Prime Minister Viktor Orban has confirmed that Hungary will hold a referendum on a controversial project to build a Chinese university in Budapest after thousands of demonstrators took to the streets to protest against the plan.
The decision to build a Budapest campus by 2024 using a $1.5 billion loan from a Chinese bank has put a spotlight on Orban's close ties to Beijing and 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 Budapest’s liberal Mayor Gergely Karacsony and other critics fear a lack of transparency and academic freedom.
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Orban, who has notched three successive election landslides since 2010, faces stiff opposition for the first time in more than a decade, especially from the liberal mayor, Karacsony, who is eyeing a run against the right-wing nationalist at a general election next year.
Karacsony has long urged Orban not to force unwanted projects on the city, while a recent opinion poll showed that a majority of Budapest residents oppose the Chinese university campus, which is slated to be built at a site where affordable housing for Hungarian students had previously been planned.
"This has become a political issue and we should decide this in a way that is the most acceptable to all," Orban told a June 10 news conference days after plans to build what would be the first Chinese university in the European Union roiled the capital.
Last week the mayor announced that streets surrounding the project site were being renamed to "Free Hong Kong Road", "Dalai Lama Road", and "Uyghur Martyrs' Road" to highlight Chinese human rights sore points.
During his June 10 news conference, Orban dismissed accusations that allowing a Chinese campus would open the door to greater influence for Beijing.
"We are not afraid of the Communists, because we have defeated them once already," the prime minister said. "We know exactly what needs to be done and how, therefore, we consider economic cooperation with them and...education especially important."
Beijing has defended the project, calling on its critics to "avoid politicizing and stigmatizing the normal personnel exchanges between China and Hungary."
Orban 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.
Last month, a poll showed a neck-and-neck race between Fidesz and a joint list of six opposition parties.
According to the survey, the opposition platform had the support of 33 percent of respondents with Fidesz getting 32 percent.