The Chinese foundation that has bought Reading Prison

The sale of the prison, affectionately known as ‘Reading Gaol’ has been an ongoing process by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), with rumblings of the sale ongoing since 2017.

That process has effectively come to an end with the MoJ announcement of its decision to sell the prison to the Ziran Education Foundation.

The website for the organisation states that it is ‘dedicated to promoting a compassionate, peaceful, and sustainable world through education’.

The foundation was founded by Chinese businessman Channing Bi and his partners in 2018.

The current projects of the foundation include its Social, Emotional and Ethical (SEE) Learning programme, and supporting the recruitment of English language teachers as the ‘lingua franca’ of the world. 

The Ziran Education Foundation is also a collaborator with the Center on Chinese Education at Columbia University in New York and the Serkong Public School at the Tabo Monastery in India, which is near the nation’s border with Tibet. 

On Companies House, the direction of the organisation is listed as Cheng Bi.

Mr Bi lives in Ireland and is a citizen of Vanuatu, an island in the South Pacific located east of Australia and Papa New Guinea. He also has a correspondence address on the Isle of Dogs in East London.

Meanwhile, the correspondence address for the Ziran Education Foundation is located at the Grange Way Business Park in Colchester, Essex.

According to the MoJ, the foundation’s plan for the prison involves providing an educational centre, a museum outlining the history of the prison and an exhibition space accessible to the public.

The Local Democracy Reporting Service has asked the Ziran Education Foundation to explain what its aims for the prison are in greater detail. 

The jail was the subject of a spirited campaign by the ‘Save Reading Gaol’ group which called for the building to be converted into an arts and heritage centre. 

Matt Rodda, the Labour MP for Reading East, a supporter of the Save Reading Gaol campaign, said: “I am interested in the proposals from the new owner of Reading Gaol and I would like to meet them to discuss their plans for the historic building.

“I am cautiously optimistic about the future of the gaol and I would also encourage the new owner to meet Reading Borough Council to discuss their plans as the council is the local planning authority.”

The redevelopment of the Prison would require planning consent from the council before any work could start. 

The amount the Ziran Education Foundation has purchased the building for has not been disclosed. 

The MoJ has raised £105 million through the sale of former prison sites since 2014. 

Reading Chronicle | Town Centre