An untimely death

HNA to get restructuring assistance despite co-chairman’s fatal fall?


Fell to his death in Provence

President Xi Jinping’s crackdown against corruption has struck such fear among Party cadres that a popular saying has it that they would rather meet Yang Wang (ruler of the Chinese underworld) than Lao Wang (aka Wang Qishan, formerly the anti-corruption tsar).

Between 2013 and 2016 – the period when Wang’s anti-graft bureau was working overtime – Tencent News reported that more than 120 officials suffered from “unnatural deaths”.

In early 2015 the Party even found it necessary to launch a nationwide survey and asked government and Party organs to report on “unnatural deaths” which, by definition, included murders and executions. But the Party’s focus was on finding out how many officials had committed suicide, as the survey also required officials to report on causes of death such as hanging, drowning, falling under a train and leaping off a building or cliff.

For erring Chinese tycoons, cardiac seizure is the preferred autopsy verdict. Xu Ming, a close ally of the disgraced Chongqing Party boss Bo Xilai, died of heart failure in 2015 roughly nine months before he was due to be released. Chen Xiaolu, a former director of Anbang Insurance, also suffered from the same fatal condition in March while his troubled firm was being nationalised (see WiC399).

But as to causes of death, photography might seem among the more unlikely. That is, till last week following the untimely death of Wang Jian, co-founder and chairman of HNA Group. He perished at a time when Chinese regulators have been looking into his aviation conglomerate’s overseas M&A strategy as well as its financial viability.

In one of the more bizarre Chinese corporate news events of recent years, there was widespread shock when HNA reported on its website that Wang had died in France after he “accidentally fell”. The company didn’t provide much in the way of detail. A source close to Wang told Caixin that he was on a business trip and took a break to visit a popular tourist spot in Provence. The 57 year-old then became unconscious after falling more than 32 feet off a wall while trying to take a photo.

According to the BBC, Wang’s travelling companions told police it had been an accident. A local police chief told Reuters that Wang had been trying to get his family to take a picture of him when he fell.

Chen Feng, another co-founder and co-chairman of HNA, has subsequently been appointed as the group’s sole chairman.

Understandably Wang’s death has stoked all sorts of conspiracies across Chinese social media, although most financial news outlets have focused on the debt-laden aftermath that Wang has left behind.

Under his leadership HNA has spent at least $80 billion in foreign acquisitions, according to Caixin. However, since mid-2017 Chinese regulators have put a brake on the offshore expansion plans of HNA and other acquisitive Chinese firms such as Anbang and Wanda.

HNA’s overall debts totalled $110 billion by the end of last year. So Wang’s death, Bloomberg reported, will add complications to the company’s debt restructuring process, although the newswire also made plain state lenders are ready to step in and help.

And according to a lengthy investigative report by a Southern Weekend journalist, HNA still has some valuable assets to flip, especially a sizeable land bank in its homebase Hainan island.

The article was supposed to be published in February, but was spiked by state censors and only this week reposted by its author on WeChat (the fact the report was pulled is an indicator that HNA remains in high political favour). The piece alleges that much of the land in the land bank was reclaimed in breach of environmental rules.

As things now stand that same block of HNA real estate is an increasingly valuable asset thanks to Hainan’s recent elevation to the status of China’s first provincial level free trade port.

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