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Thousands of Hungarians, some of them holding banners declaring “treason”, protested over the weekend against a Chinese university’s plans to open a campus in Budapest.
Liberal opponents of nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban accuse him of cosying up to China, and fear the campus could undercut the quality of higher education and help Beijing increase its influence in Hungary and the European Union.
"I do not agree with our country's strengthening feudal relationship with China," Patrik, a 22-year-old student who declined to give his full name, said at the protest in the Hungarian capital on Saturday (local time).
He said funds should be used "to improve our own universities instead of building a Chinese one."
The government signed an agreement with Shanghai-based Fudan University in April on building the campus at a site in Budapest where a dormitory village for Hungarian students had previously been planned.
The government has said Fudan is a world-class institution and the campus would "allow students to learn from the best".
MTI news agency quoted Tamas Schanda, a deputy government minister, as saying the protest was unnecessary and dismissing "political hysteria" based on unfounded gossip and media reports.
Opposition politicians and economists have criticised what they say will be the high costs of the project and a lack of transparency. Budapest's mayor opposes the plan and has proposed to rename the streets around the site to commemorate alleged human rights abuses by the Chinese Communist Party.
One street will be called "Uyghur Martyrs' Road" after the mainly Muslim ethnic group in the country, which China has systematically imprisoned and been accused of prosecuting a slow-moving genocide against.
Another street will be named after the Dalai Lama, exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, labelled a dangerous separatist by Beijing.
"Fidesz is selling out wholesale the housing of Hungarian students, and their future, just so it can bring the elite university of China's dictatorship into the country," the protest organisers said on Facebook.
Beijing said this week "a few Hungarian politicians" were trying to grab attention and obstruct cooperation between China and Hungary, in criticism that closely mirrors that levelled at Australia after the federal government stepped in recently to cancel an agreement between Victoria and the Chinese government.
Mr Orban has built cordial ties with China, Russia and other illiberal governments, while locking horns with Western allies by curbing the independence of scientific research, the judiciary and media.
He faces a unified opposition for the first time since assuming power in 2010 before a parliamentary election due in 2022.
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