BUDAPEST • Hungary appears to have backtracked on plans to build a Chinese university in the capital Budapest after thousands took to the streets over the weekend accusing the government of cosying up to China.
Opponents of nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban fear the planned US$2 billion (S$2.6 billion) campus could undercut the quality of higher education in the country and help Beijing increase its influence in Hungary and the European Union.
A senior aide to Mr Orban said late on Sunday that the university was not even at the planning phase, and once the plan took shape, in early 2023, it could be put to a referendum.
"Once the project's conditions are known, we support a referendum in Budapest to decide whether locals want Fudan University here," Mr Orban's chief of staff Gergely Gulyas told the pro-government news website Mandiner.
Mr Orban, a self-styled illiberal, has built cordial ties with China, including massive joint business projects, and has several times this year blocked EU statements denouncing China's record on human rights, angering his allies.
According to media reports, the government had been willing to pay for the construction of the Shanghai-based Fudan University's first campus in Europe with a Chinese loan. The campus would displace a planned local student housing area.
Public support for the campus is low, according to an opinion survey conducted last month, and Mr Orban's ruling Fidesz party has weak support in Budapest, so a referendum on the project could lead to it being abandoned.
Mr Orban and Fidesz face their first competitive elections next year after three successive landslide wins since 2010. Opposition parties have united against Fidesz for the first time and caught up with them in polls.
Political observers say Mr Orban could 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.
Mr 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.