© 2022 Connecticut Public

FCC Public Inspection Files:
WEDH · WEDN · WEDW · WEDY · WNPR
WPKT · WRLI-FM · WEDW-FM · Public Files Contact
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Hungarians Grow Frustrated With Prime Minister's Close Relationship With China

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Thousands have taken to the streets of the Hungarian capital, Budapest, protesting plans to build a Chinese university there. There is growing frustration with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's close relationship with Beijing, as NPR's Rob Schmitz reports.

(APPLAUSE)

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: An estimated 10,000 people came out to protest on Saturday in front of the national parliament building in Budapest. The city's mayor, Gergely Karacsony, channeled the frustration of the city's residents over the construction of a university campus for China's elite Fudan University. It's planned for a site originally slated for Hungarian student housing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GERGELY KARACSONY: (Speaking Hungarian).

SCHMITZ: "We will stop the Fudan project," Karacsony said. "And we will take a stand on every single issue where we see the government representing the interests of the 1% over the 99%."

Karacsony has already taken his own stand against the project. Last week, he named four new streets in the city after the victims of the Chinese government's policies. There is now a Dalai Lama Street, a Free Hong Kong Road, a Road of Uyghurs Martyrs and Bishop Xie Shiguang Road, named after a persecuted Chinese Catholic priest. In response, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman called the action disgusting. But according to Stefan Vladisavljev, a foreign policy analyst at the Belgrade Security Forum, many Hungarians are disgusted with Prime Minister Viktor Orban's cozy relationship with Beijing.

STEFAN VLADISAVLJEV: It is seen as the country in the European Union that has the most favorable stance towards the partnership with Beijing.

SCHMITZ: Apart from the Fudan University campus, Vladisavljev says many Hungarians are also angry about a nearly $3 billion Chinese-backed high-speed rail project that'll connect Budapest with the Serbian capital of Belgrade. Hungary will pay 15% of the costs upfront for its portion of the rail line and take out a loan from a Chinese bank for the rest of it, while a company owned by a childhood friend of Orban's will help construct it. Then last year at the beginning of the pandemic, Hungary's parliament gave Orban emergency executive powers.

VLADISAVLJEV: The majority in the Hungarian parliament used the state of emergency to push some of the aspects of the railroad contracts and some of the other contracts that have been tied to the Chinese.

SCHMITZ: One of the measures made the details of the contract with China classified, protecting them from public scrutiny. Katalin Cseh, a member of the EU Parliament for one of Hungary's opposition parties, says that's why there is so much popular angst over the $2 billion plan to build the Chinese campus in Budapest, the first of its kind in the EU.

KATALIN CSEH: And in general, it seems like a very, very bad deal for Hungarian taxpayers. Hungarian students and for everybody who cares about democracy in general.

SCHMITZ: In response to the protest, Orban's government has backpedaled the plan, saying that after the costs of the university are finalized, Budapest residents will be able to vote on a referendum that would determine the fate of the project. Cseh says this rare concession from Orban shows he's worried about losing votes in next year's national election.

CSEH: Almost one-fifth of the population lives in Budapest, so, of course, they don't want to lose these votes on the Chinese university. So they are a bit inclined, maybe, to be more lenient on this issue. But this is really, really unique because they don't usually back down in the opposition protests.

SCHMITZ: Orban's conservative Fidesz Party is facing its first real threat in the elections next year after three successive landslide wins since 2010. And according to public opinion polls, support for the Chinese campus in Budapest is low, hinting that a referendum on the project could be the end of it.

Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Berlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CINEMATIC ORCHESTRA'S "NECROLOGY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.

Stand up for civility

This news story is funded in large part by Connecticut Public’s Members — listeners, viewers, and readers like you who value fact-based journalism and trustworthy information.

We hope their support inspires you to donate so that we can continue telling stories that inform, educate, and inspire you and your neighbors. As a community-supported public media service, Connecticut Public has relied on donor support for more than 50 years.

Your donation today will allow us to continue this work on your behalf. Give today at any amount and join the 50,000 members who are building a better—and more civil—Connecticut to live, work, and play.