Budapest renames streets in Chinese university protest

Activists next to a sign in a street renamed "Martyrs of Uighur" in Budapest on June 2, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

BUDAPEST (AFP) - Budapest has renamed streets around the planned site of a top Chinese university to protest against an "unwanted" project forced on it by Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government, the city's mayor said on Wednesday (June 2).

Four street signs at the site now bear the names "Free Hong Kong Road", "Uighur Martyrs' Road", "Dalai Lama Road" and "Bishop Xie Shiguang Road", referring to a persecuted Chinese Catholic priest.

"We still hope the project won't happen, but if it does, then it will have to put up with these names," Mr Gergely Karacsony told a joint press conference with the district mayor Krisztina Baranyi.

Currently derelict, the area is to house Fudan University's first European campus in a half-million-square-metre complex by 2024, according to a deal signed between Hungary and the Shanghai-based university's president.

But the sprawling project has fed growing unease about Hungary's diplomatic tilt from West to East and its soaring indebtedness to China.

Leaked internal documents revealed that China is expected to give a €1.3 billion (S$2.10 billion) loan to cover most of the estimated €1.5 billion cost.

"We don't want the elite and private Fudan university here at the expense of Hungarian taxpayers," said Mr Karacsony.

The liberal mayor has previously blasted "Chinese influence-buying" in Hungary and urged Mr Orban to honour a previous pledge not to force projects on the capital against its will.

A city-wide "consultation" to canvas the population's opinion on the project begins June 4, said Ms Baranyi.

Opinion polls show a majority of Budapest residents oppose the plan.

The government argues that a prestigious outpost of Fudan University, ranked 100th in the Shanghai Ranking, would permit thousands of Hungarian, Chinese and other international students to acquire high-quality diplomas.

It would also fit in with previously agreed plans to build a "Student City" dormitory project for thousands of mainly Hungarian students at the site, it says, although Mr Karacsony said the Fudan campus will take over most of that project's area.

Fudan is the latest landmark in Mr Orban's foreign policy of "Eastern Opening", which analysts describe as a geopolitical balancing act.

Critics portray the nationalist premier as China and Russia's "Trojan horse" inside the European Union and Nato.

Last month, Mr Karacsony announced he would run in a primary election organised by an alliance of six opposition parties to select a challenger to Mr Orban at a general election in early 2022.

Polls show the opposition alliance holds a narrow lead over Mr Orban's ruling right-wing Fidesz party, and that Mr Karacsony is currently the most likely to win the primary which will be held in September.

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