Gergely Karacsony, mayor of Budapest, last week renamed a number of streets in the Hungarian capital. Free Hong Kong Road, Dalai Lama Street and Uyghur Martyrs’ Road converge on a spot in the city that is supposed to house the first European outpost of China’s Fudan University. The Chinese foreign ministry said Karacsony’s stunt was “contemptible”.

It took a bit longer for the message to get through to Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, who has made the Fudan campus a flagship project to woo Beijing. Over the weekend, thousands of Hungarians marched through Budapest in protest against the Fudan scheme, forcing the Orban government into an apparent retreat. No final decision on the scheme had yet been made, his ministers said, and none would be taken until after next year’s parliamentary elections. It would then be put to a referendum in the capital.

No decision taken? It was barely six weeks ago that the Hungarian government signed a detailed agreement with the Chinese authorities, for the new 520,000 square metre campus for up to 8,000 students and 500 faculty staff, with accompanying sports venue and conference centre. Few costs or financing details have been disclosed but Direkt36, an investigative news outlet, obtained government documents estimating the construction cost at €1.5bn, more than Hungary’s entire higher education budget for 2019. Much of it would be financed by a Chinese loan.

Orban has been nurturing ever closer ties with Beijing through his “eastern opening” policy. China is building a new railway between Budapest and Belgrade financed through another loan. Hungary hosts telecom group Huawei’s largest supply centre outside China. And Hungary has recently given Beijing a helping hand by vetoing EU statements condemning democratic backsliding in Hong Kong. But the Fudan campus was probably the powerful symbol of the Hungarian premier’s embrace of communist China. Two years ago, Orban shrugged off criticism from the west and pushed Central European University, a liberal institution endowed by financier George Soros, out of Budapest.

But Orban had not counted on the unpopularity of his Fudan scheme. One opinion poll suggested two-thirds of Hungarians were against it. Not only is it a hefty outlay for a small and relatively poor country but the campus would displace a new quarter planned for low-income students from outside the capital.

The backlash suggests public opinion in Europe is increasingly unwilling to accept pricey Chinese projects that leave a heavy burden for future generations. That may be why details of the rail link to Serbia were made a state secret last year. Hungarians will find a warning in tiny Montenegro, which has appealed to the EU for help in repaying a Chinese loan for a road project that, per kilometre, was one of the most expensive in the world.

Orban apart, eastern Europeans have been cooling on China for some time. Several EU countries snubbed Chinese president Xi Jinping in February when they failed to send their prime ministers or presidents to a meeting of the 17+1 group, set up to strengthen infrastructure — and political — ties between the region and China. Lithuania pulled out of the 17+1 club altogether. Increasingly, it seems the strongest pushback is coming from the big cities led by liberal mayors, like Budapest and Prague.

The Fudan backlash could have political consequences for Orban, too. The protests, the first since the pandemic, have helped galvanise the opposition movement before next year’s elections. The opposition parties are hoping to join forces to try to topple Orban’s Fidesz.

Karacsony has strengthened his claim to be the best opposition leader for the job. He attributed the government’s Fudan retreat to “community power”. He used the protests to make his pitch: that Orban now serves the interests of a rich elite, rather than of ordinary Hungarians, like those poorer youngsters from the provinces whose accommodation would be taken by Fudan students.

As historian Eva Balogh says, it is the “winning Fidesz rhetoric of the past decade” now being successfully deployed against Orban himself.