Orban’s Campus Land Grant Strengthens China’s EU Foothold

Hungary plans to donate land for a Chinese university campus in Budapest despite objections from the city’s mayor and rising European Union criticism over Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s pursuit of closer ties with the communist leadership in Beijing.

Hungary will donate state-owned land in the south of the capital to a foundation charged with establishing a satellite campus for Fudan University, according to a bill submitted to parliament on Wednesday.

Attracting Fudan is a symbolic project for Orban, who ousted the George Soros-founded Central European University from Budapest in what the EU’s top court last year ruled violated the bloc’s rules. The government pledges to help the foundation via “asset transfers, budget financing and donations,” according to the text of the bill.

Construction, which the Hungarian cabinet estimates will cost around 540 billion forint ($1.8 billion), is planned to be financed partly by a loan from China, investigative news portal Direkt36 reported. The setup is similar to a that of a freight rail link between Budapest and Belgrade under Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative.

According to plans obtained by Direkt36, Hungary would provide around 100 billion forint. The rest would come from a loan from the China Development Bank, which is offering interest rates that are higher than loans from the EU’s pandemic relief fund that Hungary, for now, has chosen to forego.

But the site of the future Fudan campus has triggered a clash with the opposition-run Budapest government, which had already designated the land for affordable housing for thousands of Hungarian university students.

Mayor Gergely Karacsony, an opposition frontrunner to mount a challenge for the prime minister’s seat against Orban in next year’s elections, said on Wednesday he “won’t yield a single square centimeter” to the Fudan project. Orban’s administration has argued that the two projects aren’t mutually exclusive.

Orban has irked the EU with his embrace of China by sidestepping the bloc’s drugs regulator to procure the Sinopharm vaccine against Covid-19 and his participation in the Belt and Road initiative.

This week his government was the lone veto this week of an EU statement on China over its crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong, a move German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called “absolutely incomprehensible.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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