In 2011, Forbes listed Huang Nubo, the real estate mogul, founder and chairman of Beijing Zhongkun Investment Group, as a billionaire with a fortune of 6.52 billion yuan (US$1.05 billion). Huang fancies himself a poet (writing under the pen-name Luo Ying, he has published a collection of poetry on mountain climbing), and also dabbles in philanthropy (donating money to Peking University for educational causes) as well as polar expeditions. In the 1980s, before moving into business, Huang occupied a number of government positions, including in the Party’s Propaganda Department.
In August 2011, Huang ignited a furore when he offered US$8.8 million to buy 300 square kilometres of land in Grímsstaðir á Fjöllum in remote northwestern Iceland. As he explained in an interview with the China Daily, his interest in Iceland stemmed from the time he had an Icelandic roommate at Peking University, the translator Hjorleifur Sveinbjornsson. Huang’s stated goal was to build a resort, golf course and hotel, with an emphasis on nature conservation and environmental tourism.
Some observers in Iceland immediately raised a red flag at the long-term implications of Icelandic territory passing into Chinese hands, potentially giving China access to deep-sea ports and Arctic oil reserves. The Icelandic Interior Minister Ogmundur Jonasson wrote on his website that the deal should be ‘discussed and not swallowed without chewing’.
In early November 2011, Huang told the China Daily that he believed he had an eighty percent chance of gaining approval for the deal from the Icelandic authorities. But on November 25 2011, the Icelandic government rejected the proposal, stating it would be incompatible with the country’s laws, noting that such a deal was unprecedented in the country’s history. In response, Huang accused the Icelandic authorities of prejudice against Chinese investors and of perpetuating an ‘unjust and parochial’ environment for private Chinese enterprises abroad.
The media story died down. Then, in May 2012, Huang announced that ‘after months of waiting’, the Icelandic government had agreed to a rental lease on the land he had previously offered to buy outright. The project would go ahead after all. The lease was initially reported to be for forty years with an option for an extension of another forty. In July 2012, Huang revealed to the Chinese media that in addition to the luxury hotel and golf course, he now also planned to build one hundred villas ‘mostly for wealthy Chinese’ and to transform most of the rest of the land into a mountain park. These new details elicited strong criticism from Jonasson, who warned of the investment’s negative environmental impact. In October, Huang told the China Daily that he was about to sign a deal worth US$6 million with a ninety-nine-year lease on the land.
Yet Huang was foiled again. In December 2012, the Iceland state radio station RUV announced that the cabinet was unable to make a final decision on Huang’s application due to a lack of information. Huang was required to reapply. Huang told Bloomberg News that he was ‘angry and annoyed at how bad the investment environment in Iceland is’. Yet he maintained that he was not ready to give up.
In March 2013, Jonasson presented a new bill to the Icelandic government banning foreign citizens from owning properties in Iceland unless they have a legal domicile in the country. On 22 March, the New York Times published a long article on how Huang Nubo’s proposed investment left many Icelanders ‘baffled’, especially his plan to build a golf course in a barren snow-swept wasteland. The far-fetched nature of the proposed investment raised suspicions that there was some ulterior motive on the Chinese side, for example an unspoken hope to gain a military foothold in the Arctic.
By then, it appeared as if Huang’s patience (and luck) was running out. After waiting nearly two years, Huang told the China Daily, he was looking forward to a breakthrough in April. Failing this, he said, he might abandon the deal at the end of May. The end of May came and went; at the time of publication, there has been no clear denouement to the saga.