Chinese companies have bought up 17 U.K. private schools in the United Kingdom in recent years, sparking fears of expanding Chinese Communist Party (CCP) influence in the country as the schools struggle financially in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, British media reported.
“Hundreds of independent schools left in dire financial straits by the coronavirus pandemic are being targeted by Chinese investors,” the Mail on Sunday newspaper reported at the weekend.
Some of the companies are run by high-ranking members of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, and “seek to expand their influence over Britain’s education system,” the report said.
According to an investigation by the paper, nine of the 17 schools under Chinese control are owned by companies controlled by Chinese entrepreneurs who are also members of Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a body which maintains close ties between private sector wealth and the ruling party.
Private schools have been hard-hit by the pandemic, with plummeting enrollments and falling fees as students are sent home for distance-learning, the report said.
Before the pandemic, Bright Scholar — a company owned by the daughter of Chinese property magnate Yang Guoqiang — had already invested in several schools, including Bournemouth Collegiate School and St Michael’s School in Llanelli, Carmarthanshire, the paper said.
Bedstone College in Shropshire and Ipswich High School are owned by London-based asset manager London & Oxford Group, which in turn is backed by China’s Wanda Group conglomerate.
Riddlesworth Hall Preparatory School in Norfolk, attended by Princess Diana, was acquired by the Confucius International Education Group in 2015.
Ray Global Education, which owns two U.K.-based private schools, says the acquisitions were a part of its “Global Campus” project that seeks to promote the CCP’s Belt & Road infrastructure and global influence initiative in the global education sector.
The company’s president Hu Jing told Chinese state-run media in 2019 that he runs the business in accordance with “political laws, educational laws, and economic laws.”
“No matter how international the school is, it is still fundamentally a Chinese school, and it must pay close heed to the political environment,” Hu told journalists.
When his company set up a school in Shanghai, the first thing it did was to set up a CCP committee and choose a party secretary, he said.
British schools a weak link
Wang Jianhong, spokesman for the U.S.-based rights group Humanitarian China, said she was surprised at the sheer scale of Chinese acquisitions in the U.K. private education sector.
“British private schools are a weak link, because there is a need for investment, and the CCP is taking advantage of that,” Wang told RFA.
“There is little awareness of CCP infiltration,” said Wang, who lived in the U.K. for more than a decade.
Wang said any Chinese company investing in the sector would definitely need the backing of the CCP.
“The CCP’s investment in British private education has been on the increase … and there is definitely a CCP background to these companies: how would ordinary Chinese companies manage to buy up U.K. private schools?” she said.
“Compulsory education providers in the U.K. are now owned by enterprises controlled by the CCP, and the worry now is that its ideology will affect what is being taught there,” Wang said.
She said a current review of Confucius Institutes in the U.K. wouldn’t be enough to curb Beijing’s influence.
“Even if you shut down the Confucius Institute, the CCP has other ways in, including the acquisition of private schools,” Wang said. “I don’t think Western countries have yet realized the extent of the CCP’s involvement here.”
‘No idea how to resist’
U.K.-based author Ma Jian said the U.K. government was failing to perceive the risk in allowing such takeovers.
“These British politicians really are idiots,” Ma told RFA. “China is using their economy to gain a political voice, but they have no idea how to resist them.”
He said U.K. educational institutions also have a huge portfolio of investments in China.
“The U.K. has turned itself into a trading outpost of China, not just in terms of business, economy and trade, but also in terms of culture,” Ma said. “[U.K.] universities, research institutes, secondary and primary schools have invested a lot of money in China.”
He said the acquisition of U.K. private schools in entirely in keeping with China’s bid to expand CCP influence around the world under general secretary Xi Jinping.
“This is all about targeting the next generation, educationally speaking,” Ma said.
An employee of a Shanghai-based education-sector investment company, who gave only a nickname An, said there are also strong economic reasons for Chinese companies to be interested in the private education sector in the U.K.
The Hurun Research Institute reported in 2018 that more than 80 percent of China’s wealthiest families plan to send their children to overseas schools, with nearly one third saying they would choose schools in the U.K.
“British brands are also particularly attractive to Chinese parents, who think about the aristocratic British accent and lifestyle,” An told RFA.
According to a 2020 report from the Independent Schools Council (ISC), China has sent more students to private U.K. schools than any other country, a total of 10,864 at the time of the survey.
According to An, a weaker, post-Brexit pound and strong government support are also attractive to Chinese investors and parents alike.
ISC chair Barnaby Lenon told the Times Educational Supplement in 2019 that people should be “jolly pleased” that Chinese investors were buying up U.K. private schools.
“This obviously is the salvation of a small number of these schools. It’s a good thing for those schools because it means they can remain viable,” Lenon said.
Reported by Jane Tang for RFA’s Mandarin Service, and by Yitong Wu and Singman for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.