10000 people protested against the planned Chinese communist mega-university in Budapest on Saturday. The government appears to have backpedalled on the project. For now.
The fact that a protest triggered even a tiny reaction is huge in Hungary. There have been so few instances that resistance worked during the last 11 years – even on symbolic issues – that one can count it on one hand. Indeed, I have. But those were either hugely symbolic and/or just mere proposals. So no actual political retreat has taken place that was regarding a signed law or that was in response to opposition activism. The only 5 instances Orbán retreated have all been in reaction to disastrous survey results, even among his followers.
The fact that an actual protest, an active form of resistance, was allowed to work is yet another sign of the reawakening of opposition politics – a thing that has been notably absent between around 2011-19. But don’t get your hopes high just yet.
It is early to call it a win because Orbán always says the last words. And he hasn’t spoken yet. If he changes his mind and chooses to double down on Fudan, his minions’ words will be forgotten.
On the other hand Orbán, always lets his minions to announce a policy about-face. Not that there were many of those before. So his silence can also mean that it is settled. At least in rhetoric.
For now Orbánists seem to have lost the plot on Fudan and spent two days mechanically repeating the lie that the Fudan plans haven’t even been mature enough to discuss politically. The debt was signed, the laws were rubberstamped and signed, and many, many announcements have been made by Orbánist politicians. It has been the clashing point between Orbán and the opposition-led Budapest. Now they claim that they have never been against a referendum on Fudan (they were), there were just not enough information to ask the public about (there was). The minister claims to have pushed the decision about Fudan to after the 2022 elections. As if it hasn’t been made already. Lies, lies, and more lies. But in the service of a face-saving retreat this time.
After multiple rounds of negotiations and countless promises made and not kept by Orbán’s Fudan team, Budapest leadership decided not to believe Orbánists’ promises any more. First the local mayor has renamed the streets around the project to incense China, then they announced a protest against the project. (Technically, it was around 50 different protests because pandemic rules still ban bigger gatherings.)
It is unlikely that the money pump that geared up in anticipation of the Chinese project would stop. Saying one thing and spectacularly doing the opposite is yet another way to gaslight an entire country. Now they say they have stopped, but the money pump continues and if construction starts anyway, the independent media will have a difficult time explaining, proving, and spreading the news that it is still happening. A state secretary might even stand next to the construction site with a ‘Fudan’ sign on it and announce that there is no Fudan construction going on here. There is no effective response to that. The public already believes they have made China retreat.
Orbánists might just say that the buildings will be part of the student city project that was originally planned there to provide much-needed affordable student housing. And then put a big ‘Fudan’ sign on it once it is done. That is another way to kill off protest, disorient and confuse the naysayers and get the thing done just as Orbán’s Chinese overlords requested.
And of course Orbán may just open his mouth and double down on the project. It doesn’t look like he wants to say no to Chinese communist requests, they are too lucrative for cronies.
The biggest deal here is the fact that a protest appeared to have made Orbán retreat on something. That has a huge significance in a country where nothing ever gets accomplished by political resistance, not even communism was successfully protested after the last attempt in 1956 ended in a bloody crackdown by Russia.