Thousands of Hungarians have protested against government plans to allow China’s Fudan University to build a campus in Budapest, citing fears that the €1.5 billion project will strengthen Beijing’s financial and political influence in Hungary.
Up to 10,000 demonstrators marched through Budapest on Saturday, a day after a senior German official denounced Hungary for blocking a European Union statement condemning China’s crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong – the second such incident in recent weeks that has focused attention on Budapest-Beijing ties.
Critics say the loan from Beijing for the Fudan project – which amounts to more than annual Hungarian spending on all its state-run universities – will place a heavy burden on taxpayers and largely bypass the national economy by funnelling cash straight to the Chinese firms that will do the building work.
They also worry that the scheme will move Hungary closer to authoritarian China, at a time when prime minister Viktor Orban’s nationalist government is accused of eroding civil liberties, democracy and the rule of law in his country, having pressured the liberal Central European University to leave Budapest for Vienna in 2019.
“We have our problem with dictators,” said Budapest mayor Gergely Karacsony, who is likely to be Mr Orban’s main challenger in the 2022 parliamentary election.
“And we are not in the least protesting against Chinese people who live together with us peacefully in this marvellous city,” he told the crowd, against the backdrop of an image of a pro-democracy protester blocking a tank on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.
On Sunday, Mr Karacsony urged all opposition leaders to pledge that the Fudan campus would not be built if any of them became prime minister next year.
“We protested not only against the Chinese communist university . . . But we stood against the theft of billions of Hungarian forints in public money,” he said. We stood up against the sneaky sale of Hungary’s sovereignty . . . we stood up not against the Chinese people but for our own country, for our own self-esteem.”
Mr Karacsony announced recently that several streets near the proposed site of the Fudan campus would be given new names to highlight Chinese rights abuses, such as “Dalai Lama Road”, “Uyghur Martyrs’ Road” and “Free Hong Kong Road”.
China has described Hungarian critics of its ties with Budapest as “contemptible” and Mr Orban’s allies have accused them of whipping up “political hysteria” and threatening a project that would benefit generations of students in Budapest.
For the second time in two months, Hungary on Friday blocked an EU statement strongly criticising China’s crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong.
“Common foreign and security policy cannot work on the basis of a blocking policy,” said German foreign office state secretary Miguel Berger.
“We need a serious debate on ways to manage dissent, including qualified majority voting.”