Budapest mayor’s bid to rename local streets leaves China livid; all you need to know

Budapest mayor’s bid to rename local streets leaves China livid; all you need to know

Budapest city officials will rename streets in an area where China’s Fudan University is due to open a branch, in a signal of protest and solidarity with the victims of human rights abuses by Beijing

China has declared a verbal war against the mayor of Hungary’s capital city, Budapest, after the latter slighted Beijing by airing plans to rename streets around the place where a Chinese University is about to come up.

China’s state-run news agency Global Times published two strongly worded opinion pieces against Budapest’s liberal Mayor Gergely Karacsony who has thrown his weight behind these changes.

In an article titled ‘Shameful’ for Budapest mayor to seek attention by renaming roads around Chinese uni branch; ‘won’t affect project’, the state-owned newspaper states Karacsony decision to rename the streets was a desperate attempt to gain attention but asserted that “it will not change the mainstream of friendly attitudes toward China. It also warned that Karacsony’s move to earn political influence by violating China’s core interests is a “dangerous provocation”.

In another, more subdued op-ed, the publication dismissed Karacsony as the leader of a small opposition party, adding that his antics will have no effect on Hungary-China relations.

While the tone of the first article was aggressive, the second sought to sweep aside Karacsony’s move as something trivial while noting Hungary’s efforts to improve relations with China.

“Political infighting is the internal affairs of Hungary, but it is affecting cooperation projects between China and Hungary. This shows that some deep-rooted prejudice against China does exist in Europe’s opinion sphere and can easily be exploited by those with ulterior motives. These forces aim at either finding fault with China or triggering political infighting by launching an anti-China crusade, or both,” the article rued.

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What upset China?

Budapest city officials said Wednesday that they will rename streets in an area where the university, seen as a pet project of China’s Communist Party, is due to open a branch, in a signal of protest and solidarity with the victims of human rights abuses by Beijing.

The new names will be Uyghur Martyrs’ Road, Free Hong Kong Road, Dalai Lama Road and Bishop Xie Shiguang Road, and they are expected to receive formal approval from the city in the next few days, according to The Associated Press.

The three street names given by Karacsony are related to topics that are China’s Achilles Heel in terms of its global image.

Free Hong Kong Road is direct opposition to China’s increased interference in the special administrative region; Dalai Lama Road is an acknowledgement to the existence of Tibet as an autonomous region rather than Chinese backyard and Uyghurs Martyrs Road refers to an ethnic Muslim group that some Western countries say is the victim of genocide. In fact, a London panel investigating the plight of Uyghurs in China is currently hearing witness testimonies of torture and gang rapes. The late bishop Xie Shiguang was a target of religious repression.

Furthermore, Fudan University, the institute in question, is a matter of national pride in China and this project is of huge diplomatic importance. It will be China’s first educational institute in the European Union

Karacsony said Krisztina Baranyi, the mayor of the city’s ninth district, where the Chinese university is to be built, announced the plans on Wednesday, saying they sought to honour those who have suffered at the hands of the Chinese state.

Karacsony’s viewpoint

Hungary signed a strategic agreement a few weeks ago with the Shanghai-based Fudan University on opening a campus in Budapest by 2024 that will enrol international students. It would be the school’s only foreign outpost and the first Chinese university campus in the 27-nation European Union.

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The $1.8 billion investment will be paid by Hungary with the help of a loan from a Chinese bank.

The mayor and other critics argue the massive investment places an undue financial burden on Hungarian taxpayers and is indicative of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s increasing ties to autocracies in Beijing as well as Moscow. China was Hungary’s largest source of foreign investment for the last few years.

Mayor Karacsony says the project also raises national security concerns since the university has pledged its loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party.

Baranyi has said she will hold a local referendum to block the construction of the campus. A demonstration is planned for Saturday where Karacsony intends to give a speech opposing the university.

Local politics behind the move?

The move comes in the backdrop of certain developments in the local politics of Hungary. For one, Karacsony’s announced only last month that he will enter an upcoming primary race that will choose a candidate to face nationalist prime minister Orbán in closely watched elections next year.

Karacsony said he would accept the nomination of his party and run in a two-round primary in September and October as part of a six-party opposition coalition that seeks to unseat the governing Fidesz party.

“I made this decision because I feel that my homeland is in big trouble,” Karacsony said, adding that he believes the biggest problem facing Hungary is polarisation dividing the country’s citizens. “I would like to serve the purpose of reuniting Hungary,” he had said at the time of announcement.

Karacsony, 45, was elected mayor of Budapest in 2019 as part of an effort by six opposition parties to join forces against Orban’s right-wing Fidesz, which has firmly governed Hungary with a two-thirds parliamentary majority since 2010.

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Those municipal elections led to major losses for Fidesz in many of Hungary’s cities, and the same six parties plan a repeat of their unity strategy in national elections next spring, expected to be the most competitive in more than a decade.

Against this backdrop, China raised questions that whether Karacsony is baiting China just to gain political mileage.

The fact that Orban’s administration is currently at odds with the European Union, further fuels Chinese suspicion that Karacsony’s public protest against China on the same issues as has been flagged by many other European countries will propel him as a viable alternative in eyes of member nations.

The EU parliament launched a procedure in 2018 to force member nations to sanction Hungary over concerns about the country’s constitutional and electoral systems, the independence of its judiciary, corruption and conflicts of interest.

It’s the first time the European Parliament has launched such an action. The European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, has also taken similar action against Hungary. If four-fifths of Hungary’s 26 EU partners agree “there is a clear risk of a serious breach” of the bloc’s values, Budapest could lose its voting rights.

According to the EU’s founding treaties, the bloc “is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities”.

With inputs from AP

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