China is becoming increasingly unpopular in Europe. After the Lithuanian government dropped out of the China-driven 17+1 grouping, the communist giant is facing protests in Hungary.
Tens of thousands of people marched through Budapest streets against a Chinese university campus in the Hungarian capital. The Shanghai-based Fudan University is China's most prestigious university. People in the central European country are opposing the university as they fear that it will damage Hungary's higher education system.
The protest is significant as the Hungarian government is close to the communist regime.
Achal Malhotra, former Indian ambassador to east European countries, Armenia and Georgia, says: "It appears there is a disconnect between the Government and the people of Hungary on the country's China policy. While the right wing Government led by PM Victor Orban in Hungary is seen as being close to China, the same is not true of the opinion at the grassroots."
Malhotra points out to a steady weariness that is creeping against China not just among governments but even people across the world. He says: "The protests against the planned Chinese university can also be seen as 'education nationalism" besides the overgrowing sentiment in large parts of the world to tread with utmost caution while dealing with China."
"There have been numerous reports emanating from the USA about China's ill-intentioned infiltration into American higher education institutions," adds Malhotra. Such sentiments naturally make people tread carefully where China is concerned.
Irrespective of the protests and the anti-China sentiment, the Hungary government recently blocked a European Union (EU) statement criticising China's demolition of human rights in Hong Kong and imposing sanctions on Chinese officials over Xinjiang.
The Budapest protestors also say that their government should focus on improving their own universities instead of dragging China into their education system.
At the heart of the protests also lies the infamous debt-trap policy that has directed Chinese foreign investment for the past few years.
Direkt36, a Hungarian investigative-journalism organisation, has dug up some revealing figures. According to media reports in Hungary, the Fudan University campus will cost an estimated US $1.8 billion. This amount for one university is more than what the Orban government spent on its entire higher-education system in 2019.
A large number of Hungarians do not support the Chinese university. As opposition mounts, there is more embarrassment coming China's way.
Budapest city officials, including Mayor Gergely Karacsony, plan to rename local streets to show their opposition. Beijing is furious with this plan as the mayor wants to rename streets near the university after human rights leaders or those oppressed by the communist government. Some of the new names proposed include Uyghur Martyrs’ Road, Free Hong Kong Road, the Dalai Lama Road and Bishop Xie Shiguang Road. The Mayor has already initiated the steps to make the name change formal.
In its defence, China has highlighted the excellent relations between Budapest and Beijing. Hungary was one of the first European countries to inoculate its citizens with the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine.
Writing about the issues, Chinese State-owned newspaper Global Times said, "Karacsony is the leader of a small opposition party in Hungary. He launched his bid to become the prime minister candidate on behalf of Hungary's six opposition parties. To this end, he needs to make waves by attacking the incumbent government's China policy. Misleading voters and creating confrontation over the new campus of Fudan University has become his gimmick."
Highlighting China's progress and its global reach, the article said: "China has managed to become the largest trading partner of over 120 countries and regions. Chinese investment is increasingly welcome in most parts of the world."
Calling the Budapest mayor a "clown", Global Times advises its readers: "China should stay calm and optimistic. The achievements it has made during the opening-up are the capital that China can rely on in the face of various complex situations. In front of such capital, politicians such as Karacsony are more like clowns. It is hoped that his extreme provocations can be restricted under Hungary's rule of law. But if that doesn't happen, the Chinese people don't need to be angry – we just need to respond in the way we should."
As China extends its reach to all corners of the world, it is meeting resistance at other places.
In the last week of May, Lithuania had in fact urged east European countries to revisit their ties with Beijing. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis had said that joining China will be divisive for Europe and the EU members together should pursue a more effective approach and communication with China.