The Chinese businessman who wants to buy land in Iceland has been facing his share of critics and defenders. So what do we know about him?
First off, a bit of background. Huang Nubo, director of the company Zhongkun, is willing to pay 1 billion ISK for land in Grímsstaðir á Fjöllum. The land has been for sale for some time now, and Nubo would like to build a luxury hotel on the location.
The problem is, Icelandic law forbids those from outside of Europe from owning land in Iceland, unless they make a formal request that an exception be made in their case.
This point is an important one. Many Icelanders are still deeply suspicious of foreign investors wanting to buy land in Iceland, due in no small part to the fiasco sparked by Canadian company Magma Energy (now called Alterra). When they wanted to buy land in Iceland, they could have taken the route Huang Nubo is taking. Instead, they opted to create a dummy company in Sweden to have faster access to the area.
Secondly, Magma Energy – being a geothermal energy company – was of course interested in the natural resources of the area they sought to purchase. Huang Nubo, however, has actually gone out of his way to demonstrate he has no desire to exploit Icelandic natural resources:
As the land includes one of the biggest glacial rivers in Iceland, Huang has promised to give up rights to exploit water resources and planned to establish an expert team to evaluate environmental impacts of the project.
His connections to Iceland do appear above board, for the most part. He spent $1 million of his own money to set up an Icelandic-Chinese poet exchange programme (and claims to be a poet himself).
But his connections to the country don’t end there. He is also good friends with Hjörleifur Sveinbjörnsson, the husband of former Foreign Minister Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir. Huang Nubo and Hjörleifur have apparently been friends for a long time, and it has been reported that during a visit to Iceland last year, Foreign Minister Össur Skarphéðinsson lent him a ministry car for being shown around the country.
Another blogger – citing an array of sources for a blog entry on Chinese tourism, but not footnoting the source of the following caveat, had this to say:
Many of China’s most famous tourist sites are managed by politically-connected business like Beijing Zhongdian Investment Corp, which earned by more than $600 million in 2006 running sites such as Hongchun in Anhui Province and Zhongdian near Tibet in Yunnan. The company is notorious for cheating villagers whose land is developed for tourism and giving them very little of the hefty admission fees they charge tourists. The sites themselves are often developing in a way that is ugly and not culturally sensitive. Beijing Zhondian is controlled by Huang Nubo, a former Communist Party Propaganda department section chief. He is said to worth over $500 million.
His chumminess with a now-retired Icelandic politician is not exactly damning – it could even be called par for the course in an Icelandic context – but the practices of his company, if true, could be troubling. On the other hand, as the Independent counters:
Mr Huang’s former job in the Chinese propaganda ministry has been cited as evidence of some sort of conspiracy. The Icelandic interior minister, Ogmundur Jonasson, has expressed worries about China’s “buying up land around the world”.
But what precisely is the danger here? Would China convert the holiday resort into a commercial harbour? Would Mr Huang’s hotel transform itself at the push of a button into a military complex, a bit like Tracy Island?
Acquiring land does not give foreign nationals a right to do what they want with it. It is when they start lobbying for changes to domestic law that Icelanders should start to worry. Meanwhile, Iceland should recall its own recent history: it’s often the investor, not the recipient of cash, that stands to lose most when an ambitious deal is signed.
There is, of course, another side to suspicions about Huang Nubo – that it isn’t just the Magma burn but the fact that he is Chinese that makes Icelanders cautious. China is, after all, a totalitarian regime, and Huang worked in the Ministry of Propaganda. However, this political cartoon – which ran today in Morgunblaðið – seems to have less to do with China’s political system, or even Huang himself, than it does with his race. Or maybe Morgunblaðið’s cartoonist has simply never seen an Asian person outside of old Disney cartoons.
As it stands now, Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir has called for tolerance, and Minister of the Interior Ögmundur Jónasson has vowed to review Huang’s proposal before proceeding. In light of what happened with Magma, the move is an understandable one. But Huang Nubo is not Ross Beaty, and so far, isn’t acting like him, either.