Hungarians protest PM Orban’s Chinese university plan

The university project has fed unease about Hungary’s diplomatic tilt from west to east and its soaring indebtedness to China

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Budapest (AFP)

Thousands of Hungarians demonstrated in Budapest Saturday against a plan by Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government to build a campus of a top Chinese university in the city.

Around 10,000 people, according to an AFP photographer, marched through the Hungarian capital to protest the proposed Fudan university campus which is planned for completion by 2024.

According to a deal signed between Hungary and the Shanghai-based university’s president, the campus, its first in Europe, would be a 500,000 sq metre (5m sq ft) complex.

But the sprawling project has fed unease about Hungary’s diplomatic tilt from west to east and its soaring indebtedness to China, as well as sparked a diplomatic spat between Beijing and Budapest’s liberal mayor.

Leaked internal documents revealed that China is expected to give a €1.3bn ($1.6bn) loan to cover most of the estimated €1.5bn costs.

“No Fudan! West, not East!” read one placard at the protest, while another accused Orban and his ruling right-wing party Fidesz of cosying up to China.

“Orban and Fidesz portray themselves as anti-communists but in reality the communists are their friends,” Szonja Radics, a 21-year-old university student, told AFP at the protest, the first major demonstration in Hungary this year.

– Streets renamed –

With an opinion poll last week showing that a majority of Budapest residents oppose the plan the capital’s liberal mayor Gergely Karacsony has urged Orban not to force unwanted projects on the city.

On Wednesday he announced the renaming of streets around the proposed campus site to “Free Hong Kong road”, “Dalai Lama road”, and “Uyghur Martyrs’ road” to highlight Chinese human rights sore points.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said Thursday that the move was “beneath contempt” but added that it shouldn’t affect the project.

Orban’s government argues that a prestigious outpost of Fudan university would permit thousands of Hungarian and international students to acquire high-quality qualifications.

It would also fit in with an older plan to build a “Student City” dormitory project for thousands of Hungarian students at the site, it insists, although Karacsony, who is eyeing a run against Orban at a general election next year, fears the Fudan campus would take over most of the area.

Saturday’s protest “made no sense as the process is still at the planning stage,” Tamas Schanda, a government official, said Saturday, adding that final decisions would be made “in the second half of 2022”.

Fudan is the latest landmark in Orban’s foreign policy of “Eastern Opening”, which analysts describe as a geopolitical balancing act.

Critics portray the nationalist prime minister as China and Russia’s “Trojan horse” inside the European Union and Nato.

The courting of Fudan, which deleted references to “freedom of thought” from its charter in 2019, also fuels concerns about academic freedom in Hungary.

In 2018, the Central European University, founded by liberal Hungarian-born US billionaire George Soros, said it was “forced out” of Budapest to Vienna after a bitter legal dispute with Orban.

© 2021 AFP