Does this scenario sound familiar? An illiberal and undemocratic leader of a country challenges the West. China seizes the opportunity and offers to build the leader a gigantic monument. The recipient government pays a small portion of the total cost up front while a Chinese state-owned bank provides a loan to cover the rest.
The project is then contracted out to a Chinese state-owned construction firm that proceeds to bring in most of the materials and workers from China. The locals will ultimately pay for the huge costs without benefiting from the building. Is this taking place in Africa, where this pattern has played out repeatedly? No, this is taking place in Budapest, the capital of Hungary, which is a member of the European Union.
What is at issue?
A memorandum of understanding was signed in April by Hungarian and Chinese officials for building in Budapest by 2024 a 64-acre satellite campus of Shanghai’s prestigious Fudan University — a first for a Chinese school in Europe.
The plan, although still in the initial stages, is already highly controversial.
It is partly because China is expected to lend the Hungarian government just under 80% of the funds for the project, or $1.5 billion, with the total cost estimated at over $1.8 billion. Also, the site of the campus will occupy an area where it was previously planned to construct affordable dormitories for Hungarian students.
Thousands of protesters marched on June 6 in the Hungarian capital, chanting slogans such as “Stop China,” “Treason,” “No Fudan,” “West not East” and “We will not be a colony.”
Coincidentally, last week I wrote about Beijing’s efforts to “improve the nation’s communication with the international community” and “to develop a voice in international discourse that matches China’s comprehensive national strength and international status.”
My suggestions seem to have not yet reached Chinese diplomats or academics in Hungary. They are neither feeling the pulse nor winning the hearts and minds of ordinary people, with the current situation in Budapest being a good example. The following are some of my personal observations:
Of, by and for the Chinese
Here is the gist of remarks made by a Hungarian journalist who was interviewed by India Today. If they prove to be true, the local Hungarians will never benefit from the Fudan campus project. And if that is the case, how can Beijing “make friends and win over the majority” of Hungarians?
Playing up to dictators
Hungary’s openly pro-China prime minister, Viktor Orban, defended the project, calling it an opportunity to educate more than 6,000 Hungarian, Chinese and other students, as well as a valuable resource that could attract research and other investments to the country.
Not everyone in Budapest is buying Orban’s attempt at justifying the deal. According to The Diplomat, his opponents are concerned not only about “academic freedom and quality of higher education,” but also of Beijing’s “expanding influence” and potential for “espionage” in the Central European country.
Gaining access and creating dependence, often with the use of bribes, is a common Chinese business practice. It works in China and in developing countries, but will it work in Europe?
Finally, Orban’s alliance with Beijing may be, at least to some degree, a secreted attempt to gain more leverage for Hungary in negotiations with the European Union. If so, Beijing’s tactics may eventually prove counterproductive in the years to come.
“All politics is local”
China must have underestimated how much political opposition the project would amass. The mayor of Budapest, Orban’s political enemy, for example, announced the city would rename streets surrounding the future campus with names such as Dalai Lama Street, Uyghur Martyrs’ Road and Free Hong Kong Road.
It is reported that a recent poll found that nearly two-thirds of Hungarians oppose the project, including members of Orban’s ruling party. The prime minister may have to reconsider the Fudan campus with parliamentary elections expected to take place in May of next year.
Hungary is the last stronghold
Facing this minicrisis, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said on June 7 that “We hope relevant individuals in Hungary will remain objective and rational, follow the science, and avoid politicizing or stigmatizing normal cultural and people-to-people exchanges with China.” I was literally astounded.
Such decades-old cliches will never carry much sway in Hungary, China’s last stronghold in Europe. Orban in the past two months twice blocked proposed European Union statements accusing Beijing of suppressing democracy in Hong Kong.
Japan’s development assistance
In contrast to the Chinese model, Japan’s overseas aid, as I recall, is more focused on the interests of the people in the recipient countries. Japan, with its official development assistance (ODA), tries to be mutually beneficial for both sides, operating under the motto of “helping others will eventually help you.”
If the recipients do not benefit, the assistance is not genuine. Experts in the field in Tokyo are proud of the nation’s accomplishments, with some stating that the support and human resources development in various fields that Japan has provided to developing countries through ODA has led to a current trust in Japan.
Of course, China can do the same.