What does a European mayor do if he wants to enrage China? Rename streets. So, the liberal mayor of Hungarian capital Budapest, Gergely Karacsony, renamed streets to shame Beijing: “Uighur Martyrs’ Road”, “Free Hong Kong Road”, “Dalai Lama Street”. China was enraged. “This stunt is contemptible,” fumed the Chinese spokesperson.
Budapest’s renamed streets surround the 5.5 million square-foot campus of the Shanghai-based Fudan University, China’s first university in Europe. Opening in 2024, the campus will have 8,000 students living and learning medicine, business and engineering on the banks of the picturesque Danube. The university will have a 500-strong faculty, convention centres and sports facilities. Hungary will “become a regional knowledge hub”, boasted government spokesperson Zoltan Kovacs.
The Fudan campus is a powerful symbol of the populist Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s embrace of communist China. Dubbed the “Bad Boy of Europe”, Orban champions “illiberal democracy”, is Euro-sceptic and anti-immigrant, and curtails independent media, judiciary and the opposition. He has vexed European Union leaders by cosying up to strongmen like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping.
Ignoring America’s warnings that Huawei is a security threat, Orban hosts Huawei’s biggest supply centre outside China. Hungary accounts for 1 per cent of EU’s GDP, but enjoys veto power. The country blocked EU’s measures against China for anti-democracy crackdowns in Hong Kong. Hungary was the only EU country to approve China’s Sinopharm and Russia’s Sputnik V vaccines. Two years ago, Orban ejected George Soros’s liberal Central European University from Budapest and then welcomed the Chinese university into the heart of Europe.
But Orban miscalculated on Fudan. Two-thirds of Hungarians oppose the campus, fearing Chinese influence, espionage and surveillance. This could be “China’s Trojan Horse of intelligence on Hungarian soil”, warns political scientist Daniel Hegedüs. The first post-pandemic street protests in Hungary were aimed against Fudan. People are also angry because the elite campus replaces a housing project for poor Hungarian students who come to study in the capital. Karacsony accuses Orban of serving the interests of the elite. Ironically, elite-bashing and nationalism helped Orban win landslide victories since 2010. Karacsony will now challenge him in next year’s general elections. To defuse public anger, Orban offers a referendum on the campus if re-elected.
Fudan is Orban’s weak spot. The Chinese campus will drain 1.5 billion in taxpayers euros—more than Hungary’s entire higher education budget. It is mostly financed by Chinese loans, like the €2 billion China deal to reconstruct the Budapest-Belgrade railway. Project details are classified. Orban’s aides accuse opponents of hypocrisy, asserting Germany and France have bigger investments with China.
The pushback against China comes from liberal mayors of European cities that are engines of economic growth, like Prague and Budapest. Karacsony fears Hungary is falling into China’s debt trap. He worries about the security risks and the financial burdens imposed by expensive projects built with Chinese loans that could “bankrupt future generations”.
This resentment prevails in other European countries, too. Several EU member-states snubbed Chinese President Xi by avoiding an infrastructure summit last February. Lithuania withdrew from this club altogether. Montenegro pleaded for EU aid to repay Chinese loans for a motorway project bedevilled by corruption and delay. The project’s environmental damage to this scenic, tourism-dependent nation is catastrophic, what with chopped mountains and gouged river valleys. Per kilometre, it is one of the most expensive roads in the world. Critics call it the “Highway to Hell”.