The Hungarian government has announced that it supports a referendum on the planned construction of a Chinese university campus in the capital city of Budapest after protests by mostly left-wing politicians and student activists. After initially stating that the project would go forward and that no other options were on the table, officials have indicated that they are open to consulting with opposition leaders and Budapest residents about the project.
The proposed site for the project would house Fudan University, which would be run by the Chinese government, as well as a student housing development. Protesters have generally come out in support of building the student center while opposing the construction of the university campus.
Budapest Mayor Gergely Karácsony, a member of Hungary’s left-wing environmentalist Párbeszéd party, has emerged as a leader of the protests and has called “the Fudan University affair” a first step towards “retaking Hungary from those in power.” He has accused the Fidesz party, the dominant partner in Hungary’s conservative ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, of “final and complete moral suicide.”
In 2018, Karácsony opposed Orban’s successful campaign to ban the Central European University, a project of Hungarian-born billionaire philanthropist George Soros, from operating in Hungary. Orban had accused Soros of supporting “anything that weakens nation states.” In response, Soros attacked Orban for allegedly “renouncing the values” on which the European Union was built, and called for Hungary and other European nations to collectively import at least one million migrants every year. Karácsony criticized Orban for sending the Soros-funded university “into exile,” but he has also voiced his support for doing the same to the Chinese-backed Fudan.
The Orban government’s initial support for the project may reflect an increased willingness to partner with China, which some leaders on the European right may perceive as a more viable partner than the United States. Right-wing commentators such as Niccolo Soldo and Darren Beattie have argued that China offers partnership opportunities without the aggressive cultural agenda which the United States attaches to development projects and economic aid. However, opposition from students and politicians in the city of Budapest and the government’s recent concessions on the issue put the future of the project into doubt.