Why Chinese billionaire Richard Liu was studying in the US before arrest

JD.com founder Richard Liu attends a Reuters interview in Hong Kong, China, on June 9, 2017. Liu was in Minneapolis to complete a US-China business administration doctorate programme. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - With a US$7.3 billion fortune and business operations spanning the globe, Richard Liu could've spent the last days of August anywhere in the world.

The JD.com Inc. 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 criminal sexual conduct 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.

The course takes place mainly in Beijing with a singular cohort of students: the average age is 50, and many are captains of industry. Co-led by Tsinghua University - the alma mater of Chinese leaders including Xi Jinping - its 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."

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JD.com chief executive Richard Liu was arrested in the US state of Minnesota on suspicion of criminal sexual conduct and later released after what the company said was a false accusation.

It's 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 startup WM Motor Technology Co.

Liu was arrested by the Minneapolis police on an accusation of "criminal sexual conduct" late Friday night and held about 16 hours. A Police Department spokesman says the investigation is ongoing. Joseph Friedberg, Liu's attorney, said he is confident there will be no criminal charges and that the CEO did nothing wrong.

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 the Orient. 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," added 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 startup 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 Cui Haitao, 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 Carlson School of Management dean Sri Zaheer. Other graduates onstage that day included Chen Jianhua, chairman of Hengli Group Co. and Wu Xiaoli, deputy-director of information for Phoenix Media Investment. All are considered business elite.

"Carlson is known to transform students," Ant Financial Chairman Eric Jing, a Carlson grad, 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 business people 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."

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