Questions over Villa's Chinese buyer
19 May 2016, 19:21
Shanghai - The new Chinese owner of English football club Aston Villa appears to be a highly educated, politically well-connected businessman - but questions have been raised over Tony Xia's academic credentials and background.
Xia, whose Chinese name is Xia Jiantong, and his private conglomerate Recon Group were largely unknown to the outside world before buying the newly relegated Birmingham club for a reported $87m on Wednesday.
A native of Zhejiang, known as the cradle of private companies in China, Xia's biography shows him to rule a vast corporate empire with interests ranging from health and new energy to financial services and tourism. Recon has assets of more than $15 billion, according to its website.
Wealthy Chinese entrepreneurs have poured money into football, with President Xi Jinping hoping that the Asian giant will one day host and win the World Cup.
Recon says it has played host to Xi and other top officials. A picture on the company website is captioned as showing Xi, then the Communist Party chief of the eastern province of Zhejiang, visiting the company in 2005.
Another image is labelled as Chinese Premier Li Keqiang touring a subsidiary, and a third is said to show another top Chinese Communist, Zhang Dejiang, visiting the company and praising its "digital cities" efforts.
Xia is not identified in any of the pictures, despite being the company chairman, chief executive and owner.
Searches by AFP did not find Chinese news reports of any of the three visits.
Announcing the sale, Aston Villa said that Recon "owns the controlling interest in five publicly listed companies on the Hong Kong and Chinese stock exchanges".
The Recon website says the same, but only names one of the subsidiaries, Lotus Health Group.
It claims to be the world's second largest producer of food additive monosodium glutamate but lost $78 million last year, according to a statement to the Shanghai stock exchange, where it is listed.
"Life is a marathon and building a company is an endurance race as well," Xia said in a posting on his microblog last year.
STAGE A COMEBACK
Xia's love of football is said to stem from playing striker as a student, with one online post identifying his alma mater as Beijing Forestry University, where he studied landscape architecture.
He later studied at Harvard, MIT and Oxford University, according to a biography published by Aston Villa. He is a published author, with a book on urban planning selling on the Chinese website of Amazon, whose single customer reviewer gives it five stars.
But doubts have been raised about Xia's credentials.
Fang Zhouzi, a prominent Chinese sceptic who operates a platform dedicated to exposing academic fraud such as plagiarism, questioned multiple Chinese reports that quoted Xia as claiming to be the youngest ever professor at Harvard.
In response, Xia said the media had exaggerated and he was only a professor's assistant.
There is also confusion over his age. His verified Weibo microblog gives a birthday that would make him 39, but a listed unit's annual report issued in April gave his age as 41.
Xia is the latest Chinese tycoon to heed Xi's call to develop football in the world's most populous country.
The Wanda Group of Chinese billionaire Wang Jianlin - who openly acknowledges that his footballing investments have political motivations -- bought a 20 percent stake in Spain's Atletico Madrid last year, and in March it signed a sponsorship deal with FIFA, football's troubled world body.
State-linked China Media Capital led a consortium to buy a stake of just over a 13% in Premier League club Manchester City for $400 million in December. Xi himself included the club on a state visit to Britain before the deal, and posed for a memorable selfie with player Sergio Aguero.
Aston Villa crashed out of the Premier League in April after a miserable season that saw the team win just three of 38 matches. Xia's dream is to return the club to the top flight and have them finish in the first six, according to a statement.
In an online posting discussing losing out on a business deal to a competitor, he said: "Do not lose courage after defeat, stage a comeback!"