Backlash against Chinese campus gives Orban pause
Gergely Karacsony, mayor of Budapest, renamed several streets in the Hungarian capital last week. Free Hong Kong Road, Dalai Lama Street, and Uyghur Martyrs’ Road converge at a location in the city believed to be home to the first European outpost of China’s Fudan University. China’s foreign ministry said Karacsony’s coup was “despicable”.
It took a little longer for the message to reach Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who made the Fudan campus a flagship project to woo Beijing. Over the weekend, thousands of Hungarians marched through Budapest to protest against the Fudan Project, forcing the Orban government to apparent withdrawal. No final decision on the project has yet been taken, his ministers said, and none will be taken until next year’s parliamentary elections. It would then be submitted to a referendum in the capital.
No decision made? Just six weeks ago, the Hungarian government signed a detailed agreement with the Chinese authorities for the new 520,000 square meter campus that can accommodate up to 8,000 students and 500 teachers, with a sports venue and a training center. conference. Few costs or funding details were disclosed, but Direkt36, an investigative media outlet, obtained government documents Estimate the cost of the construction is 1.5 billion euros, more than the entire Hungarian higher education budget for 2019. Much of it would be financed by a Chinese loan.
Orban maintains increasingly close ties with Beijing through its policy of “opening up to the East”. China is building a new railway between Budapest and Belgrade financed by another loan. Hungary is home to the Huawei telecommunications group‘s largest supply hub outside of China. And Hungary recently gave Beijing a helping hand by vetoing EU statements condemning the democratic setback in Hong Kong. But the Fudan campus was probably the powerful symbol of the Hungarian prime minister’s accession to Communist China. Two years ago, Orban ignored criticism from the West and pushed the Central European University, a liberal institution endowed by financier George Soros, out of Budapest.
But Orban had not counted on the unpopularity of his Fudan project. A public opinion poll suggested that two-thirds of Hungarians were against it. Not only is this a big expense for a small, relatively poor country, the campus would relocate a new neighborhood planned for low-income students from outside the capital.
The backlash suggests that public opinion in Europe is increasingly reluctant to accept expensive Chinese projects that leave a heavy burden on future generations. Perhaps this is why details of the rail link with Serbia were made state secrets last year. Hungarians will find a warning in little Montenegro, which has asked the EU to help it repay a Chinese loan for a road project which, by the kilometer, was one of the most expensive in the world.
Orban aside, Eastern Europeans have been cooling China for some time. Several EU countries snubbed Chinese President Xi Jinping in February, when they failed to send their prime ministers or presidents to a meeting of the 17 + 1 group, set up to strengthen the infrastructural – and political – ties between the region and China. Lithuania have completely withdrawn from the 17 + 1 club. Increasingly, it seems that the strongest resistance is coming from big cities ruled by liberal mayors, like Budapest and Prague.
Fudan’s backlash could also have political consequences for Orban. The protests, the first since the pandemic, have helped galvanize the opposition movement ahead of next year’s elections. Opposition parties hope to join forces in an attempt to overthrow Orban’s Fidesz.
Karacsony reinforced his claim to be the best opposition leader for the job. He attributed the withdrawal of Fudan’s government to “community power”. He used the protests to make his point: that Orban now serves the interests of a wealthy elite, rather than ordinary Hungarians, like those poorer young people from the provinces whose homes would be occupied by students from Fudan.
As historian Eva Balogh puts it, it is the “Fidesz winning rhetoric of the past decade” that is now being successfully deployed against Orban himself.