Chinese Character

Call for the doctor

Aston Villa, just relegated, set for groundbreaking Chinese takeover

Xia Jiantong, the chairman of Recon Group, who has agreed to buy English soccer club Aston Villa, speaks during an interview with Reuters in his office in Beijing

Welcome to Birmingham: Villa’s prospective owner Dr Xia Jiantong

A defeat by Manchester United last month confirmed the demotion of Aston Villa from the English Premier League (the club finished bottom of the table). Amid the misery some fans took comfort that Villa’s unloved owner Randy Lerner was in active talks to sell the club.

Who were the suitors, though? The Birmingham Mail reported excitedly that a Chinese billionaire with “Napoleonic ambition” and “iron discipline” seemed likely to buy the former European champions. It said Wang Jianlin, a former soldier who has since become one of China’s richest tycoons, was tipped to acquire the biggest club in England’s second city.

The report did have a grain of truth. Last week the sale of Aston Villa was confirmed. For the first time a businessman from mainland China is set to own a major English football club.

However, the “Chinese Napoleon” turned out to be Dr Tony Xia, who comes up shorter in the money stakes (at least compared to Wang, who is estimated to be worth $33 bilion).

So who is the little known Xia? His Chinese name is Xia Jiantong, which WiC reckons to be one of the most patriotic names possible: xia is an ancient name for China, jian means ‘to construct’ and tong translates into ‘unification’.

Aston Villa focused more on Xia’s love for the sport. “Dr Xia played football as a striker until he finished at college and football has remained his passion,” it said in a statement. “Dr Xia decided to buy an iconic football club in England as the cornerstone of his sports, leisure and tourism division.”

The statement added that Xia is owner of “Recon Group, a conglomerate which controls several listed firms in Hong Kong and China, employing 35,000 people in 75 countries”. Recon Group describes itself as active in six core sectors, ranging from new energy to smart city technologies. One of its listed arms, Lotus Health (formerly known as Lotus Flower Gourmet Powder), is China’s largest producer of the food additive MSG.

Before Recon’s £75 million ($110.3 million) bid for Villa, Xia was virtually unknown in Britain. As such, the UK media has been scrambling for information on his background. Fortunately the 39 year-old seems eager for the spotlight, taking interviews from all comers in the past week.

One of the more prominent questions directed at Xia is about his financial status. Villa fans certainly don’t want to see a repeat of what happened to cross-town rivals Birmingham City, which was bought by Hong Kong businessman Carson Yeung (the former hairdresser is now serving time for money laundering, among other financial crimes).

“I think I have rather more than that,” Xia told the Daily Mail when asked if he ranks as a dollar billionaire. He went on to explain that he sold one of his companies for £430 million a few months ago and the cash is sitting in the bank waiting to be spent.

“I appreciate it’s a big deal for Villa fans,” he said of the takeover. “But actually in pure business terms, I’m working on acquisitions much bigger than this.”

In another interview with the Guardian, Xia vowed to transform the relegated club into one of the world’s top sides and promised to provide up to £50 million next season for the new manager to buy talent.

Back in China, a profile of the businessman by the Beijing Youth Daily in January 2000 was widely forwarded on the internet: extracts included that Xia could recite 300 Tang Dynasty poems when he was three and that he started primary school at five (graduating at eight); that he did environment studies and design at the Beijing Forestry University (he got his degree aged 19); and that he worked briefly for the Ministry of Construction before furthering his studies at Harvard when he was 21, getting his doctorate (in design) aged 25.

Impressive stuff, indeed. The Chinese media first focused on Xia in 1999, when the Hangzhou government was applying for UNESCO World Heritage status for its West Lake. Xia was part of the advisory team and did a sterling job. Local newspapers described him as a “wonder kid” and a “divine boy”, as well as “the youngest Harvard professor”.

This caught the attention of Fang Zhouzi, a science writer with a reputation for uncovering academic misconduct (see WiC69). He made a call to Harvard and found out that Xia was still pursuing his PhD and was not a professor but a part-time teaching assistant.

Fang’s revelation created a media stir and Xia was held up as another example of a haigui (literally a sea turtle – referring to Chinese who come home to work after overseas study) that had exaggerated his academic credentials. Xia responded that the misunderstanding was not his fault and that one of the Chinese newspapers had referred to him mistakenly as a professor.

Aston Villa has played it safe about the academic background of its prospective new owner, introducing him as having “spent six years at Harvard and MIT, including a five-month exchange with Oxford University, before returning to China”.

(Of course, Villa fans won’t care a jot about Xia’s academic credentials as long as he starts buying the team better players.)

What is not in dispute is that Xia has talents in two fields almost completely unrelated to soccer: landscape architecture and poetry. A People’s Daily profile claims Xia had the air of an artist as a younger man, noting that he had authored Be the Lover of Harvard Once, a compilation of poems.

“I am a very traditional man, with very strong patriotic instincts,” Xia told his interviewer, insisting that he had made the right decision to return to China, instead of becoming an academic at Harvard.

One reason for the homecoming could have been his healthy relationship with the Chinese government. In 2009 Xia was one of the first candidates to be picked by the powerful Organisation Department (effectively the human resources department for the Chinese Communist Party) for a special talent programme that lured people with international pedigree back to China.

Xia has also embraced a series of official duties, including an advisory role at a State Council think tank and a tutoring position at a government training centre for mayors.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot less information about how Xia made his business fortune. He seems to have got his start with town planning contracts for local governments such as Hangzhou. Next he began his food additives business, although there’s not much mention of how he transformed from landscape architect to seasoning tycoon.

In recent years Xia has tried to reposition himself as an astute financier and he has been very active in the A-share market. Some of his strategies, such as taking his assets public via backdoor listings, have attracted the attention of the China Securities Regulatory Commission, Beijing News reports. One of his listed firms, Lotus Flower Gourmet Powder, made rather too big a splash last December when it named Xi Yinping, the cousin of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, as an independent director. The stock price raced skywards, although the appointment was reversed a day later – with the Beijing News classing it as a publicity stunt that had misfired (see WiC307).

Before completing his Villa takeover, Xia must pass a ‘fit and proper person’ test with the English football authorities. “I think there is no way, and not any excuse, that they should turn me down because I am a person who is doing everything legally,” he assured the Daily Telegraph.

Other newspapers have been digging deeper into Xia’s business affairs, including the Financial Times, which queried whether Recon controls five listed companies, as previously suggested. The FT said he owned just one. That prompted further clarification from Villa’s prospective new owner.

“The Recon Group said the mistaken information contained in the press release had been the result of a ‘miscommunication’ with Aston Villa, and they would ask the football club to change the wording of the statement,” the FT reported.

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