JD.com chief’s PhD study follows a long line of Chinese executives seeking academic credentials to gilt their resumes
With a US$7.3 billion fortune and business operations spanning the globe, Richard Liu Qiangdong could have spent the last days of August anywhere in the world. The JD.com founder chose to spend his time taking classes in Minneapolis as a student at the University of Minnesota.
Why was one of China’s most successful and recognisable business figures hitting the books at all, much less so far from home in the Gopher State?
That is part of the mystery surrounding Liu’s days in Minnesota, where he was arrested for alleged rape as the long Labor Day weekend got underway.
Liu, 45, is a student in the university’s Carlson School of Management and was in Minneapolis to complete the American residency of a US-China business administration doctorate programme. Co-led by Tsinghua University - the alma mater of Chinese leaders including Xi Jinping - the course takes place mainly in Beijing with a singular cohort of students: the average age is 50, and many are captains of industry. The American university’s graduates include the executive manager of storied spirits-maker Kweichow Moutai and the head of fintech titan Ant Financial.
The Twin Cities programme is one of scores that cater to a fast-rising Chinese demographic: senior executives. Unlike in the US, where luminaries such as Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates wear their college-dropout badges with pride, Chinese executives seek academic plaudits long after they cease to matter for their careers.
“If you have a better degree and better education you get more recognition,” said Wang Huiyao, founder of the Centre for China and Globalisation, a think tank that advises the government. “China pays more attention to education.”
JD.com’s US-traded shares fell 6 per cent in New York Tuesday and have dropped 29 per cent this year.
It is not just about academic credentials. Many executives who grew up frustrated by overseas restrictions are indulging in travel freedoms. Others whose companies are exploring overseas markets hope to tap networks abroad and gain insight into their targets.
“For people like Richard Liu, it is not so much about knowing more people. It is surely for the purpose of widening his perspective, to learn new ideas, to get better understanding of the American society and market,” said Freeman Shen, an alumnus and Carlson board of overseers member who founded electric-vehicle start-up WM Motor Technology.
Sri Zaheer, dean of the Carlson School of Management, said Liu’s course typically takes four years to complete. About halfway through, each cohort heads West for a summer residency in Minnesota where they work on applied dissertation ideas with mentors and meet the top executives of notable local companies. On the most recent visit, the faculty conducted classes on marketing and "developing critical thinking in a global context", Zaheer said.
“They’re at a stage where they feel like they’ve maybe become successful before they’ve had a chance to actually think about why or how,” she said of the executives in the programme. “They seem to want to reflect on their career. They’re also interested in taking their companies to become more global. And these are the kinds of things they feel like they haven’t quite gotten a handle on.”
But it is not all work for the high-powered cohorts when they visit Minneapolis. An important part of the course involves giving Chinese executives a taste of America.
“They get taken to football games and they get taken to the Minneapolis Institute of Art, so we want them to expose them a little bit to what the USA is as well,” she said.
Liu was arrested by the Minneapolis police on suspicion of rape late Friday night and held about 16 hours. A Police Department spokesman says the investigation is ongoing.
Joseph Friedberg, Liu’s lawyer, said he is confident there will be no criminal charges and that the JD.com chief executive did nothing wrong.
“He’s not going to get charged with a crime,” Friedberg said on Tuesday. “I would bet my licence on it.”
Liu is now back at work in his home country, a big source of scholars for American colleges. Though US-China tensions are running high, the University of Minnesota continues to tout its decades-old tradition of welcoming students from Asia. The college says it was among the first to resume exchanges after the normalisation of relations with China in the late 1970s, establishing an office dedicated to maintaining ties in 1979. In 2008, it opened an office in Beijing to support that collaboration.
The “education at Minnesota is as rigorous as that in Harvard", said Shen, who also attended the Ivy League college.
Foreign graduates and recruitment executives say one deep-seated reason for the recent surge in popularity of overseas academic programmes is an urgent need to solve the problems facing a rapidly changing economy: the rich-poor divide, technology development and sustainable growth among them.
“What worked before, everybody knows will not work in the future,” said Ken Qi, a recruitment executive for Spencer Stuart. “The whole economy is under huge pressure to be transformed.”
Such programmes - offered by countless global universities - are increasingly popular among the executives Qi helps place in top flight companies. The students run the gamut from internet start-up founders to directors at state-owned enterprises, he said. Lower down the corporate ladder, a key attraction is the ability to network: much of China runs on connections.
But the overarching driver may be a hunger to learn how to coax their Chinese companies into a new economic era. The country’s businesses - especially those in tech - are increasingly sending their most promising graduates in unprecedented volumes for further study to learn how Western businesses use technology to deal with economic upheaval.
Spearheaded by seasoned academic, table-tennis enthusiast and Chinese citizen Tony Haitao Cui, the Minneapolis doctorate programme only produced its inaugural class of graduates in May of this year. A news report posted by Kweichow Moutai showed its executive manager Cai Fangxin getting his certificate from Zaheer, the Carlson School’s dean.
Other graduates onstage that day included Chen Jianhua, chairman of Hengli Group and Wu Xiaoli, deputy director of information for Phoenix Media Investment. All are considered business elite.
“Carlson is known to transform students,” Ant Financial Services chairman Eric Jing, a Carlson graduate, said in a commencement speech to the class of 2017. “I discovered a lot here. A wealth of knowledge, a global perspective and a desire to build more bridges between Carlson and China.”
The trend of Chinese executives going abroad has only just begun, said Centre for China and Globalisation’s Wang.
“It’s going to increase because there are more businesspeople who want to go study, there are more new problems, new challenges that need to be learned about,” he said. “The market economy was not started here that long ago so it’s quite natural for them to go to different B schools and have further studies.”