SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
Thousands have taken to the streets of the Hungarian capital, Budapest, protesting plans to build a Chinese university there. There is growing frustration with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's close relationship with Beijing, as NPR's Rob Schmitz reports.
ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: An estimated 10,000 people came out to protest on Saturday in front of the national parliament building in Budapest. The city's mayor, Gergely Karacsony, channeled the frustration of the city's residents over the construction of a university campus for China's elite Fudan University. It's planned for a site originally slated for Hungarian student housing.
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GERGELY KARACSONY: (Speaking Hungarian).
SCHMITZ: "We will stop the Fudan project," Karacsony said. "And we will take a stand on every single issue where we see the government representing the interests of the 1% over the 99%."
Karacsony has already taken his own stand against the project. Last week, he named four new streets in the city after the victims of the Chinese government's policies. There is now a Dalai Lama Street, a Free Hong Kong Road, a Road of Uyghurs Martyrs and Bishop Xie Shiguang Road, named after a persecuted Chinese Catholic priest. In response, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman called the action disgusting. But according to Stefan Vladisavljev, a foreign policy analyst at the Belgrade Security Forum, many Hungarians are disgusted with Prime Minister Viktor Orban's cozy relationship with Beijing.
STEFAN VLADISAVLJEV: It is seen as the country in the European Union that has the most favorable stance towards the partnership with Beijing.
SCHMITZ: Apart from the Fudan University campus, Vladisavljev says many Hungarians are also angry about a nearly $3 billion Chinese-backed high-speed rail project that'll connect Budapest with the Serbian capital of Belgrade. Hungary will pay 15% of the costs upfront for its portion of the rail line and take out a loan from a Chinese bank for the rest of it, while a company owned by a childhood friend of Orban's will help construct it. Then last year at the beginning of the pandemic, Hungary's parliament gave Orban emergency executive powers.
VLADISAVLJEV: The majority in the Hungarian parliament used the state of emergency to push some of the aspects of the railroad contracts and some of the other contracts that have been tied to the Chinese.
SCHMITZ: One of the measures made the details of the contract with China classified, protecting them from public scrutiny. Katalin Cseh, a member of the EU Parliament for one of Hungary's opposition parties, says that's why there is so much popular angst over the $2 billion plan to build the Chinese campus in Budapest, the first of its kind in the EU.
KATALIN CSEH: And in general, it seems like a very, very bad deal for Hungarian taxpayers. Hungarian students and for everybody who cares about democracy in general.
SCHMITZ: In response to the protest, Orban's government has backpedaled the plan, saying that after the costs of the university are finalized, Budapest residents will be able to vote on a referendum that would determine the fate of the project. Cseh says this rare concession from Orban shows he's worried about losing votes in next year's national election.
CSEH: Almost one-fifth of the population lives in Budapest, so, of course, they don't want to lose these votes on the Chinese university. So they are a bit inclined, maybe, to be more lenient on this issue. But this is really, really unique because they don't usually back down in the opposition protests.
SCHMITZ: Orban's conservative Fidesz Party is facing its first real threat in the elections next year after three successive landslide wins since 2010. And according to public opinion polls, support for the Chinese campus in Budapest is low, hinting that a referendum on the project could be the end of it.
Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Berlin.
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