Hungary’s premier Viktor Orban confirmed on Thursday that there will be a referendum on a planned establishment of a campus for Chinese Fudan university, which had triggered a protest over the weekend.
Orban, who faces elections in early 2022, has shelved plans for the Chinese school for now which analysts have said was aimed to defuse political tensions and take the steam out of the opposition’s campaign against the university.
Opponents of Orban fear the planned $2 billion campus could undercut the quality of higher education and help Beijing increase its influence in Hungary and the European Union.
Orban has built cordial ties with the Chinese regime, including massive joint business projects, and has several times this year blocked EU statements denouncing the Chinese regime’s record on human rights, angering his allies. Hungary blocked an EU statement in April criticizing China’s new security law in Hong Kong, undermining the bloc’s efforts to confront Beijing’s curbing of freedoms in the former British colony.
According to media reports, the government was willing to pay for the construction of Shanghai-based Fudan University’s first campus in Europe with a Chinese loan. The campus would displace a planned local student housing area.
Orban and his ruling Fidesz party face their first competitive elections next year after three successive landslides since 2010. Opposition parties have united against Fidesz for the first time and caught up with them in polls.
Political observers say Orban could decide to bide his time on Fudan and return to the idea after the election.
“It is hallmark Fidesz to take two steps back to wait until the issue loses political steam, then attempt it again when it is more convenient politically,” Political Capital analyst Peter Kreko said.
Orban has abandoned unpopular projects before, such as a tax on internet traffic, a separate administrative court system, and plans to privatize marinas at Lake Balaton.
Gergely Karacsony, the opposition mayor of Budapest and a top contender to challenge Orban in elections next year, said on Saturday the university protest was a symbol of Hungarians rejecting heavy-handed government decisions.
“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 Saturday’s rally.
NTD staff contributed to this report