Thousands protest in Hungary against Chinese university's planned campus

People protesting outside Parliament in Budapest last Saturday. They say the Fudan University project reflects the PM's disregard for democratic values. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
People protesting outside Parliament in Budapest last Saturday. They say the Fudan University project reflects the PM's disregard for democratic values. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BUDAPEST • Thousands demonstrated against a Chinese university's planned campus in Budapest, saying the project reflects Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's disregard for democratic values.

Mayor Gergely Karacsony led the protest against the government-backed US$1.8 billion (S$2.38 billion) plan, which has mobilised opposition supporters in the capital ahead of next year's general election.

Last Saturday's rally was the first opportunity for residents to protest in the streets since the authorities eased Covid-19 restrictions.

The Fudan University project is the "moral suicide" of Mr Orban's governing Fidesz party, Mr Karacsony, the front runner to lead an opposition election alliance, said in a rally speech. "We're starting to take power back now for the 99 per cent of the population."

China denounced a decision by the Budapest city authorities last week to rename streets around the campus site with references such as the Dalai Lama and Free Hong Kong. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin called the symbolic protest "despicable".

Mr Orban's Cabinet had recently backed off calling the project a done deal and now says it is only a plan. Cabinet Minister Gergely Gulyas, a senior aide of Mr Orban's, said the campus is in Hungary's interest because Fudan is one of the world's top universities.

Mr Karacsony said he would use all tools at his disposal to counter what he called the government's drift away from Western democratic values in favour of closer ties with countries such as China.

The campus project has roiled residents and opposition officials, who claim it could allow closer surveillance of the European Union by China.

The area in Budapest's industrial south was initially designated for affordable student accommodation after years of rent increases. But the government dropped the housing plan and considered accepting a loan from China to build the Fudan campus.

The EU has already locked horns with Hungary over relations with China. Mr Orban has repeatedly vetoed joint statements critical of China, including one that expressed concern about the treatment of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 07, 2021, with the headline 'Thousands protest in Hungary against Chinese university's planned campus'. Subscribe