- Opposition slams plans to build Chinese university
- Govt says may allow referendum on project in 2023
- Elections due in 2022 make issue politically sensitive
- China says opposition criticism "unseemly"
BUDAPEST, June 7 (Reuters) - Hungary appeared to backtrack on plans to build a Chinese university in the capital Budapest after thousands took to the streets at the weekend accusing the government of cosying up to Beijing, provoking an angry Chinese response.
Opponents of nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban fear the planned $2 billion campus could undercut the quality of higher education and help Beijing increase its influence in Hungary and the European Union. read more
A senior Orban aide said late on Sunday the university was not even at the planning phase, and once the plan took shape, in early 2023, it could be put to a referendum.
"Once the project's conditions are known, we support a referendum in Budapest to decide whether locals want Fudan University here," Gergely Gulyas, Orban's chief of staff, told the pro-government news web site Mandiner late on Sunday.
Orban, a self-styled illiberal, has built cordial ties with China, including massive joint business projects, and has several times this year blocked EU statements denouncing China's record on human rights, angering his allies. read more
According to media reports, the government was willing to pay for the construction of Shanghai-based Fudan University's first campus in Europe with a Chinese loan. The campus would displace a planned local student housing area.
Public support for the campus is low, according to an opinion survey conducted last month, and Orban's ruling Fidesz party has weak support in Budapest, so a referendum could turn out against the project.
Orban and Fidesz face their first competitive elections next year after three successive landslides since 2010. Opposition parties have united against Fidesz for the first time and caught up with them in polls.
Political observers say Orban could decide to bide his time on Fudan and return to the idea after the election.
"It is hallmark Fidesz to take two steps back to wait until the issue loses political steam, then attempt it again when it is more convenient politically," Political Capital analyst Peter Kreko said.
Orban has abandoned unpopular projects before, such as a tax on internet traffic, a separate administrative court system and plans to privatise marinas at Lake Balaton.
OPPOSITION SPARS WITH CHINA
Gergely Karacsony, the opposition mayor of Budapest and a top contender to challenge Orban in elections next year, said on Saturday the university protest was a symbol of Hungarians rejecting heavy-handed government decisions.
"Although we are worlds apart on human rights... we really just don't want a Chinese elite school built at the expense of Hungarian taxpayers," Karacsony told Saturday's rally.
A media spokesman at the Chinese Embassy in Hungary, who did not give his name, criticised Karacsony's comments on the embassy's Facebook page.
"In broad daylight, it is unseemly to criticize the internal affairs of another country, especially when I heard some key words in his speech, such as 'Tiananmen Square protests', 'democracy', 'human rights' and 'values'," the official said.
The Chinese embassy said it would address Reuters questions on a planned Fudan referendum at a later stage.
Hungary blocked an EU statement in April criticising China's new security law in Hong Kong, undermining the bloc's efforts to confront Beijing's curbing of freedoms in the former British colony.
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