Hungary appears to have backed off from a controversial project to build a Chinese university in Budapest after thousands took to the streets of the capital over the weekend amid concerns it could help Beijing increase its influence in Europe.
Conservative Prime Minister Viktor Orban's chief of staff, Gergely Gulyas, late on June 6 said that what would be the first Chinese university in the European Union was not even at the planning phase .
And once the plan took shape, in early 2023, "we support a referendum in Budapest to decide whether locals want Fudan University here," Gulyas told the pro-government news site Mandiner.
Orban has built friendly ties with China, Russia, and other illiberal governments, while repeatedly clashing with the EU by curbing the independence of the judiciary and media.
The campus is controversial in part because China is expected to lend the Hungarian government $1.5 billion to cover most of the costs of the project, which is slated to be built at a site where affordable housing for Hungarian students had previously been planned.
The government argues that having a campus of the Shanghai-based university would allow Hungarian and international students to acquire high-quality qualifications, but liberal Budapest Mayor Gergely Karacsony and other critics fear a lack of transparency and academic freedom.
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Beijing has defended the project, with a Foreign Ministry spokesperson expressing hope on June 7 that "the relevant people in Hungary will take an objective, rational, and scientific attitude, avoid politicizing and stigmatizing the normal personnel exchanges between China and Hungary, and maintain the overall situation of friendship and cooperation between the two countries."
Fudan University is ranked 160th in the world and seventh-best in China by U.S. News and World Report.
Karacsony, a top contender to challenge Orban in elections next year, has announced plans to rename streets surrounding the future campus the "Dalai Lama Road," "Uyghur Martyrs Road," and "Free Hong Kong Road" -- in reference to Chinese human rights abuses.
Orban's support for a Chinese university stands in contrast to his stance on Hungary's once leading private university.
In 2018, the Central European University was forced to relocate most operations to Vienna after Orban's government pushed legislation that drastically curbed its freedom.
The move against the university came as part of a public campaign against its founder, U.S. billionaire philanthropist George Soros -- a Budapest native.