Chinese donation puts Cambridge University under scrutiny

According to The Telegraph, several secret meetings were held at Cambridge University with the daughter of China’s former prime minister to secure a £3.7 million donation for a university professorship. It is reported that the meetings took place between 2009 and 2011 and led to the successful solicitation of a donation from Wen Ruchun, the daughter of the then prime minister, Wen Jiabao.

Cambridge denied it knew of “any link” between the Chinese government and the anonymous Chong Hua foundation belonging to Wen Ruchun (inset).  Photograph: Telegraph Cambridge denied it knew of “any link” between the Chinese government and the anonymous Chong Hua foundation belonging to Wen Ruchun (inset). Photograph: Telegraph
08-10-2014 by The Telegraph

A source has told The Telegraph that several secret meetings were held at Cambridge University with the daughter of China’s former prime minister during which a £3.7m donation was secured for a university professorship.  According to the source, the meetings took place between 2009 and 2011 at the Raffles Hotel in Beijing and led to the successful solicitation of a donation from Wen Ruchun, the daughter of the then prime minister Wen Jiabao.

Subsequently, Ms Wen, 41, agreed to fund a chair of Chinese Development Studies through her charitable foundation, Chong Hua. Professor Peter Nolan, Ms Wen's former professor at Cambridge was the inaugural appointee.

"The new details about Cambridge’s close relationship with one of China’s wealthiest political families come as senior professors worry that the donation gave the Chinese government undue influence over the university."

The Telegraph first revealed the donation in 2012.  At that time, Cambridge denied it knew of “any link” between the Chinese government and the anonymous Chong Hua foundation, which is registered to a blind trust in Bermuda and belongs to Wen Ruchun.  Those denials are now under renewed scrutiny.  According to The Telegraph, Cambridge said its ethics committee had carefully scrutinised the donation. The ethics committee found it to be “in line with our published ethical guidelines.”

A former government official with ties to the Wen family said that university representatives had met directly with Ms Wen in Beijing between 2009 to 2011 to discuss the donation.  During these meetings the university had promised there would be “no questions asked”.

The source told The Telegraph: “She asked me to donate to Cambridge.” “She said it would be for prestige and there would be other benefits." "I did not believe her at the time, but now I think anything can be bought.” After being told that it would be an anonymous process, he declined to donate and did not attend the meetings.  He added: “I wondered why, if I was going to donate my legal money, I could not use my name.” He told The Telegraph that he was suspicious about why Ms Wen had used Chong Hua as the vehicle for donations.

According to an investigation by the New York Times, the family of 72-year-old Mr Wen has amassed a $2.7 billion (£1.6 billion) fortune by sitting at the intersection of government and business.

"The origin of Chong Hua’s funds remains opaque. The source said that Ms Wen, who worked for Credit Suisse and was also reported to have earned £1.1 million in consultant fees between 2006 and 2008 from JP Morgan, the investment bank, had been soliciting donations from other members of the Communist Party elite. Ms Wen was also a shareholder in a Chinese jewellery company called Gallop, according to the New York Times."

The inaugural Chong Hua professor of Chinese Development Studies at Cambridge, Peter Nolan, taught Ms Wen and co-authored a book in 2007 and several academic papers with her husband, Liu Chunhang.  At this time, her husband was a government official.

Mr Liu is now the director of statistics at China’s banking regulator.  Mr Liu forms a financial power couple with Ms Wen.  She works at the State Administration for Foreign Exchange. Both of these organisations are government organisations.

The Cambridge China Development Trust also partly financed Mr Liu’s research for four years.  Professor Nolan was also a director at the Cambridge China Development Trust.

The current Cambridge vice chancellor, Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, held an event for the Cambridge China Development Trust when he was in Beijing in April 2011.  However, a web page about this event is no longer available.

According to The Telegraph senior academics are continuing to raise questions about the Chong Hua donation at the highest levels with University officials.

"Several attempts to contact Wen Ruchun have failed."

Despite fears that a foundation with close links to the Communist party’s elite is bankrolling a chair in a highly polarised subject, Cambridge continues to defend the donation. 

Two months after the meetings that led to the Chong Hua donation, a former high-flying Chinese government official, Professor Zhang Wei, abruptly left the university for a job at the Hong Kong conglomerate Mingly.  Professor Zhang Wei was the head of Cambridge’s Greater China Economics research institute. 

"Prof Zhang did not respond to several requests for comment on his departure. However, some of his friends and former students have speculated as to whether his departure could have been linked to the donation."

One Cambridge student said: “The impression he left me with is that his departure was not entirely willing, there was some pressure for unknown reasons to get him to leave.” He added: “The danger he posed was in his ability, even if not very public, to privately educate and open the lid on how the Party functions inside.” “Some people have told me specifically that he was forced out, some people have said there is no evidence for it. I’m a little bit more on the fence,” he said insinuating that the Chinese could influence Cambridge’s teaching simply by financing their choice of professor.

“The Chinese do not necessarily blackmail and hand over money in suitcases. That crosses a line. But by endowing a chair so that the university does not have to spend money on Chinese economics, they are opening a door so that someone they prefer can succeed.”

A close friend of Prof Zhang said that he had felt ill-treated by the university and that he was bound by a confidentiality agreement.

According to The Telegraph, Dame Alison Richard, who spearheaded a billion-pound fundraising campaign as Cambridge vice-chancellor from 2003 to 2010, said that she remained satisfied that the Wen Ruchun donation had been properly scrutinised.  She added: “All I would say with you about that gift is that it went through a serious process conducted by serious people. We were satisfied that it met the expectations for it to be a gift and we were delighted to have a new chair in perpetuity under a distinguished member of the faculty.” 

Dame Alison, spent nearly 30 years at Yale before becoming vice-chancellor at Cambridge.  She declined to discuss the specifics of the Wen Ruchun donation. She did not contradict multiple assertions by The Telegraph that she had met with Ms Wen.

She did confirm however that she had “worked closely” with Professor Nolan to secure the Chong Hua endowment.  She also said that his appointment as its first occupant was “fine” because he was already a Cambridge professor.  His successor would however be freely chosen by faculty.  She added: “Peter Nolan will retire and then – and its wonderful because it strengthens, I think, a very interesting activity at the university – and his successor will be chosen by a proper academic process.” 

According to The Telegraph, Dame Alison added that the key donors like Wen Ruchun brought much more than money to universities like Cambridge.  They would be expected to “open doors” to their world.

She said: “Their money is just a quite modest part of what they do for you because these are smart, successful people who care about the institution. They can help you in all kinds of ways, with their ideas, mentoring students, opening doors, connecting you to the rest of the world.”

"During her time in office, Dame Alison was renowned for bringing more aggressive, American-style fundraising to Cambridge as she sought to diversify the university’s endowments in order to give greater freedom from government influence."

She described British newspaper headlines as “pathetic”. Following the launch of one fundraising campaign British newspapers claimed that dons were “getting their begging bowls out”.  She added that regardless of whether the money came from Eastern Europe, the Middle East or China it often had government connections.

She said that such money often occupied a “grey area” between having outright criminal origins and transparently clean sources. Such money required “philosophical judgments” to ensure that Universities did not suffer reputational damage for accepting them. She added: “There is an argument, which is that universities take, perhaps, funds that have been raised in the grey area and put it to extremely good purposes. You can say that the universities are providing salvation for, you know, gifts raised in this grey area.” 

"There is no suggestion that Dame Alison, her successor Sir Leszec Borysiewicz or Professor Nolan were aware of or involved in anything improper in respect of the Chong Hua donation."

A Cambridge spokesman said: “The philanthropic donation from the Chong Hua Education Foundation was fully verified and approved by the University of Cambridge Advisory Committee on Benefactions. No more details will be released as the donors, as is common practice, have requested complete anonymity." “It is wholly wrong and indeed invidious to suggest that any such donation could have any influence at all on our admissions policy or our employment practice.”