Explained: Why Hungarians are protesting a plan to build China's Fudan University campus in Budapest
The tiff between citizens of Hungary and China seems to be escalating with thousands in Budapest on Saturday taking to the streets to object to the plans of Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government to build a campus of a top Chinese university in the city.
As per an AFP photographer, around 10,000 people marched through the Hungarian capital to protest the proposed campus of the Shanghai-based Fudan University which is planned for completion by 2024.
But why has the deal signed between Hungary and the Shanghai-based university's president to bring the 500,000 square metre complex, the university’s first in Europe, rubbed so many people the wrong way?
As per leaked internal documents, China is expected to advance a $1.6 billion loan to cover most of the estimated costs of the sprawling campus. For many Hungarians, that has fed unease about the country’s diplomatic tilt from the West to East and its soaring indebtedness to China as well as sparked a diplomatic spat between Beijing and Budapest's liberal mayor Gergely Karacsony.
With an opinion poll last week showing that a majority of Budapest residents oppose the plan the capital's liberal mayor Karacsony has urged Orban not to force unwanted projects on the city. Last week, 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.
Karacsony, who has previously blasted "Chinese influence-buying" in Hungary, added, "We don't want the elite and private Fudan university here at the expense of Hungarian taxpayers."
"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.
But Orban's government has argued 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.
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.
Meanwhile, Beijing is keen to maintain its presence in Hungary, the only EU country to use Chinese coronavirus vaccines. 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.
Saturday's protest "made no sense as the process is still at the planning stage," Tamas Schanda, a Hungarian government official, said Saturday, adding that final decisions would be made "in the second half of 2022".
‘Move beneath contempt’
China on Thursday blasted Hungarian politicians as "beneath contempt" after Budapest renamed streets over human rights flashpoints from Hong Kong to Tibet in protest against a planned branch of a top Chinese university. The four street signs around the planned site now bear names referencing sore topics that draw Beijing criticism abroad for alleged human rights violations.
China's foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin on Thursday accused Hungarian politicians of "hyping up China-related issues and hindering China-Hungary cooperation."
"Such behaviour is beneath contempt," Wang told a regular press briefing.
The street names are "Free Hong Kong road", "Uyghur Martyrs' road", "Dalai Lama road", and "Bishop Xie Shiguang road": named after a persecuted Chinese Catholic priest.
Wang's rebuke followed a call by Chinese president Xi Jinping for his country to show a softer face abroad and cultivate a "reliable, admirable and respectable image."
China's foreign ministry routinely decries foreign politicians for not toeing Beijing's line over issues from Taiwan to investigating the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic. Wang said relations between the two countries "enjoy a strong momentum development" and have "yielded fruitful results".
China's soft-power push abroad through media and education has come under fire in recent years, with critics in the West warning of Communist infiltration and pointing to Beijing's human rights violations. Confucius Institutes, organisations funded by China that offer Chinese language and culture classes, were targeted by the administration of former US president Donald Trump.
It called the institutes "an entity advancing Beijing's global propaganda and malign influence campaign on US campuses."