BUDAPEST -- A controversial Chinese university project is becoming a contested political issue in Hungary and pushing Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s dealings with Beijing into the national spotlight ahead of parliamentary elections in 2022.
At the heart of the controversy are government plans to build a $1.8 billion satellite campus for Shanghai’s Fudan University in Budapest. Leaked documents show the government would take out a $1.5 billion loan from a Chinese bank to cover the majority of the costs and use Chinese contractors to complete the project by 2024.
The plans have galvanized Hungary’s disparate opposition -- which plans to select a single candidate to go head-to-head against Orban next year -- and provided a political rallying call for the prime minister’s opponents as they scrutinize his government’s close ties with Beijing.
After a series of media investigations over the campus plans that sparked a backlash, Budapest Mayor Gergely Karacsony -- who opposes the plan and is eyeing a run against Orban as the opposition’s candidate -- announced that streets surrounding the project site were being renamed Free Hong Kong Road, Dalai Lama Road, and Uyghur Martyrs' Road to highlight sensitive issues around China’s human rights record.
That was followed by protests in Budapest on June 5, where thousands took to the streets to demonstrate against plans for the university, which is slated to be built at a site where affordable housing for Hungarian students was previously planned, and opinion polls show is unpopular among the electorate.
“The government wants to put more than [$1.5 billion] of debt on us because of [Fudan University], which takes money from the pockets of every Hungarian, as this debt must be paid by our children and even our grandchildren,” Karacsony told RFE/RL.
Orban's chief of staff, Gergely Gulyas, appeared to backtrack after the protests, saying no final decision had yet been taken and that plans for the campus would be "ready for public discussion" by 2023.
On June 10, Orban confirmed that the issue would be put to a referendum.
"This has become a political issue and we should decide this in a way that is the most acceptable to all," Orban said.
The back-and-forth sets up a prolonged and tense political showdown in Hungary as the country prepares for the 2022 parliamentary elections.
Opposition parties have finally united against Orban’s Fidesz party as the prime minister faces what appear to be the first competitive elections after three successive landslides since 2010. The opposition has caught up with Fidesz in the polls and chosen Orban’s chummy China ties and the Fudan University plans as an early target in the long campaign.
“The referendum should be nationwide. It should be about China’s debt and the prospects of rural youth,” said Karacsony. “We didn’t protest against the Chinese people but against the underhanded sale of Hungary's sovereignty.”
Chinese Ties In The Spotlight
Foreign policy issues generally don’t resonate with the population, according to analysts and polling, but Hungary’s opposition is hoping Orban’s relationship with Beijing and the details surrounding the Fudan University project can be a useful way to frame larger issues about the government.
“China itself has very limited potential as an issue,” Gabor Toka, a senior research fellow at Central European University, told RFE/RL. “But it can grow because it is an issue that is symptomatic of wider concerns to do with transparency and corruption that get to the very core of the current government.”
Hungary signed a strategic agreement with Fudan University on April 27 that would open a campus in Budapest in three years.
The deal would make it the first Chinese university in the European Union and the first foreign outpost for the prestigious Shanghai-based school, which the Hungarian government says will raise higher-education standards in the country.
But the project quickly sparked controversy and became unpopular with voters.
Around two-thirds of Hungarians do not support building the university, according to the liberal think tank Republikon Institute. The same poll also showed that one-third of Orban voters disagreed with the project.
“The Fudan deal is a very bad deal and it’s hard to sell to the people,” said Toka, who monitors polling and data around Hungarian elections.
Documents obtained in early April by Direkt36, a Hungarian investigative-journalism outlet, showed the large and opaque loan that the government would be taking out from a Chinese lender.
A separate investigation by Direkt36 showed that plans for the campus date back to 2019, when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Hungarian politicians that the university in Budapest was a “top priority” for Beijing.
Hungary has built close ties with China over the years, which have expanded since Orban returned to power in 2010 and launched an "Eastern Opening" policy meant to cultivate close ties with Beijing and Moscow in order to attract investment and economic opportunities following the global financial crisis.
Since then, Orban has forged relations with other illiberal governments, while repeatedly clashing with the European Union by curbing the independence of the judiciary and the media.
Budapest has also angered allies by blocking critical statements from the EU on China's record on human rights several times this year and, in April, Chinese President Xi Jinping thanked Orban for “safeguarding the overall China-Europe relations.”
Chinese investment in Hungary remains low, but Orban’s ties with Beijing have led to other high-profile projects.
Hungary took out a 20-year, $1.9 billion loan in 2020 from Beijing to build a railway link that would connect Budapest with the Serbian capital, Belgrade. But the project remains controversial at home and across the region due to delays and a lack of transparency.
In April 2020, the Hungarian parliament voted to give the government extraordinary emergency powers on the premise of combating the pandemic, but it also voted to keep all details around the railway project classified.
Gearing Up For 2022
Despite the reaction against plans for the Fudan University campus, targeting China ties is a difficult political tightrope for the opposition, analysts say.
While opinion polls show a majority of Hungarians have negative views toward China, opposition figures are looking to keep the discussion grounded within Hungarian domestic politics.
Karacsony announced that he and other opposition figures plan to write a letter addressed to Xi saying that if they win the election the plans for Fudan University in Budapest will be canceled.
But the mayor has also looked to frame the issue around the Orban government’s democratic backsliding and lack of transparency, rather than specifically targeting Beijing.
"Although we are worlds apart on human rights…we really just don't want a Chinese elite school built at the expense of Hungarian taxpayers," Karacsony told the June 5 rally.
Since backtracking and announcing a referendum, the Orban government has sought to both defend its position and deflect the blowback from the decision after next year’s election.
While no date has been set and there is no clarity about whether it would be a national or only citywide vote, comments from Gulyas indicate that any referendum would take place once plans for the campus are finalized, which the Orban aide has said wouldn’t be ready until 2023.
“To cancel the plans would be too much of a loss of face for China,” Philippe Le Corre, an expert on China and Europe at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told RFE/RL. “[Orban] can’t let China lose face in this way.”
Orban also appears to be turning his attention to other issues that resonate with the electorate, such as migration, which polling shows is still seen as a top concern by a plurality of voters.
During a radio interview on June 11, the prime minister said that as the pandemic is being reined in, migration will once again become a top issue in European politics as he warned that “legions of migrants are banging on almost all European doors.”
“People have many reasons to make their minds up about this government, but it won't be made over China,” said Toka. “The Orban government is a well-oiled machine and savvy with their PR. They know how to get their message out there.”