Between their democratic transition and later accession to the European Union, Hungarian foreign policy paid little mind to its relations with China, focusing instead on Euro-Atlantic integration. However, a new phase began in 2003 as Budapest realized the potential behind China’s growth and began prioritizing Sino-Hungarian relations. As a result, bilateral economic and cultural relations began to intensify:
- The Hungarian Consulate in Shanghai reopened after 14 years.
- A direct flight between Beijing and Budapest was launched.
- The Hungarian-Chinese Bilingual Primary School opened in Budapest.
- A special Prime Ministerial Envoy was tasked with overseeing and managing the development of Hungary’s political, economic and cultural relations with China.
- In 2006, Hungary inaugurated its first Confucius Institute (CI) in the country’s largest university, Eötvös Loránd (ELTE), and student exchange programs between the two began rapidly expanding.
“Eastern Opening” foreign policy
Fidesz maintained this pragmatic policy shift after the 2010 general election, and in 2011 Hungary officially announced its new foreign economic strategy, the so-called “Eastern Opening,” cementing the second Orbán cabinet’s “interests-based” multilateral foreign policy approach, equally prioritizing both its Western alliances and special relationships with China and Russia. Over the next ten years, almost a dozen high-profile meetings took place between the Hungarian and Chinese head-of-governments. Hungary, for example, was the first European country to join the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013.
During the 2014 China-CEE summit in Belgrade, prime ministers Viktor Orbán of Hungary, Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia, and Li Ko-Jiang of China signed an agreement on the modernization of the Budapest-Belgrade railway line, an investment worth €1.9 billion, as part of the New Silk Road. One of the notable signature projects is the planned establishment of the Fudan University campus in Budapest, a first of its kind on the European continent and the European Union, estimated to cost €1.68 billion for Hungarian taxpayers. Widespread protests organized by the opposition in 2021 have caused uncertainties about the fate of this project. However, the potential malign influence of increased covert operations executed through the future Chinese staff of the campus in the capital is secondary to the public’s concern over the project’s rampant corruption and the fact that the university is set to replace a planned “dormitory quarter” for Hungarian students at the same site.
Although touted as a great success by government officials, promised economic gains of its “Eastern Opening” strategy are questionable. Hungary was unable to attract a significant amount of Chinese investment, forcing the country to partially finance signature projects such as the Belgrade-Budapest railway line and Fudan University. Hungary has a substantial trade deficit with China, and this has not changed significantly either in the last ten years. Furthermore, Hungarian enterprises were not competitive enough to enter the Chinese domestic market in any significant way. According to multiple analyses, the structure of Hungary’s external economic activity (trade, investment) did not change substantially between 2010 and 2020. Thus, despite the Orbán-governments’ efforts, the Eastern Opening strategy did not increase Hungarian companies’ access to Chinese Markets.
Chinese educational institutions in Hungary
While economic gains remain tenuous, cultural relations have been slightly more dynamic over the last ten to 15 years. In September 2004, the first Chinese educational institution opened in Budapest. The Inception of the Hungarian-Chinese Bilingual Primary School marked the beginning of Sino-Hungarian educational cooperation, with programs such as the 2006 ELTE Confucius Institute following soon after. The dynamic of academic relations reached its height between 2012 and 2015, with the first Bilateral Educational Cooperation Plan paving the way for four more Confucius Institutes across the country: the Szeged CI established in autumn 2012, the Miskolc CI in August 2013, Pécs CI in March 2015 and the Debrecen Confucius Institute in 2019. Since 2014, ELTE has also hosted a teacher training center serving the Central and Eastern European Confucius Institutes.
These Institutes regularly host cultural events and provide Chinese-language education and student exchange programs in order to strengthen China’s soft power in the country, whereas CIs are considered highly controversial in Western countries, and they are often banned based on national security concerns. Though often accused of spreading Chinese state propaganda and being used as a cover organization for intelligence operations, Hungarian educational or governmental partners have avoided voicing such national security and politically sensitive concerns due to their desire to please Beijing. ELTE’s institution remains the most important CI in Hungary due to its role as a national hub, and because it has the longest history and largest staff out of all CIs in the country. ELTE CI also provides Confucius Classrooms for the Hungarian-Chinese Bilingual Primary and Secondary School in Budapest. Since September 2016, Hungarian-Chinese Bilingual Primary School has been operating as a Secondary School as well, serving the largest Chinese minority community in Central Europe, with tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants living in Budapest alone. CIs are also playing an important (but not dominating) role in China-related tertiary education all over the country, especially in language education.
In Hungary, most higher education institutions are currently owned and operated by public-trust foundations. The Hungarian state created these special foundations following the latest restructuring of its higher education system. During the reform, most state-run universities were transferred to these foundations, whose boards (filled with government officials and pro-government businessmen) have full authority over the institutions. This reform provides total informal control for Fidesz over all of these universities, including decision-making and asset management. Consequently, the vast majority of Hungarian universities are essentially privately owned (either by public-trust foundations, churches, or other private organizations) while being financially supported by the state. Only five universities and one college are still actually operated by the state.
Our research identified 53 higher education and research institutions that are state-owned or private institutions financed by the Hungarian state. Five of these universities host Confucius Institutes. We also contacted the central office of the Hungarian Science Academy, bringing the total to 63 organizations covered in our database.
We were able to gather information on 40 out of 63 institutions based on their data provided or desk research concerning publicly available records on institutional websites. The remaining 23 institutes either do not have Chinese connections, or they did not disclose it on any publicly available source. Out of those 40 institutions, 30 have or had some kind of link to Chinese institutions, with a total of 116 connections identified with different Chinese organizations. According to the available information, 41 connections were based on formal cooperation agreements, with most of them focused on either student exchanges or research cooperation during a joint project or publication. The most prevalent areas for cooperation are STEM and medical sciences.
We used a recent study and database of the ASPI China Defense University Tracker to estimate the possible risks associated with every connection. According to the ASPI China Defence Universities Tracker, out of the 116 connections, eleven were established with very high-risk Chinese counterparts, nine with High-Risk, 16 with medium-risk, and eight with low-risk organizations. According to ASPI, out of 116 connections, one was established with an organization having top-secret security credentials, and 23 were established with organizations that have secret security credentials. Based on this data, we can say that almost 40% of the connections pose risks of some sort since. Still, currently, there are no state regulations or higher-education guidelines available on cooperation with entities based in authoritarian regimes. According to the information available, the most affected institution is the Ludovika University of Public Service, which has student exchange and research cooperation with several public service universities of the Chinese state.
Overall, according to available information, our risk assessment of Chinese academic influence is in the low-medium threshold in Hungary since most of the connections are focused on student exchanges. A widespread issue with academic cooperation was the lack of transparency among the targeted institutions. With few exceptions, we had to rely on desk research since most of the organizations either refused to cooperate or did not reply, probably given the academic or political sensitivity of the issue. The possible scope of the desk research was also constrained by the lack of detailed information available on the institutions’ official pages. Since there are no state-issued guidelines on China-related cooperation, these connections and the operation of Confucius Institutions are unchecked and unconstrained by Hungarian authorities.
On the contrary, the government has been pushing for more Chinese academic and economic cooperation as well as lobbying for the establishment of CIs. The planned establishment of Fudan University in Budapest and the large presence of Huawei in Hungary are both welcome, positive consequences of the government’s Eastern Opening strategy in the cabinet’s rhetoric.
Ultimately, the relatively high number of Chinese diaspora and students can pose some security risks – since, according to reports by investigative journalists, they are frequently used for “citizen intelligence” activities by Chinese secret services, as well as for leveraging increased political and economic influence. This does not mean that all Chinese individuals arriving in Hungary are spies or that their activities are directed against Hungary. Still, some of the Hungarian Government’s policies have certainly provided an opportunity for Chinese intelligence operations, according to a piece by investigative portal Direkt36. Since 2018, Hungary and the Central and Eastern European regions have become a collision zone between the US and China, meaning most of these intelligence operations are not explicitly focused on Hungary but rather on collecting information on their American Allies. Therefore, in our opinion, most of the risks could be mitigated by an increased level of transparency about relations to PLA-connected institutions and a set of state-issued or professional guidelines to help assess the levels of risk posed by such connections.