Wang Jianlin, a Billionaire at the Intersection of Business and Power

In November 2013, the New York Times reported that Bloomberg had killed an investigative report into the intricate ties between a wealthy businessman and China’s political leaders. Soon after, a lead reporter on the story, Michael Forsythe, was dismissed from Bloomberg, and two editors resigned. Forsythe was subsequently hired by the in Hong Kong, where he has now resurrected the censored story in a lengthy piece about Wang Jianlin, Asia’s richest man, and the role that family members of China’s political elite play in his business empire. Wang, the son of a Communist Party revolutionary and veteran of the Long March, now owns Dalian Wanda Group, China’s largest real estate firm which operates shopping malls, hotels, movie theaters, and other developments across the country. From Forsythe’s report:

His conglomerate, Wanda Group, is best known in China for its signature Wanda Plazas, massive shopping complexes with cinemas, office towers, hotels and apartments. Since building the first one in the northeastern city of Changchun in 2002, he has opened more than 100 of them in at least 70 other Chinese cities, generating the revenue that now finances his ambitions abroad.

But there is an aspect of his relationship with the authorities that Mr. Wang never raises in interviews and that has gone unreported in the many accounts of his success published in China and abroad: Relatives of some of the nation’s most powerful politicians and their business associates own significant stakes in his company.

An extensive review of corporate records filed with the government identified several such investments made from 2007 to 2011, when Wanda was privately held and rarely sold shares to outsiders.

Among those given an early chance to buy a stake in his company was Qi Qiaoqiao, an active investor who is the elder sister of China’s current president, Xi Jinping. (She sold or transferred her shares in the company in October 2013 to a longtime business associate.)

Other early investors included a business partner of the daughter of former Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, and relatives of two other members of the ruling Politburo at the time, Jia Qinglin and Wang Zhaoguo, according to the records and interviews with family members and business associates. [Source]

In a separate post on the New York Times’ Sinosphere blog, Forsythe recounts how he confirmed the identity and assets of several people mentioned in his article, many of whom operate under assumed names:

[..I]dentifying Ms. Yang and other investors in Mr. Wang’s real estate and entertainment empire was a complicated task. While the Chinese government has improved access to business records in recent years, shareholders often cloak their investments through layers of holding companies. And even when a name is disclosed, it can be meaningless without additional identifying information.

Ms. Yang, who acquired the stake in Wanda a few weeks after her 26th birthday in 2008, was included on a list of shareholders in documents filed by Dalian Wanda with the State Administration of Industry and Commerce. But her name is a common one, used by both men and women. There are about 42.7 million people in China with the surname Yang, more than the population of California.

It was only after locating a relative in her home village of Shigezhuang in the northern province of Hebei that her relationship with a senior Communist Party official became clear. She is the niece of Wang Zhaoguo, a member of the ruling Politburo and the vice chairman of the Chinese legislature from 2003 to 2013, according to Wang Zhao’an, a tanned and weathered cousin of the Chinese leader who serves as the village’s party chief.

Ms. Yang could not be located for comment, and a reporter who visited the Wang family’s home, in an 18th-century prince’s residence in central Beijing, was turned away. [Source]

On Twitter, Forsythe paid tribute to his former colleagues who originally assisted in the preparation of the report:

In 2012, Forsythe was part of a reporting team at Bloomberg that published an investigative report into the family wealth of President Xi Jinping. Bloomberg’s website was blocked in China after the report’s publication. For the Columbia Journalism Review, Howard French retraced the events leading up to the cancellation of the Wang Jianlin report and the dismissal of Forsythe.

Read more about Wang Jianlin via CDT, including a recent incident in which Wang used his pride in Chinese culture to defend crude comments from his son.