Budapest has renamed streets around the planned site of a leading Chinese university campus to protest an “unwanted” project forced on it by the government of the prime minister, Viktor Orbán.
Four street signs at the site now bear the names Free Hong Kong Road, Uyghur Martyrs’ Road, Dalai Lama Road, and Bishop Xie Shiguang Road, the last referring to a persecuted Chinese Catholic priest.
“We still hope the project won’t happen but if it does then it will have to put up with these names,” the city’s mayor, Gergely Karacsony, told a joint press conference with the district mayor, Krisztina Baranyi.
Currently derelict, the area is to house Fudan university’s first European campus in a 500,000 sq metre (5m sq ft) complex by 2024, according to a deal signed between Hungary and the Shanghai-based university’s president.
But the sprawling project has fed growing unease about Hungary’s diplomatic tilt from west to east and its soaring indebtedness to China.
Leaked internal documents revealed that China is expected to give a €1.3bn ($1.6bn) loan to cover most of the estimated €1.5bn costs.
“We don’t want the elite and private Fudan university here at the expense of Hungarian taxpayers,” said Karacsony.
The liberal mayor has previously blasted “Chinese influence-buying” in Hungary and urged Orban to honour a previous pledge not to force projects on the capital against its will.
A city-wide “consultation” to canvass the population’s opinion on the project begins on 4 June, said Baranyi.
Opinion polls show a majority of Budapest residents oppose the plan.
The government argues that a prestigious outpost of Fudan university would permit thousands of Hungarian, Chinese and other international students to acquire high-quality degrees.
It would also fit in with previously agreed plans to build a “Student City” dormitory project for thousands of mainly Hungarian students at the site, it says, although Karacsony said the Fudan campus would take over most of that project’s area.
Fudan is the latest landmark in Orban’s foreign policy of “Eastern Opening”, which analysts describe as a geopolitical balancing act.
Critics portray the nationalist prime minister as China and Russia’s “Trojan horse” inside the European Union and Nato.
In May Karacsony announced he would run in a primary election organised by an alliance of six opposition parties to select a challenger to Orban at a general election in early 2022.
Polls show the opposition alliance holds a narrow lead over Orban’s ruling rightwing Fidesz party, and that Karacsony is currently the most likely to win the primary which will be held in September.