Viktor Orbán wants a Chinese university in Hungary. Opponents see a chance to turn his nationalist rhetoric against him

However that was prior to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s populist federal government revealed a questionable strategy for a distinguished Shanghai university to open its very first abroad school there in 2024 — which Hungarians would obviously spend for.

Now demonstrations over the future of this nondescript website have galvanized Hungary’s opposition, and joined them in an effort to fall Orbán’s ruling celebration at next year’s basic election.

Not that it’s injured Orbán’s political fortunes. His conservative Fidesz celebration has actually taken pleasure in landslide election wins, with no major political opposition outside Budapest.

However the proposed Fudan University school has actually ended up being a powerful problem.

The Fudan campus is planned for construction at this site in Budapest, Hungary, seen on April 23, 2021.
Its critics indicate the big expense to Hungary, cautioning that taxpayer cash would be utilized to serve the interests of China’s Communist Celebration. What’s more, they state the school would be constructed on land slated for inexpensive real estate for around 10,000 Hungarian trainees.
Countless protesters required to the streets in Budapest last month to oppose the strategy, bring placards emblazoned with the word “treason” and mottos such as “Hungarian money for Hungarian universities.”

Orbán has actually made excellent political capital out of promoting “traditional” Hungarian worths. The opposition now seems serving the populist leader a dosage of his own medication.

The Fudan University debate is “about whether this small country of 10 million can finally decide its own fate, about whether we will really be a free nation,” opposition leader and Budapest Mayor Gergely Karácsony informed demonstrators in the capital, according to regional media reports.

“To an extent right now, the opposition has turned Orbán’s rhetoric against him,” stated Péter Krekó, director of Budapest-based think tank Political Capital.

Krekó stated Orbán had actually embraced a picture of himself as “the greatest defender of sovereignty — from the United States, from Brussels, from Berlin.”

Now the Prime Minister is efficiently unlocking to Chinese interests — and “that’s hard to explain” to citizens, he stated.

“China’s image in central eastern Europe is not very favorable,” included Krekó. “This is something that can be easily exploited by the opposition.”

Orbán looks East

In an extreme relocation, 6 of Hungary’s opposition celebrations are putting aside their political distinctions to run collectively versus Fidesz in 2022’s parliamentary election.

They consist of Karácsony’s green celebration, Discussion for Hungary, the previous reactionary celebration Jobbik, and young centrist celebration Momentum.

This opposition union is yet to reveal its prospect for prime minister, though the pro-European Union (EU) Karácsony is thought about the frontrunner.

In a joint letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping on June 22, the opposition leaders stated that, if chosen next year, they would “immediately halt” the university task and another prepared Beijing-backed train link in between Budapest and Belgrade.
Hungary and China concurred a 20-year, $1.9 billion loan offer for the train, to be constructed by a consortium of Hungarian and Chinese companies.

However similar to the university school, the train has actually been slammed in Hungary over an absence of openness in federal government transactions with China.

The questionable service endeavors are all part of Orbán’s “Eastern Opening” policy. In the wake of the international monetary crisis and increasing stress with the EU, the Prime Minister has actually progressively looked for to bring in Chinese financial investment.

“I think Orbán really deeply believes in the decline of the West, and that the East is on the rise,” Krekó stated of the Prime Minister’s ideology. “And therefore, if you have to bet on who are the future leaders of the world, then it’s better to turn to China, than to the United States.”

Up until now, that policy has actually brought Hungary minimal financial outcomes. However it has actually produced closer ties in between the 2 nations. Hungary was the only member state to block an EU statement condemning China’s new security law in Hong Kong, and it was the first EU country to approve Chinese vaccines.
Budapest Mayor Gergely Karacsony, adresses protesters. The Winnie the Pooh toy is a reference to Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who critics say bears a resemblance to the character.

A broad alliance

This is not the first time Hungary’s opposition parties have joined forces. The same tactic paid off in 2019’s municipal elections when Karácsony scored a shock win against the Fidesz-backed Budapest mayor.

Whether they can replicate that success at a national level is another question.

Were Orbán to be defeated, it’s no secret that EU lawmakers would largely breathe a sigh of relief, said Dermot Hodson, associate professor of political economy at Birkbeck College, University of London.

Last month, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said Hungary “has no place” in the EU after the country passed a controversial new bill banning LGBTQ content in schools — the latest in a long list of provocations to the bloc’s core values.

For EU leaders, “Orbán has been a real headache in many ways,” said Hodson, describing Hungary as a “challenger government.”

“Pushing back against the European Union, but wanting to stay within it, is a very damaging combination,” he added.

After the recent protests, the government announced a public referendum on the university — but said it would be held after the election.

Meanwhile, Hungary’s Parliament — where Fidesz holds a supermajority — voted in mid-June to donate state-owned land to a foundation in charge of the planned university campus.

On the same day, the Parliament also passed its anti-LGBTQ law, prompting further protests in Budapest and outrage from EU leaders in Brussels.

The timing of the anti-LGBTQ legislation was “all part of an effort to divert the attention from the Fudan project,” said Krekó. “Because the government feels this is something dangerous for their identity.”

The law also served another purpose for Orbán: It splintered the opposition alliance after Jobbik joined Fidesz in voting for it.

‘Decline of the West’

A major sticking point for critics of the university plan is the cost — reportedly more than the budget for Hungary’s entire education system.

According to leaked documents obtained by investigative journalism outlet Direkt36, the project would cost an estimated €1.5 billion ($1.8 billion), mostly financed through a loan from a Chinese state bank.

The building work, on land originally slated for Hungarian student accommodation, would be carried out by a Chinese contractor, it added.

Critics have raised eyebrows over the nature of a deal under which Hungarian taxpayers would effectively be paying for Fudan to set up its campus.

According to the Direkt36 report, the so-called Fudan Hungary University would be established and maintained by a Chinese-Hungarian asset management foundation — suggesting joint revenue from the project.

CNN contacted Fudan University for a comment on the loan, but had not received a reply at time of publishing.

The Hungarian government also did not comment on the reported cost of the loan in a lengthy statement to CNN.

However it did say that 6,000 to 8,000 students from “Hungary, China and other nations” would learn from 500 lecturers at the campus’ economics, humanities, engineering and medical science facilities.

The Hungarian government added that Fudan University was already collaborating with five German universities, 24 Scandinavian universities and had an academic partnership with Yale University in the US. “If they manage to protect their national security interests, we are capable of that, too,” it added.

Protesters march in Budapest on June 5 during a demonstration against the planned Fudan University campus.
Nonetheless, 2-thirds of Hungarians who have heard about the project oppose the Fudan University plan, according to a poll by liberal think tank Republikon Institute.

And the university controversy could cut through to Orbán supporters outside of Budapest, said Tamás Matura, assistant professor at Budapest’s Corvinus University and founder of the Central and Eastern European Center for Asian Studies.

He pointed to Direkt36’s investigation revealing the original student housing planned for the site would be scrapped.

“Average people who would love to send their children to the capital city to study at university” understand there is “a chance that their own children will have less access to cheap accommodation, because the Chinese have taken away that that opportunity,” he said.

The Hungarian government told CNN in a declaration that the proposed campus would “not be taking space away” from the planned student accommodation.

Matura said that Fudan was one of the world’s best universities. But he also feared the Shanghai institution’s deep financial pockets could draw the best professors and students from “under-financed” Hungarian universities.

Critics also fear academic freedom would be undermined by the university’s allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party.
All of which comes versus the backdrop of Orbán’s controversial university reforms, which critics say extend the ideological imprint of the ruling right-wing government.
Indeed the George Soros-backed Central European University (CEU) was “forced out” of Budapest, after a years-long assault on its academic freedoms by Orbán’s government. The university relocated to Vienna, prompting protests in the Hungarian capital.

Fudan is a “kind of second part of that political story unfolding,” said Hodson. “This is a pushback on Orbán’s continuous assault on freedoms,” he added, but pointed out that “there’s a kind of progressive bastion in Budapest.”

Hodson cast doubt on whether demonstrations in the capital could seriously dent Orbán’s re-election chances elsewhere in Hungary.

In protest at the university plans, Budapest’s local authorities are renaming streets near the campus after prominent human rights causes about which the Chinese government is sensitive, including the Dalai Lama and the Uyghurs.

The Hungarian government called Budapest’s move “infantile” in a statement to CNN. And China’s foreign ministry called the behavior “contemptible.”

These are literal signs of protest. The big concern is whether this resistance in Budapest also points the way to meaningful change in Hungary.

Jobber Wiki author Frank Long included to this report.