Protests against the construction of a Chinese university in Budapest have energized the Hungarian opposition ahead of elections next year, and forced the government into a rare U-turn.
Outrage at plans to build a campus of Shanghai’s Fudan University became a rallying cry for the opposition, drawing thousands to protest in defiance of government regulations.
Protests of more than 500 people are illegal, on COVID-19 prevention grounds, although huge crowds can gather at soccer matches, so organizers planned multiple small protests across Budapest, which came together outside the Hungarian National Assembly in Kossuth Square.
The project has allowed opponents of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to turn the nationalist rhetoric he has deployed so successfully in the past few decades against his own government.
“The Fudan University issue is about whether we will be a free nation,” Budapest Mayor Gergely Karacsony told the crowd, which was thousands strong.
Protesters carried signs saying “Hungarian money for Hungarian universities” and “We will not be a colony.”
It was a show of strength that apparently alarmed the government. Overnight it changed position, to offer a referendum on the Chinese university, but said that it would be held only after the general elections.
“This is a novel situation. It’s the first time that any Chinese investment has become a high-level political issue in Hungary,” said Peter Kreko, and analyst at the Political Capital think tank. “The government seemed to be pretty committed to go along with this project, until it saw it could be an electoral issue.”
He said the government has a track record of pausing controversial ideas until it feels less politically vulnerable, in this case after the election.
“It’s pretty sure that if they are re-elected they will re-implement it,” he said.
Krisztina Baranyi, a Budapest district mayor, had grabbed global attention for the fight against the Fudan campus by renaming streets around the planned site to commemorate struggles for democracy and human rights inside China, including Dalai Lama Road and Free Hong Kong Road.
She dismissed the referendum promise as a “cheap trick” that aimed to divert attention from intensive planning and asset transfers expected before the poll, and vowed the campaign would continue.
“The people are determined to stop the Fudan [campus]. They came out to protest not because political parties called them, but because this is a project that doesn’t serve the public interest at all. There is nothing useful in it for them, but they have to pay its costs,” she said.
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