‘Free Hong Kong’ Street Marks Budapest’s Row Over Chinese Campus

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    Budapest will rename the streets surrounding the planned campus of a Chinese university to protest against the project, which Hungary’s opposition says is emblematic of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s drift from western democratic values.

    The streets in the capital’s industrial south, where Fudan University plans to set up a campus, will be renamed Uighur Martyrs street, Dalai Lama street and Free Hong Kong street, among others, Budapest Mayor Gergely Karacsony said at a briefing on Wednesday.

    The multi-billion dollar private campus, which Orban’s government plans to finance via a loan from China, has become a hot topic before parliamentary elections due early next year. The European Union member’s allies, including the U.S., have taken China to task for its record on human rights, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and other issues.

    “Certain individuals, politicians from Hungary, want to grandstand on China-related issues and hamper bilateral relations,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Thursday at a regular press briefing in Beijing. “Such acts are just despicable.”

    Orban is touting the campus as a bridgehead for closer relations with China, while the opposition criticizes it on ideological grounds and for its high costs. They also say the campus would take away land from a project that was meant to provide affordable housing to Hungarian university students.

    “We’re using what political maneuvering room we have left to stand up for the ideals of freedom and solidarity,” Karacsony said alongside local district mayor Krisztina Baranyi. “This doesn’t exclude pragmatic cooperation with China, but using taxpayer money to build Fudan University is going too far.”

    While government officials dismissed the move as provocation that wouldn’t sway their support for the project, there are signs that Orban has started to hedge his bets, especially with a recent poll showing widespread opposition to the new campus.

    The project is “on the drawing board currently,” Cabinet Minister Gergely Gulyas said at a briefing, adding that “no substantive decision could’ve been taken yet” as a result. “Once we have the plans, it’ll be possible to have a cost estimate and the government can decide whether it supports it,” he said.

    Orban’s backing for Fudan, which in 2019 revised its charter to erase the phrase “freedom of thought” and added a reference to the absolute leadership of the Communist Party, contrasts with his government’s ouster of Central European University from Budapest the same year.

    George Soros, the Hungarian-born U.S. investor and philanthropist, had founded CEU after the fall of the Iron Curtain to train leaders committed to liberal democratic values, something Orban — a former anti-communist student leader in the 1980s — has come to oppose. The EU’s top court later ruled that CEU’s ouster was illegal.

    Karacsony is the front-runner to become the united opposition’s candidate to challenge Orban, who’s clashed with the EU over his unprecedented consolidation of power for a member state and his support for authoritarian regimes.

    Last month, Orban’s government was alone in blocking a joint EU statement that aimed to criticize China’s policies in Hong Kong.

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