BUDAPEST—Hungary’s parliament approved a government proposal on Tuesday to donate state-owned land to a planned Chinese university in Budapest, despite opposition criticism and a recent protest that accused the government of cosying up to Beijing.
Opponents of nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban fear the planned $2 billion campus could undermine the quality of higher education and help Beijing increase its influence in Hungary and the European Union.
Orban’s government argues that the school could help attract new research and development centres and new investments to Hungary, a central European country of 10 million people, which relies heavily on foreign investment to drive economic growth.
Lawmakers of Orban’s ruling Fidesz voted overwhelmingly to donate four plots on the banks of the Danube River to a foundation in charge of the planned campus of Shanghai-based Fudan University, displacing a planned local student housing area.
The law says the government must present the final plans of the project, including its costs, to parliament by the end of 2022, after the next election in April. The issue would be then put to a referendum, Orban said last week.
However, Budapest mayor Gergely Karacsony, who is vying to become Orban’s opposition challenger next year, is seeking a referendum on the campus before the election.
“The citizens of Budapest have had their say about the government’s plans: 96 percent do not want a Chinese communist university in place of the (local student housing area),” Karacsony said in a Facebook post on Monday.
Last week Orban—who forced the liberal Central European University, founded by financier George Soros, to move to Vienna in 2019—dismissed criticism that the campus would help Beijing increase its influence in Hungary.
“All such countries, including China or Vietnam, kick off each international meeting by assuring us that they are only seeking pragmatic cooperation and do not want to enforce their ideological stance on us,” Orban told a news conference.
Orban’s liberal opponents accuse him of cosying up to China, Russia, and other illiberal governments, while angering European allies by curbing the independence of the judiciary and media.