Over the past few years, Chinese companies have flooded the globe with investments, buying up everything from real estate to football clubs and entertainment companies. As a result, hundreds of billions of dollars in capital have flowed out of the country, draining China’s foreign exchange reserves. But that all has come to a halt this year with the Communist Party beginning to label such high-profile transactions a "national security" risk and bringing some of the country's biggest dealmakers under scrutiny.
The first in a series of shockwaves came in January, when Xiao Jianhua, an eccentric and politically connected wealthy Chinese billionaire, was seized from his residence at the Four Seasons Hotel in Hong Kong by Chinese authorities.
When Xiao was taken away, reports suggested that he was helping Chinese authorities with an investigation into the country’s massive stock market crash of 2015 that saw stocks lose some $4 trillion in value.
But, it is Xiao’s reported ability to secretly move massive amounts of money and his political connections that most have focused on. In an earlier report, China analyst Willy Lam told VOA that Xiao is known as a “white glove” — a broker for powerful political families that include those with ties to former President Jiang Zemin.
The New York Times has described Xiao as a “banker for the ruling class and in 2013, the newspaper reported that he paid $2.4 million to buy shares in an investment firm held by the sister and brother-in-law of Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Xiao’s legal status is unclear and while he is believed to be helping authorities in China with investigations into the financial industry, authorities have made no formal statement about whether he is in custody.
A few months later, as the Communist Party, accompanied by state media, continued to hone its message about the financial risks of heavily-leveraged debt, and overseas investments started to slow dramatically, another jolt occurred with the detention of Wu Xiaohui, the chairman of Chinese financial and insurance giant Anbang.
One of China’s richest and most powerful companies, Anbang is known for its headline-grabbing overseas investments such as its purchase of New York’s iconic Waldorf Astoria Hotel and Manhattan’s JW Marriott Essex House Hotel — and ones that failed — like its $14 billion bid to purchase Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide.
Anbang chairman Wu Xiaohui is married to Zhuo Ran, the granddaughter of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. In a statement shortly after he was detained in early June, Anbang said Wu was temporarily stepping aside as chairman for “personal reasons.” Wu has not been seen in public since June.
Soon after Wu's detention came a second and even broader shock, the ripples of which continue to be felt. News surfaced that China’s banking regulator was scrutinizing the investment and loan guarantees used to back the big overseas investments of not only Anbang, but other big dealmakers including HNA Group, Dalian Wanda Group and Fosun, whose chairman dubs himself the Warren Buffett of China.
Many of the companies, such as Dalian Wanda, have become the international face of China with their marquee acquisitions in recent years. Dalian’s shopping spree alone has been dazzling. Over the past two years, the company’s purchases have included the world’s largest cinema chain, a luxury yacht builder, a Spanish football club as well as Hollywood’s Legendary Entertainment media company.
So far, the heads of the four other companies appear to have avoided anything beyond scrutiny, and calls to sell off their assets overseas, but there are no signs that the pressure is easing.
When rumors surfaced online in early August that police detained Dalian Wanda chairman Wang Jianlin as he was about to leave China via private jet for London, the company had to work hard to stamp out the speculation.
The company called the accusations “groundless,” and noted that Wang was in China’s western province of Lanzhou.
Since his company came under scrutiny, Wang moved quickly and in July sold off 77 hotels and 13 theme parks to pay off nearly $10 billion in debt. Still, some continue to believe that he has been barred from leaving the country. In early September, Wang traveled to Hong Kong where he met with the port city’s former chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa. Pictures from the visit were posted on Dalian Wanda’s website.
According to Bloomberg, China has asked Anbang to sell its assets outside of the country. For now, the company says it has no plans to sell its overseas acquisitions.