Thousands of Hungarians, some of them holding banners declaring “Treason”, protested on Saturday against a Chinese university’s plans to open a campus in Budapest.
Liberal opponents of nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban accuse him of cosying up to China, and fear the campus could undercut the quality of higher education and help Beijing increase its influence in Hungary and the European Union.
“I do not agree with our country’s strengthening feudal relationship with China,” Patrik, a 22-year-old student who declined to give his full name, said at the protest in the Hungarian capital.
He said funds should be used “to improve our own universities instead of building a Chinese one.”
The government signed an agreement with Shanghai-based Fudan University in April on building the campus at a site in Budapest where a dormitory village for Hungarian students had previously been planned.
The government has said Fudan is a world-class institution and the campus would “allow students to learn from the best.”
MTI news agency quoted Tamas Schanda, a deputy government minister, as saying Saturday’s protest was unnecessary and dismissing “political hysteria” based on unfounded gossip and media reports.
Opposition politicians and economists have criticised what they say will be the high costs of the project and a lack of transparency. Budapest’s mayor opposes the plan.
“Fidesz is selling out wholesale the housing of Hungarian students, and their future, just so it can bring the elite university of China’s dictatorship into the country,” the organisers of Saturday’s protest said on Facebook.
Beijing said this week “a few Hungarian politicians” were trying to grab attention and obstruct cooperation between China and Hungary.
Orban has built cordial ties with China, Russia and other illiberal governments, while locking horns with Western allies by curbing the independence of scientific research, the judiciary and media.
He faces a unified opposition for the first time since assuming power in 2010 before a parliamentary election due in 2022.