Local officials in Budapest, Hungary, renamed city streets this week in honor of several victims of Chinese communism as a way of protesting an agreement between China and the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban to construct a Chinese university in the city.
Orban, who entered the prime ministership with decades of experience as an anti-communist activist, is one of dictator Xi Jinping’s closest collaborators in Europe. Under the prime minister, Hungary became the first European nation to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2015 and was among the first nations to embrace the widespread distribution of Chinese-made vaccines against the Chinese coronavirus this year.
Among the many economic and cultural agreements Orban has signed with China during his tenure is a plan announced in 2019 for the Chinese government to build an auxiliary campus for Shanghai’s Fudan University in Budapest. Like many Belt and Road projects, leaked documents show that the agreement appears to require the Hungarian state to pay for the entire project through taxpayers’ dollars and a massive $1.5 billion loan from China. The money will go to Chinese “materials and labor,” according to Euronews, meaning it will not create any jobs for Hungarians and will profit Chinese regime-owned companies.
The terms of the Chinese loan remain a mystery, but comparable loans to underdeveloped countries have typically trapped the debtors with high interest rates and other provisions giving China undue influence over the nations involved.
“With its presence and eminent foreign professors, Fudan can play a significant role in the internationalization of Hungarian education,” Innovation and Technology Minister László Palkovics said during a meeting with Fudan officials in December 2019. “The planned opening of the campus could promote additional Chinese investments in Hungary and the establishment of research and development centres of Chinese companies in Hungary.”
Budapest Mayor Gergely Karacsony, who has opposed the project from the start despite being one of Hungary’s most prominent leftists, announced a project on Wednesday to rename the streets around the future university campus in honor of victims of Chinese communism. Among the names chosen are “Free Hong Kong road,” “Uyghur Martyrs’ road,” and “Dalai Lama road.” The local government also renamed one street in honor of a victim of China’s widespread persecution of Christians, Bishop Xie Shiguang, according to Singapore’s Channel News Asia.
“We still hope the project won’t happen but if it does then it will have to put up with these names,” Karacsony said at a press conference Wednesday. Following the initial announcement of the project, Karacsony had objected that amplifying the message of an institution that “represent[s] the world view of the Chinese Communist Party” was inappropriate for a nation such as Hungary, which suffered decades of communist repression before liberating itself in 1989.
“The signs bear the names of the persons and people who have been persecuted by the Chinese Communist Party,” Karacsony explained. “China and Hungary are worlds apart when it comes to human rights and solidarity.”
The local Budapest leadership appeared to achieve its goal of outraging Beijing on Wednesday, prompting the Chinese Foreign Ministry to label the new street names “despicable.”
“China-Hungary relations are growing with a robust momentum with fruitful results in practical cooperation delivering benefits to both countries and peoples,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters. “The attempt of certain Hungarian politicians to attract attention and impede China-Hungary cooperation by hyping up China-related issues is utterly despicable.”
Orban’s government proclaimed itself “proud to be the first European country to sign an intergovernmental cooperation agreement with China over the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)” in April 2019, China’s state-run news service Xinhua reported.
“We think the Belt and Road Initiative would give a chance to the smaller Central and Eastern European countries to make business and trade deals with China,” Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Peter Szijjarto said at the time, calling the BRI “very significant from the perspective of Europe, because it is Europe’s interest to be able to build a good and effective cooperation with China.”
The nominal objective of the BRI is to recreate the Ancient Silk Road, which connected China to Europe. Chinese dictator Xi Jinping has suggested that goal would be the construction of state-of-the-art transportation infrastructure connecting everything between Beijing and Western Europe. China has used the BRI to expand its influence significantly in Africa and Latin America, as well, making dubious claims that countries such as Cuba were part of the pre-Columbian Ancient Silk Road.
Beyond claiming the BRI will bring development to poorer countries, Xi Jinping has openly stated that he hoped the global project would help China impose communist “rules and standards” on the world.
The government of former President Donald Trump repeatedly warned allied states of the dangers of the BRI.
“We have watched the activities and actions of others in the region, in particular China, and the financing mechanisms it brings to many of these countries, which result in saddling them with enormous levels of debt,” former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned in 2017. “They don’t often create the jobs … [f]inancing is structured in a way that makes it very difficult for them to obtain future financing and oftentimes has very subtle triggers in the financing that results in financing default and the conversion of debt to equity.”
“When they show up with deals that seem to be too good to be true it’s often the case that they, in fact, are,” successor Mike Pompeo said of China a year later. “It’s simply the case that in parts of the world China has invested in ways that have left countries worse off, and that should never be the case,” he said at a separate event that year.
Orban has largely shrugged off concerns regarding Chinese predatory loans.
“We Hungarians need an open world economy,” Orban said at a meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in 2019, in which he announced Hungary’s entry into BRI. Orban insisted, apparently taking a swipe at the United States, that his government “shall not accept any kind of external ideological pressure.”
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