A campaign by the Hungarian opposition to block a Chinese university from opening a campus in Budapest may have succeeded. The government-backed project is set to go to a referendum.

The proposed opening of a Chinese university campus in Hungary, which was fiercely opposed by critics of the government, may be put to a popular vote in Budapest, a senior Hungarian official said. It will take around 18 months to hammer out the details of the construction project, which would then be subjected to a referendum, Gergely Gulyas, who heads the prime minister’s office, said in an interview.

In May, the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban agreed to welcome a campus of Fudan University, one of the most prestigious in China. If implemented as planned by 2024, it would be the first campus of the Shanghai-based institution in the European Union.

But the project was subjected to fierce criticism by the Hungarian opposition. For starters, its reported cost was deemed too high. The government didn’t release any figures, but leaked documents put the price tag of the 64-acre campus at around $1.8 billion. Taxpayers are expected to cover one-fifth of the cost up front, with the rest coming in the form of a loan from a Chinese bank, the documents suggested.

Some residents of Budapest felt the project was imposed on them by the government. Also, the very fact of cooperation with China was painted by the opposition as showcasing Orban’s embrace of authoritarian regimes. The campus was depicted as giving a foothold for Beijing’s soft power and potentially even a hotbed for espionage.

Leading the charge against the project was Budapest Mayor Gergely Karacsony. Last week, he announced that he will rename the streets surrounding the site of the proposed campus in a way clearly designed to irritate the Chinese government. Fudan University Budapest may be forced to sit between Free Hong Kong Road, Uighur Martyrs’ Road, Dalai Lama Road, and Bishop Xie Shiguang Road – the latter being a Catholic priest who was arrested multiple times during his life.

Last Saturday, thousands of people took part in a protest against the government, accusing Orban of betraying national interests in favor of China.

Beijing distanced itself from the turmoil in Hungary, saying it was about domestic politics.

“A few Hungarian politicians are trying to hype up China-related issues in order to grab attention and obstruct China-Hungary cooperation. This behavior is contemptible,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said after the street-renaming stunt.

Mayor Karacsony happens to be one of the top contenders to become a candidate for the premiership from an alliance of opposition parties in next year’s general election. The selection process is supposed to end in October. The members of the bloc together gained more than 46% of the vote during the previous general election in 2018, and hope they can improve on the results and unseat Orban.

The words of Orban’s chief of staff indicate that the pressure campaign may have at least partially worked, with the government backpedaling on the flashpoint project.

Orban led Hungary between 1998 and 2002 and retook the prime minister’s office again in 2010, eventually becoming the longest-serving head of the Hungarian government. Critics accuse him of dictatorial leanings and say his leadership undermined the unity of the EU.

Supporters say he simply puts the interests of Hungary first and doesn’t bow to pressure when it requires doing things that Brussels doesn’t like, like turning down waves of asylum seekers or buying Covid-19 vaccines from Russia and China.

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