Wen Ruchun, the daughter of former Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. Photo: New York Times
Beijing: A charity that gave £3.7 million ($A6.6 million) to Cambridge University to endow a professorship for Chinese development studies is run by members of the family of the country's former prime minister, Wen Jiabao, according to a well-placed source in Beijing.
The donation from the Chong Hua Foundation in January 2012 raises serious questions over whether Beijing is buying influence at one of Britain's most important universities, with one academic accusing it of allowing the Chinese government "to appoint a professor at Cambridge".
Cambridge University had previously denied that Chong Hua had links to the Chinese government, but information recently received by The Telegraph indicates that the foundation is controlled by Wen Ruchun, the daughter of China's former prime minister.
Former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in 2012. Photo: Reuters
Ms Wen is a senior member of one of China's most powerful "Red Families", which is estimated to have amassed $US2.3 billion ($2.45 billion) through its access to China's economy and banking system since the 1980s.
She holds a senior position at the Chinese government agency responsible for regulating the country's vast foreign exchange reserves and is a former student of Professor Peter Nolan, the Cambridge academic who was the inaugural appointee to the Chong Hua chair.
The news of the anonymous donation unsettled several academics in Cambridge. However, the university said it had scrutinised the donation and concluded there was "no link between this private foundation and the Chinese government".
Questions over the denial were raised when The Telegraph's reports of the donation were expunged by government censors from the Chinese internet.
There was further disquiet last Tuesday night after a Beijing entrepreneur said in a previously unpublished interview with a Western journalist that Chong Hua was indeed Ms Wen's charity.
The information came from Vivien Wang, the founder of Etonkids, a kindergarten chain, who said she had gifted a block of shares to Ms Wen, a potentially powerful political patron in Beijing's fiercely competitive business world.
"We gave the shares to her charity organisation," Ms Wang said of the 29 per cent stake, valued at £4.3 million in 2008. "The charity Chong Hua holds the shares."
Cambridge continues to deny that Chong Hua has links to the Chinese government and confirms only that it is registered to a trust in Bermuda.
A spokesman said: "The donation was fully verified and approved by the University of Cambridge Advisory Committee on Benefactions. No more details will be released as the donors have requested complete anonymity."
Bermuda law does not require a trust to disclose its end-user and Chong Hua has no website or official listing anywhere in Britain or China.
Cambridge said that it had been set up by "two wealthy individuals who wish to remain private".
The Bermuda Monetary Authority said that "we do not supervise individual trusts", adding that trusts were subject to international tax and money-laundering regulations.
Such responses are unlikely to satisfy academics who raised concerns over the donation and its implications for academic independence at Cambridge.
"It would seem that a foreign government appointed a professor of politics at Cambridge," said one academic.
"How, if the foundation's money came from the family of the head of government of the People's Republic of China for over a decade, and if the foundation was able to name the first occupant of the chair, can Cambridge demonstrate academic independence?"
The issue of China buying soft-power influence at increasingly cash-strapped British universities was discussed on Wednesday at a meeting of the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based think tank.
Professor Nolan, an international expert whose most recent book, Is China Buying the World?, accuses Western commentators of scaremongering over China's rise and failing to make a "balanced presentation" on China's role in the world economy.
Cambridge has not revealed his salary as Chong Hua professor.
Professor Nolan's links to the Wen family were established when he co-authored a book with Ms Wen's husband, Liu Chunhang.
Mr Liu is now the director of statistics at China's banking regulator, forming a financial power couple with Ms Wen, who works at the State Administration for Foreign Exchange.
Ms Wen, who is understood to have been tutored by Professor Nolan, was reported to have earned £1.1 million in consultant fees from JP Morgan, the investment bank, between 2006 and 2008.
Neither could be reached for comment.