'Princeling' named head of new Shanghai university

Jiang Mianheng, son of China's former president Jiang Zemin, has been named head of ShanghaiTech University - a new university modelled on the California Institute of Technology in the United States. But the appointment has raised eyebrows in some academic circles and prompted questions around how university presidents are appointed.

'Princelings' - the offspring of China's Communist Party leaders - are often parachuted into top jobs. But the new institution's president is widely seen as a multi-millionaire businessman who would not normally be in the running for a high-profile academic position.

Last year, in a major investigation into the dealings of the families of China's top political leaders, the New York Times claimed that Jiang Mianheng, along with relatives of other party leaders, used family ties to achieve personal financial gain.

The report alleged that he benefited financially from Hollywood studio DreamWorks Animation's US$330 million (HK$2.6 billion) deal to create a Shanghai animation studio.

"This [academic post] may indicate that Jiang Mianheng would like to distance himself as a businessman and join academia to build a good image for himself," said Joseph Cheng, professor of politics at City University of Hong Kong.

Jiang's father Jiang Zemin, now 87, was China's president for 10 years from 1993. Although the elder statesman no longer holds any official posts he is regarded as highly influential within China, and particularly in Shanghai where he was mayor and party chief before taking up positions in Beijing.

With a government anti-corruption crackdown underway and many high profile political figures under investigation, the spotlight has also fallen on their children.

Former president Jiang's children, including Mianheng, "may be exposed to all sorts of allegations of corruption", said Willy Lam an adjunct professor at the Centre for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and author of The Era of Jiang Zemin.

Already a number of princelings have scaled back public displays of wealth that include expensive cars, jewellery, designer clothes and luxury-brand accessories which they had openly flaunted in the past.

ShanghaiTech University

ShanghaiTech University, situated in the Pudong Science and Technology Park in Shanghai, has been described as a 'research university in the making' in its promotional literature, which emphasises a low faculty-student ratio compared to other Chinese universities.

Set up jointly by the Shanghai Municipal Government and the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences, it boasts 'extensive collaboration' with the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Chicago and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The first 300 masters students were admitted last September and the first undergraduates will be admitted in September this year. The campus is still being constructed and is expected to be completed in 2015.

Jiang was first named publically as the institution's new president by the Communist Party newspaper People's Daily in February, when he was quoted as saying, "we do not want to build a world-class university, but will focus on serving the national development strategies".

The People's Daily article came as ShanghaiTech opened applications for 200 undergraduate places on 18 February - at full strength it plans to have 2,000 undergraduate and 4,000 postgraduate students. According to documents on the university website it has already recruited three Nobel laureates including Kurt Wuthrich, a Swiss Nobel prize-winning biophysicist.

But some academics have been calling for a more transparent process in academic leadership appointments - many top appointments are made by the organisation department of the Communist Party's powerful Central Committee.

"We do not know how this [Jiang's] appointment was made," said a Shanghai-based academic speaking on condition of anonymity. He added that Jiang, now 62, would normally be considered "too old" for the official post of university president, beyond the official retirement age of 60.


Jiang Mianheng's qualifications to be university president are also far from clear, as he has been mainly involved in business.

Few dispute his intelligence. With a doctorate in electrical engineering from Drexel University in the US, he has had many business interests since the 1990s when he returned to China, including telecoms, automotive industries and others, most of them with strong links to state-owned enterprises.

"Particularly given his political connections, he is a very successful businessman, but princelings are not very popular figures in China as they are seen, rightly or wrongly, as beneficiaries of the system," Willy Lam told University World News.

"There is a lot of speculation and innuendo but so far there is no concrete evidence that he is corrupt," said Lam. Nonetheless "this [university] position will help deflect some criticism."

Jiang was one of several vice-presidents of the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences, or CAS, from 1999 to 2011. However, in a surprise decision by senior scientists, Jiang's bid to become head of the academy was thwarted in February 2011, when they said he was not qualified for the job. A more low-key academic was elected instead.

Some unconfirmed media reports suggest he may have been 'stripped' of the vice-president's position at the academy in November 2011, allegedly because of investigations into the use of public funds in his business dealings.

Since then Jiang has been president of the academy's Shanghai branch and was named as ShanghaiTech's "preparatory team leader".

CAS vice-presidents and presidents of China's top universities all have formal ranks in the party hierarchy equivalent to vice-minister. City University's Cheng sees the ShanghaiTech job as a step down from Jiang's previous CAS post.

"Only the top university presidents, such as Beijing University, enjoy vice-ministerial rank; this position is definitely lower," said Cheng.

According to Lam the position at the new institution "may be a consolation prize" for previously losing out on the CAS presidency.

According to another Shanghai insider who did not want to be named, "Dr Jiang (Mianheng) took on various CAS positions in the past just to please his father, who has always wanted his son to have a high position in the CAS - such an academic position is highly prestigious. But Dr Jiang is more interested in business."

Anti-corruption campaign

However Jiang's many ventures - early in his career he was known as China's "IT prince" - could also help build university-industry links, particularly in high technology industries that could promote innovation in China - a key government ambition.

"Many universities in China would love to have such a person. He could raise funds without a problem and get well-known personalities to sit on the university board. He does not have to be hands on, but more of a figurehead," Lam said.

City University's Cheng said there is little information that Jiang is disposing of his business interests in favour of academia. China does not have very strict conflict of interest regulations, he said.

"Apparently Dr Jiang can retain his business interests and continue to run them at the same time. We don't know whether this is an 'honorary appointment' or whether he will be involved in day to day administration," Cheng said.

Lam added: "I don't think he will spend much time running the university."