Chinese companies have bought 17 British private schools in Britain in recent years, fueling fears of the expanding influence of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the country as the schools struggle financially in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, British media reported.
“Hundreds of independent schools are falling behind in dire financial straits due to the coronavirus pandemic being targeted by Chinese investors,” Letters on Sundays newspapers reported on weekends.
Some of the companies are run by high-ranking members of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, and are “seeking to expand their influence over the British education system,” the report said.
According to an investigation by the newspaper, nine of the 17 schools under Chinese control are owned by companies controlled by Chinese businessmen who are members of the People’s Political Consultative Conference of China (CPPCC), a body that maintains close links between private sector wealth and the ruling party.
Private schools have been hard hit by the pandemic, with enrollments slumping and fees dropping as students are sent home for distance learning, the report said.
Prior to the pandemic, Bright Scholar – a company owned by the daughter of Chinese property magnate Yang Guoqiang – had invested in several schools, including Bournemouth Collegiate School and St Michael’s School in Llanelli, Carmarthanshire, the newspaper said.
Bedstone College in Shropshire and Ipswich High School are owned by London-based asset managers & the London-based Oxford Group, which is supported by the Chinese conglomerate Wanda Group.
Riddlesworth Hall Preparatory School in Norfolk, attended by Princess Diana, was acquired by the Confucius International Education Group in 2015.
Ray Global Education, which has two private schools based in the UK, said the acquisition was part of a “Global Campus” project that seeks to promote the CCP Belt & Road infrastructure and global influence initiatives in the global education sector.
Company president Hu Jing told Chinese state-run media in 2019 that he conducts business in accordance with “political law, education law and economic law.”
“No matter how international the school is, it is basically a Chinese school, and it has to pay attention to the political environment,” Hu told reporters.
When his company set up a school in Shanghai, the first thing it did was set up a CCP committee and elect a party secretary, he said.
British schools have a weak relationship
Wang Jianhong, spokesman for the US-based Chinese human rights group, said he was surprised by the scale of China’s acquisitions in Britain’s private education sector.
“British private schools are a weak link in the chain, because there is a need for investment, and the CCP is taking advantage of it,” Wang told RFA.
“There is little awareness about the CCP infiltration,” said Wang, who has lived in Britain for more than a decade.
Wang said that any Chinese company that invests in this sector needs support from the CCP.
“The CCP’s investment in British private education has increased … and there is definitely a CCP background to these companies: how can ordinary Chinese companies buy private British schools?” she says.
“The compulsory education provider in Britain is now owned by a company controlled by the CCP, and the concern now is that its ideology will influence what is taught there,” said Wang.
He said the current review of the Confucius Institute in Britain would not be enough to curb Beijing’s influence.
“Even if you close the Confucius Institute, the CCP has other means, including the acquisition of private schools,” said Wang. “I don’t think Western countries haven’t realized the extent of the CCP’s involvement here.”
‘Don’t know how to fight’
UK-based writer Ma Jian said the British government failed to understand the risks in allowing the takeover.
“These British politicians are really idiots,” Ma told RFA. “The Chinese are using their economy to get a political vote, but they don’t know how to fight them.”
He said British educational institutions also have a very large investment portfolio in China.
“Britain has transformed itself into a Chinese trade outpost, not only in terms of business, economy and trade, but also in terms of culture,” said Ma. “[U.K.] universities, research institutes, middle and elementary schools have invested a lot of money in China. ”
He said the acquisition of British private schools was entirely in line with China’s efforts to expand the CCP’s influence around the world under general secretary Xi Jinping.
“It’s all about targeting the next generation, educationally,” said Ma.
An employee of a Shanghai-based education sector investment firm, who gave only the nickname An, said there were also strong economic reasons for Chinese companies to be attracted to the UK’s private education sector.
The Hurun Research Institute reported in 2018 that more than 80 percent of China’s richest families plan to send their children to overseas schools, with nearly a third saying they would choose schools in the UK.
“The British brand is also very attractive to Chinese parents, who think of an 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 UK private schools than any other country, a total of 10,864 at the time of the survey.
According to An, the weaker pound, post-Brexit and strong government support also appealed to Chinese investors and parents.
ISC chairman Barnaby Lenon told the Times Educational Supplement in 2019 that people should be “very happy” that Chinese investors are buying British private schools.
“This is definitely the rescue of a small number of these schools. It’s a good thing for the schools because it means they can stay afloat,” said Lenon.
Reported by Jane Tang for RFA Mandarin Service, and by Yitong Wu and Singman for Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.