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“You Cannot Defend Liberal Democracy by Having Laws Against Foreign Interference”

Is Fudan University really a Trojan horse? How does the campus, planned in Budapest, fit into the context of global higher education and geopolitics? The latest roundtable discussion organized by the CEU Democracy Institute and the China in Europe Research Network explored questions around the Chinese university’s planned and widely debated Hungarian branch.

By Emese Dobos

Maria Adele Carrai (NYU Shanghai), David Goodman (Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou and University of Sydney), Simon Marginson (University of Oxford), Sigrun Abels (TU Berlin), Wolfgang Rohr (Tongji University and former Consul General for Germany in Shanghai) and Agnes Szunomar (Corvinus University of Budapest) joined the discussion Fudan Hungary and Its Context, moderated by Pal Nyiri (Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam).

No export of Marxism

David Goodman didn’t experience beat-ups as he was allowed to talk freely while teaching for a decade in China. He also emphasized that the planned Fudan campus in Budapest would not be the first example, as other universities have also been investigating going overseas. 

“Chinese universities should be able to have programs and campuses,"

he said, adding that students and researchers "buy what a university is." If you go to Australia, you also buy a belief system, similarly if you go to a Chinese university. He also added that he doesn't know whether it would be the case with Fudan in Hungary, as it is not clear where its students would come from.

According to him, the belief that the Fudan would be a center of spies is interesting and dates back to the Cold War. “Sharing ideas is fine. The export of Marxism is laughable,” he said citing the speech of Chinese President Xi Jinping at the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party: “People and nation were mentioned, but workers or proletarian revolution was not. It was about the notion of the middle-class in China and we know that is not a liberal democracy but the middle-class is pretty much the same in the USA,” he added.

The importance of cooperation

“It’s important to try to make these judgments about academic linkages in terms of academic linkages, not geopolitics,”

said Simon Marginson, adding that the Communist party and China’s state engagement influence the debate. “There has been a collaboration of Chinese and Western universities for decades and there is an enormous volume of combined scientific papers,” he said.

According to him, other issues apply here: domestic priorities versus internationalization and capacity-building at home, the use of resources, and foreign engagement. “Hybrid organizations are important to bring forward across cultural issues,” he referred to CEU, calling its demise in Hungary a tragedy, and also underpinned the importance of cooperation regarding global issues. “Hungary is putting up the barriers within the EU, it needs to engage internationally as much as possible," he said, adding that from this point of view Fudan in Hungary is "a blessing." 

The West goes to China as well. There are American universities all over China, he said. He thinks it is good that a Chinese university will have experience on working in the Western environment where

“it has to respect academic freedom and other norms and requirements.”

Simon Marginson believes that this exchange can help the understanding of cross-cultural problems, but also pointed out that domestic priorities are important and Fudan should not be there at the expense of Hungarian students or the development of local universities.

More transparency needed

According to Maria Adele Carrai it is a pity that the question of the new Fudan campus is politicized and leads to issues of democracy versus authoritarian regimes and a clash of civilizations. “There are differences, but we can help improve each other,” she said, adding that the economic terms of the project definitely need to be more transparent.

She also talked about national security, but she doesn’t think that the Fudan would be a spy harbor for China as there is already a large community of Chinese people in Hungary, for example because of the presence of Huawei Technologies.

“If they wanted to spy, they would have done that already,”

she said. News and media shape the story and envision a debt trap, related to the Belt and Road Initiative, she pointed out, adding that she was told that China would invest the same amount of money in 10 years.

David Goodman also mentioned that joint ventures of governments and universities are normal, but he is not sure that this project will go ahead. The reason behind it is not political:

“they want to keep Chinese students in China, not selling overseas,”

he said adding that having ideas and doing things are different. Simon Marginson agreed with Goodman in terms of the questionable feasibility of the Fudan campus in Hungary as Hungarian opposition parties could make it difficult, and elections are coming.

The international context

Sigrun Abels put the question of Fudan in German context. “We can observe fear and hesitant feelings in Germany on greater influence and academic freedom,” she said and admitted that the academic exchange between Germany and China was considered a success story. However, in recent years the popularity of such programs has decreased, and not only due to the pandemic, but also because of the changing political climate in China.

Expertise on contemporary China is very much needed, according to Abels, but these experts should be able to work without political influence.

“A branch of Fudan in Germany would not be possible at this moment,”

and democratic values have to be defended, she concluded.

According to Wolfgang Rohr, the core issue is scientific freedom of research and he emphasized the importance of its legal guarantees. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights was both signed and ratified by China and Hungary, and Hungary also signed the Declaration of Freedom of Scientific Research.

“The legal sphere covers that the governments have to respect the freedom of research and academic activities and international cooperation in scientific and cultural fields,”

he explained. In case academic freedom is disrespected, the government or the EU can step in, he pointed out. He doesn’t think that the Fudan project should be blocked.

The economic aspects

Agnes Szunomar gave an insight to the economic aspects of the Fudan project. According to her, there are three questions: Who is paying for the project? What is the source of financing? And how can Hungary benefit from it?

“Hungary will pay for it, completely, a small part would come from the government and the majority is Chinese state loan. That is not preferential at all,”

she said, adding that it is hard to estimate the benefits. “In theory, it can be a beneficial cooperation but the tuition fee is relatively high for an average Hungarian family, it won’t be affordable for the majority of the students and we do not know about any discounts,” she continued. It is still an open question how many students will come to study here.

“The other thing emphasized by the Hungarian government is that research and investment will flow to the country as a result. The governments have been talking about attraction of Chinese investment for decades but the share of it is only 3 percent in the FDI.

We haven’t really experienced major amount of Chinese investment coming in,”

she emphasized. According to her, the forthcoming elections also made the Fudan project into a hot topic in the campaign. “Without the financing and transparency issues, it would not be such a big playing field for the opposition,” she summarized.

Maria Adele Carrai emphasized that we should try to be more neutral discussing this topic as media sometimes take pieces of information out of context. “There is also the issue of independent knowledge. But what about Western values? It is not so independent in the USA either. We always live within some constraints, and we should look at ourselves. The political context also made it difficult in the USA,” she argued and added that there are different levels of narratives, and Hungary is considered to be the black sheep of Europe.

Simon Marginson then brought up the issues of open science and national security and the fact that there is also technology competition between countries, adding that

“we have to be capable of protecting the principles of open science.”

But David Goodman disagreed with him:

“According to open societies, the more open we are the more we benefit. That is the way how knowledge works.

Protectionism doesn’t work. So why would the protection of knowledge work better? We are all subverting our own liberal ideas by having the state involved in this way. And you cannot defend liberal democracy by having laws against foreign interference,” he emphasized. He also noted that legislations should target the use, not the creation of knowledge, adding that “we live in an increasingly polarized world that is uncomfortable. Differences set us against each other. But the more we mix, the less polarization we will have.”

The discussion was also covered by international media. You can read a summary by the Hungarian daily Nepszava (in Hungarian) here, by the Hungarian Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (also in Hungarian) here, and by Science|Business (in English) here.

Cover: The Guanghua Tower of the Fudan University. Source: Wikimedia Commons
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