Chinese firms are exploiting financial difficulties caused by the Coronavirus pandemic to buy up struggling private schools in the UK. This is an acceleration of a recent trend of Chinese firms buying British private schools, ostensibly to cater for the growing population of Chinese students in private education in the UK. In their 2019 Annual Report, The Independent Schools Council, which represents 1,364 private schools, reported that there were 9,585 Chinese students enrolled in the schools they represent. Seventeen private schools in the UK are now Chinese-owned. As these schools seek to curate their curriculum for their Chinese students, there is concern that Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda will be introduced and that academic freedom will be restricted.
Bright Scholar, a Chinese trans-national education provider, owns Bournemouth Collegiate School, St. Michael’s School in Llanelli, Wales, Bosworth Independent College in Northampton, and CATS Colleges with colleges in Cambridge, Canterbury, and London. Bright Scholar is owned and chaired by Yang Huiyan, China’s wealthiest woman. She is a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) which is part of China’s United Front, a network of interest groups controlled by the CCP that seeks to advance the party’s political and economic interests at home and abroad. Wanda Group, a Chinese multinational conglomerate, owns two private schools, Ipswich High School and Bedstone College, through the asset management company, London and Oxford Group. Wanda Group’s founder and chairman, Wang Jianlin is a member of the Chinese Communist Party and was a deputy to the 17th National Congress of the CCP. His personal motto is: “Stay close to the government and distant from politics”. He is also a member of the CPPCC alongside Ms. Yang. China First Capital Group owns Kingsley School in Bideford and Heathfield Knoll School in Kidderminster through their subsidiary, KSI Education. China First’s two co-CEOs, Huanqiang Zhu and Zhijun Zhao, are both members of the CCP and have previously worked at senior levels in the China Securities Regulatory Commission, China’s state securities regulator. With these new links between these British schools and prominent members of the CCP, Reform UK leader, Nigel Farage has warned of the threat to the British education system posed by a Communist Party that has already engaged in spying and intellectual property theft at major universities and corporations.
Farage cited the Confucius Institutes as an example of how Chinese-controlled educational institutions in the West have been used to spread propaganda about China and silence dissent against the CCP. Confucius Institutes are educational partnerships between Chinese universities and universities around the world. They aim to promote learning of the Chinese language and Chinese culture. A House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee report from 2019 found that Confucius Institute officials and officials from the Chinese Embassy had interfered with the academic freedom of many universities. Professor Christopher Hughes of the London School of Economics reported that Confucius Institute officials had confiscated papers at an academic conference which mentioned Taiwan as an independent entity–something the CCP denies, as part of their “One China” policy. A Uyghur Muslim student in the UK also appears to have been spied upon, as her family back in China began to be harassed after she became politically active on campus. Other universities have been pressured to cancel events or disinvite speakers of which the CCP disapproves. Two years ago, many universities around the world had already severed ties with Confucius Institutes for similar reasons, including Stockholm University and the University of Michigan. No such action has been taken in UK universities, despite the warnings from the Foreign Affairs Committee report. Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab said in January that the government was, once again, “reviewing” the influence of these Institutes on UK universities.
If the influence of Chinese firms on second-level education is anything like what has been seen at third-level, then the education system faces very serious problems. What is worrying is that, unlike the Confucius Institutes, the entire ethos and curricula of these private schools are now in the hands of their new owners. In the wake of the Covid crisis, the threat of financial ruin seems to be looming far more heavily over these schools than the possible threat of foreign interference. As is too often the case, Chinese money is simply to attractive to turn down, no matter what strings may be attached.