Budapest: The Hungarian government led by the strongman Viktor Orban was forced to recalibrate its decision of allowing a Chinese university to open a campus in Budapest. The Shanghai based Fudan University, consistently in the Top-100 universities in the world, was to open its first campus in Europe by 2024. This would have been yet another example of growing Chinese influence in Hungary as it comes on the back of Budapest-Belgrade railway line, which marks the entry of the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in an EU and NATO state.Also Read - Turkey Gives Green Signal To Sweden, Finland Joining NATO, Internal Conflicts Persist

Unpublicized document show that a $1.8 billion deal was signed in February which provided 64 acres to Fudan University to build its campus in Budapest. Originally the land parcel was to be used for a low cost dormitory for Hungarian students who are not able to afford the high rents while studying in Budapest. About 20% of the expense for the campus was supposed to come from the central government budget and the remaining $1.5 billion would come through loans from China placing a huge burden on tax payers. The amount is bigger than what Hungary spends on the entire educational system annually and is seen as a security risk as well as debt trap. The charter of the university explicitly mentions promoting and propagating thought process of the Chinese Communist Party. With these details becoming public, it caused wide spread resentment and lead to significant protest from civil society in the city. Also Read - Passenger Train With 243 On Board, Crashes Into Dump Truck In US's Missouri; 3 Killed, Multiple Injured

Orban’s party Fidesz has consolidated its hold on power since 2010 winning successive landslide elections in 2014 and 2018. Orban has demonstrated increasing authoritarian tendencies due to which civil liberties have taken a hit and the opposition largely marginalized. With elections due in 2022, the controversy quickly snowballed into a rallying point for the opposition parties to corner the strong man. Also Read - Canada Sends 2 Ships In Baltic Region To Enhance NATO Readiness

Orban has been at loggerheads with EU on a variety of issues most notably in its pursuit of its policy of “Eastern Opening”. Under this policy Hungary has been increasing its trade and diplomatic ties with Russia, China, Turkey – states that don’t share a great equation with EU. Relationship with China is a particular friction point where apart from taking a $2 billion loan for expanding BRI, Hungary has Huawei’s largest supply center outside China and has gone on to approve a Chinese vaccine for COVID-19, the only EU country to do so.

Civil society in Budapest has come out in thousands to protest against the move. The official narrative of a world class institution enhancing the academic standards in the country is cutting no ice with them. Once operational, Fudan University is expected to provide 6000 seats for Hungarian and international students

In the past few years there has been a massive migration of Hungarian students and researchers citing lack of academic freedom giving rise to belief that a bulk of the seats will be taken up by international students, mostly Chinese. Opposition politicians like liberal Budapest mayor Gergely Karacsony is concerned that the project could provide a platform for espionage citing China’s track record. He feels that it is yet another attempt by Orban to expand his control over educational institutions. Three years ago Orban brought in an amendment on a higher education law which practically shut down the billionaire George Soros backed Central European University – a premier postgraduate university in Hungary.

Fudan campus in Hungary would be the first campus of a Chinese University in EU. Given Fudan’s stature in the academic world, a major metropolis like London or Paris would have been more befitting. But critics believe that Hungary, where Orban’s has a control over the media, provides a politically safe environment and Fudan doesn’t risk political turmoil or scrutiny that it would undergo in a west European country.

The protest against the Fudan University is one of the rare instances which has united the opposition against Orban. Five major opposition parties have come together and projected Karacsony as the face of the opposition in the elections next year. On his part Karacsony has gone all out in demonstrating his liberal credentials and is hitting where it would hurt China the most. He has announced renaming of streets near the planned campus after the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama and another one will be called “Uyghur Martyrs’ Road”. Other streets will be named after Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters and a Catholic bishop who was jailed in China.

China has understandably come out in defense of the project and condemned the opposition to the University which it terms as a people to people contact. But the public sentiment against the announced project has rattled the government and it did climb down from its position. The Prime Minister’s Office has said that the people of Budapest would be able to decide on the future of the University in a referendum scheduled for 2023 thus preventing it from becoming a major election issue in a tight race in 2022.

Orban has been dubbed by his critics as “Trojan Horse” inside the EU and NATO and it does look like the case of securing the stable once the horses have bolted. He has a battle on his hand as the opposition alliance of six parties holds a narrow lead over Fidesz in the opinion polls.

Note: Zeyaur Rahman holds a Masters degree from JNU. Worldscape is his weekly column on socio-political affairs. He also curates subaltern historical content in his blogs. He can be reached on Twitter: @rahman_zeyaur

(This is a guest column and views expressed are solely of author)