Protests against the construction of a Chinese university in Budapest have energised the Hungarian opposition ahead of elections next year, and forced the government into a rare U-turn.
Outrage at plans to build a campus of Shanghai’s Fudan University became a rallying cry for the opposition, drawing thousands to protest in defiance of government regulations
Protests of more than 500 people are illegal, on Covid prevention grounds, although huge crowds can gather at football matches. So organisers planned multiple small protests across Budapest, which came together outside parliament, in Kossuth Square.
The project has allowed opponents of prime minister Viktor Orbán to turn the nationalist rhetoric he has deployed so successfully in recent decades against his own government.
“The Fudan University issue is about whether we will be a free nation,” city mayor Gergely Karácsony told the crowd, which was thousands strong. Protesters carried signs saying “Hungarian money for Hungarian universities” and “We will not be a colony”.
It was a show of strength that apparently alarmed the government. Overnight they pivoted position, to offer a referendum on the Chinese university, but said it would be held only after the general elections.
“This is a novel situation. It’s the first time that any Chinese investment has become a high-level political issue in Hungary,” said Péter Krekó, analyst at thinktank Political Capital. “The government seemed to be pretty committed to go along with this project, until it saw it could be an electoral issue.”
He said the government has a track record of pausing controversial ideas until they feel less politically vulnerable, in this case after the election. “It’s pretty sure that if they are re-elected they will re-implement it,” he said.
District mayor Krisztina Baranyi, who last year enraged conservatives by installing a Black Lives Matter sculpture, had grabbed global attention for the fight against the Fudan campus by renaming streets around the planned site to commemorate struggles for democracy and human rights inside China, including Dalai Lama Road and Free Hong Kong Road.
She dismissed the referendum promise as a “cheap trick” that aimed to divert attention from intensive planning and asset transfers expected before the poll, and vowed the campaign would continue.
“The people are determined to stop the Fudan [campus]. They came out to protest not because political parties called them, but because this is a project that doesn’t serve the public interest at all. There is nothing useful in it for them, but they have to pay its costs.”
Opinion polls show most residents of Budapest oppose the plan, including many who support Orbán’s Fidesz party, on the grounds that it will cost Hungarian taxpayers a great deal while offering little in return.
The site would be a first European outpost for Fudan, with the complex due for completion by 2024, under the deal signed with Hungarian authorities.
The estimated €1.5bn cost of the project would largely be paid for by Hungary, via a huge loan from China, leaked internal documents obtained by local outlet Direkt36 revealed. It will be built on a site earmarked to house low-income students.
Hungary will also be expected to cover maintenance costs and extremely generous academic salaries, the report said, but the state will not have a majority stake in the trust operating and overseeing the campus.
General elections due for next spring are expected to be the first time Orbán’s ruling rightwing Fidesz party will face a real threat at the polls after three successive landslide victories, because all the main opposition parties formed a broad alliance to oppose him.
The coalition of unlikely allies, from far-right Jobbik to Karácsony’s Green “Dialogue for Hungary”, are bound together by their desire to unseat Orbán, who has ruled and reshaped Hungary since 2010.
It was a tactic that brought Budapest and other main cities under opposition control in 2019, and they hope to repeat that next year. Opinion polls now give the coalition a narrow lead over Fidesz, although the elections are still a long way off.
The protests against the Fudan campus may help unify the opposition and mobilise and inspire their supporters, particularly now they have won a small victory.
In a written answer to questions, the Hungarian government said that the Fudan campus would not displace the planned “student city” and described the opposition tactics as “infantile”.
But in an apparent sign of concern, Orbán himself made an “extraordinary appearance at the otherwise regular government info press conference”, the statement said.
Orbán “underlined that Fudan University is collaborating with five German universities, with 24 Scandinavian universities and in the US they have academic partnership with Yale University. If they manage to protect their national security interests, we are capable of that, too.”
Critics point out that Orbán’s government recently forced a prestigious international university out of Budapest. The Central European University had to move its campus to Vienna, after its ability to issue degrees was revoked.
Orbán’s fierce anti-communist stance domestically has not hindered an enthusiastic embrace of China under an “Eastern Opening” policy. It has seen him bolster ties with massive joint business and infrastructure projects, while blocking recent EU statements denouncing China’s record on human rights.
But it has fuelled increasing unease inside the country, in part because of concerns about debt traps. Montenegro recently sought help from the EU staving off default on a $1bn highway loan from China, but was rejected.
Reports of the planned loan to build the Fudan campus come after years of concerns about a controversial $3bn Chinese-backed upgrade to the Budapest to Belgrade railway, an investment that under current projections could take hundreds of years to repay.
The Chinese embassy launched a fierce, though anonymous, attack on mayor Karácsony and protesters against Fudan, asking if speeches and signs carried by some in the crowd showed some “vicious intention”.
There were more than 1,000 comments, but none seen by the Observer suggested the statement had won over Hungarians. “Please note that this is Hungary (our country) and NOT China,” wrote Gabor Monos. “Please keep your railways and your universities. Do not interfere in our lives.”