China defends Hungary university plan following Budapest protest

Beijing dismisses criticism of controversial project, while Hungarian PM’s office hints at referendum on the issue.

China has defended its plan to build a university campus in Hungary after thousands of protesters in Budapest rallied over the weekend against the proposed opening.

Beijing on Monday warned critics of the Budapest campus, which is linked to Shanghai’s Fudan University and could open by 2024, against politicising and stigmatising the relationship between the two countries.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said the plan was “in line with the current trend of the times and the interests of all parties.

“We hope the relevant people in Hungary will take an objective, rational and scientific attitude, avoid politicising and stigmatising the normal personnel exchanges between China and Hungary, and maintain the overall situation of friendship and cooperation between the two countries.”

The plan has been backed by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban but is opposed by local authorities.

Some fear the campus could undercut the quality of higher education, help Beijing increase its influence in Hungary and the wider European Union, and undermine efforts to hold China accountable for alleged human rights abuses.

If the facility opens, it would be the school’s only foreign outpost, as well as the first Chinese university campus in the 27-nation European Union.

Local opposition

Budapest city authorities say the $1.9bn project would place a huge burden on taxpayers and send the wrong political message.

“Let’s make it clear whom we are not protesting against,” Budapest Mayor Gergely Karacsony told the protesters on Saturday. “We have our problem with dictators. … And we are not in the least protesting against Chinese people who live together with us peacefully in this marvellous city.”

He added in a statement on Monday: “What is unacceptable is when the Hungarian government serves the broadening of Chinese political-economic influence instead of Hungarian interests.”

Karacsony, a liberal opposition figure who plans to unseat Orban in Hungary’s next national election, last week announced he would rename streets in Budapest near the planned campus to highlight human rights violations by China.

Possible referendum

This year, Orban, a right-wing populist, has blocked several EU statements denouncing China’s record on human rights, angering his allies.

Hungarian officials insist that Fudan, ranked among the top 100 universities in the world, will help raise higher education standards in Hungary.

However, in an apparent nod to the plan’s critics, Orban’s chief of staff Gergely Gulyas on Sunday said Budapest residents would be able to decide in a referendum whether to proceed with the Fudan project once costs and other conditions had been finalised.

Public support for the campus is low, according to an opinion survey conducted last month, and Orban’s ruling Fidesz party has weak support in Budapest, so a referendum could turn out against the project.

Orban and Fidesz face their first competitive elections next year after three successive landslide wins since 2010.

Opposition parties have now united against Fidesz and, according to some polls, caught up.

Political observers said Orban may decide to bide his time on Fudan and return to the idea after the election.

“It is hallmark Fidesz to take two steps back to wait until the issue loses political steam, then attempt it again when it is more convenient politically,” Political Capital analyst Peter Kreko said.

Orban has abandoned unpopular projects before, such as a tax on internet traffic, a separate administrative court system and plans to privatise marinas at Lake Balaton.

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