BUDAPEST -- Hungary's parliament has approved a proposal to donate state land to build a controversial Chinese university in Budapest despite a storm of local protests and criticism that the government is getting overly cozy with Beijing.
Lawmakers of Prime Minister Viktor Orban's ruling Fidesz party on June 15 voted overwhelmingly to donate several plots along the Danube River to the Fudan Hungary University Foundation.
That group will be in charge of the campus, which is slated to be built at a cost of around $1.8 billion at a site where affordable housing for Hungarian students had previously been planned.
The law requires the government to present the final plans of the project to parliament by the end of 2022, following a general election.
Orban said last week that the project would be put to a referendum.
The plan is unpopular in Budapest and nationally, with thousands of demonstrators taking to the streets of the capital this month to protest against it.
The decision to build the campus by 2024 using a $1.5 billion loan from a Chinese bank has raised concerns about the long-term impact of such a project on the country's higher-education system.
The government has argued that having a campus of the Shanghai-based Fudan University would allow Hungarian and international students to acquire high-quality qualifications.
But critics fear a lack of transparency and academic freedom.
Orban, who has notched three successive election landslides since 2010, faces stiff opposition for the first time in more than a decade, especially from Budapest's liberal mayor, Gergely Karacsony, who is eyeing a run against the right-wing nationalist in April 2022.
Earlier this month, Karacsony renamed streets surrounding the project site "Free Hong Kong Road", "Dalai Lama Road," and "Uyghur Martyrs Road" to highlight Chinese human rights sore points.
Orban has dismissed accusations that allowing a Chinese campus would open the door to greater influence for Beijing, which has also defended the project.
The Hungarian prime minister has built friendly ties with China, Russia, and other illiberal governments, while repeatedly clashing with the EU by curbing the independence of the Hungarian judiciary and media.
Orban's government this month blocked a proposed EU text criticizing Beijing's recent actions in Hong Kong, where it has dramatically boosted its reach on political and security affairs and cracked down hard on a major pro-democracy movement.