and Technology, László Palkovics signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the president of Fudan University Xu Ningsheng in 2019 on establishing a new campus in Budapest.

The Hungarians hope the establishment of the campus will turn the country into a “regional knowledge hub” and attract large Chinese research and development companies, according to Levente Horváth, head of department and chief adviser of the National Bank of Hungary (MNB), who played a key role in shaping the agreement.

“In the long-term, the Budapest campus may become one of the most prestigious and international graduate school of Central and Eastern Europe,” János Setényi, an expert on education and head of Expanzió Humán Tanácsadó Kft. (Expansion Human Consulting Ltd.), explains to the Budapest Business Journal.

“From a Chinese point of view, since the 1980s Chinese universities were busy catching up with the top American universities. The catch-up game is now over, and in the top leagues Chinese institutions like Fudan can start their international expansion,” he argues.

“The scarcest global resource, however, is talent. Globally expanding universities are hunting for ‘beautiful minds’ in order to achieve innovation breakthroughs; Central and Eastern Europe is an ideal hunting field for talents.”

Setényi believes Hungary can gain from the process in three different ways. “Firstly, a new generation of talented Hungarians will graduate in a top Chinese university with direct access to the largest and most developed economy of the world,” he explains.

“Secondly, if Hungarian universities were able to create a unique innovation ecosystem with Fudan, hundreds of Hungaro-Chinese startups could be created with access to Europe and China at the same time. Finally, Fudan may become ‘an object of desire’ for all talented and ambitious Polish, Czech, Serbian, Greek or Russian students, and Budapest will reap the benefits of further globalization”, Setényi tells the BBJ. 

Promoting China

Paweł Paszak, a China expert of the Poland-based Warsaw Institute think tank, warns of some associated risks in terms of informal influence, however.

“The agreement can be used to promote Chinese politics, to establish contacts and reduce criticism of the Chinese Communist Party,” he cautions. Paszak adds that the removal of the “freedom of thought” passage from the university’s constitution in December 2019 also raises concerns.

When it comes to United States and its CEE concerns around security policy, academic integrity and intellectual property theft, Setényi says, “Chinese educational export is non-ideological. Central and Eastern Europe is 15-50 years behind Chinese technology.”

China may concern the United States, he says, but for the EU it seems to be a very different question. In 2020, China became the largest trading partner of the European Union (demoting the States into second place).

“Some weeks ago, EU and China signed a Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with strong German support. Furthermore, the EU is not a federal state and it has no coherent foreign policy. Some EU member states often criticize China, but bilaterally they are very pragmatic and positive about Chinese trade. We are living in a multipolar world and China is here with us,” Setényi says.

Tamás Matura, an assistant professor of Corvinus University, also thinks China knows the eyes of the world will be upon it.

“I believe Fudan takes its first European campus very seriously and will do everything to avoid even the slightest chances of political criticism. Therefore, I do not expect any controversial issues to happen at its campus in Budapest,” Matura tells the BBJ. 

Hungarian sinologist Gergely Salát believes Hungary may yet reap the dividends of its move. “China’s economic presence is marginal in the CEE region; only about 2% of Chinese investments to Europe go to the 16 countries of CEE, and trade is insignificant as well,” he says.

“The Hungarian side offered this opportunity to Fudan, together with the real estate for the new campus. If other country had made this offer, Fudan would have gone there.”

Predictions Difficult

According to Matura, it is hard to predict the impact of the establishment on the Hungarian higher education sector, as there is not much to know about the details of Fudan’s planned activities in Hungary.

“In case it intends to have mostly Chinese students, Hungary can benefit a lot. However, should it wish to have mostly Hungarian or European students, other Hungarian universities may have to face a painful drop in numbers, as many would rather choose Fudan. It is noteworthy that Fudan’s annual budget is bigger than Hungary’s total national budget for higher education, what means that Fudan’s means are beyond imagination compared to its Hungarian competitors,” Matura explains.

MNB chief adviser Horváth emphasized that Fudan is not coming to Hungary as a competitor. Quoting a Chinese proverb he said “No matter how strong the local dragon is, a lizard in another city can surpass it.”

One of the reasons why the hand Hungary has extended to Fudan is so controversial in some circles is that it follows the very public falling out the government here had with Central European University (CEU), founded by Hungarian-born U.S. financier George Soros.

The U.S. embassy, at least initially, publicly backed the CEU, but as a result of that arguement, the university says it has been forced to relocate its campus from Budapest to neighboring Vienna, where it now offers more than 80% of its courses.

“I do not think that the arrival of Fudan to Budapest is a deliberate message to the U.S., but it definitely shows that the Hungarian government wishes to keep the country’s doors open to all actors,” Matura explains.

Headquartered in Shanghai, Fudan University is ranked 34th in the QS World University Ranking with its 30,000-strong student population. According to the current plans, the new campus will be located in the former Buda City Hall on Úri utca and will accommodate 5,000 students.

Fudan University has previously partnered with Corvinus University on a double degree program. Its new campus will provide five faculties in the fields of economics, international relations, medicine, and engineering sciences.

The campus is expected to open in 2024, until when, and modelled on the existing Fudan-Corvinus cooperation, it plans to establish a double degree program with further Hungarian institutions such as the Semmelweis University (SOTE), the Budapest University of Technology and Economics (BME) and Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE).

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of  March 12, 2021.

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