Peking University purchase strengthens Oxford’s ties to foreign elite

Pictured: an entrance to the main campus of Peking University in China.

It was announced last week that Peking University has purchased a site in Oxford and plans to open a branch of its business school in the city by 2018. The Beijing-based institution purchased Foxcombe Hall for a reported £8.8 million, saying that they gave the previous owners “little room to say no.”

The deal involved a restricted cross-border money transfer, which the head of the school said was facilitated by Communist Party officials and the regional government. The news comes after an announcement by President Xi Jinping in December that Chinese universities should be “strongholds that adhere to party leadership” and that “higher education…must adhere to correct political orientation.”

Students from the UK and other European countries will be the main targets of the new Peking University HSBC Business School Oxford Campus. It will offer degrees in finance, management and economics. The campus in Oxford will be used for the first year of study, and students will then move to the school’s Shenzhen campus in China.

Lin Jianhua, the school’s president, said in a statement: “It is our hope that the new initiative in Oxford will further strengthen the school’s international reputation as well as its teaching and research capabilities.”

Peking University competed with three other bidders for the Foxcombe Hall site, which was previously a regional centre for the Open University. It was reported that one of the losing bidders was an Oxford college. Speaking to Caixin, Hai Wen, who is the school’s dean, said they were able “to offer a very tempting price leaving Britain’s Open University with little room to say no.”

China restricts foreign currency transfers, so the purchase had to be specially approved by the university’s Communist Party committee. Hai is reported as saying that the regional government supported the deal by fast-tracking administrative approvals.

Separately, the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, Louise Richardson, has met privately with China’s richest man three times in the past fifteen months. Wang Jianlin made his estimated $35 billion fortune through property development in a country where all land is owned by the state. Last February he held a promotion event for his book at Oxford’s Saïd Business School, and reportedly hinted that he would make a donation to the university.

Wang was the subject of a long-running investigation by The New York Times in 2015. They found that relatives of leading Chinese politicians were allowed to become early investors in his Dalian Wanda group, and that as he rapidly became successful they earned enormous profits. One of these investors was Qi Qiaoqiao, the sister of President Xi Jinping.

The New York Times also reported that Wang had early successes in the city of Dalian at the time when disgraced politician Bo Xilai was mayor. Wang denies that he had any association with Bo.

Wang met with Vice-Chancellor Louise Richardson in February 2016 when he gave a lecture at the Saïd Business School. The Financial Times reported that the media were allowed to attend this lecture, but that they were allocated seats at the back of the theatre and were told not to ask any questions. China Daily said that Wang hinted during the course of his lecture that he would donate to the university.

He had a second meeting with Richardson in August 2016 when she visited the headquarters of his company in Beijing. They met again in January this year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. These meetings were reported on the website of Wang’s Dalian Wanda group.

Oxford University declined to comment on the Vice-Chancellor’s relationship with Wang Jianlin and on the property purchase of Peking University, stating that it involved no academic collaboration or joint venture.

The University has previously been subject to heavy criticism for accepting large donations from foreign businessmen.

The Saïd Business School is named after Wafic Saïd, a Syrian billionaire and arms deal fixer. In 1985 he facilitated a £40 billion arms deal between Britain and Saudi Arabia. This deal was examined by the Serious Fraud Office, but the investigation was dropped in 2006 after intervention from Prime Minister Tony Blair.

More recently, the university was criticised in 2015 for accepting £75 million from USSR-born American billionaire Leonard Blavatnik. The Guardian reported that Blavatnik was alleged to have been involved in an “orchestrated campaign of harassment” against BP executives in Russia in 2007 and 2008.

In December 2015 Wang Jianlin bought 15a Kensington Palace Gardens for a reported £80 million. The house was previously occupied by Leonard Blavatnik, who lives across the street.

Correction: It was originally published that Leonard Blavatnik is a Ukrainian billionaire. It has come to the attention of the OxStu that Mr. Blavatnik was born in Ukraine but left the Soviet Union in 1978 and does not hold Ukrainian citizenship, having become an American citizen in 1984. We apologise for our former error.