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Billionaire shakes China's elite with online theatrics
By Ben Dooley
Beijing (AFP) June 15, 2017

Chinese billionaire steps aside amid detention report
Beijing (AFP) June 14, 2017 - The chairman of a Chinese insurance group which sought a business deal with the family of US President Donald Trump's son-in-law has stepped aside following a report that he was taken away by authorities.

Officials from the China Insurance Regulatory Commission notified the Anbang group that Wu Xiaohui was "taken away" on Friday but did not explain why, according to Caijing, a Chinese magazine.

Caijing's report appeared online on Tuesday but has since been taken down.

Anbang said in a statement on Wednesday that Wu was "temporarily unable to perform his duties for personal reasons" but did not mention his apparent detention.

Phone calls to the regulatory commission went unanswered on Wednesday.

Chinese authorities are engaged in a battle against corruption in their ranks and in the business world, a campaign launched by President Xi Jinping in 2012 to eradicate rampant graft.

Financial regulators are also scrambling to ease fears of a looming debt crisis, with measures to rein in risky lending and acquisitions of real estate.

Official heads have rolled too, including China's insurance regulator Xiang Junbo, who was sacked in April and faces an investigation. His tenure coincided with a surge in speculative investments by Chinese insurers.

Caijing, citing an unidentified source in the financial world, said regulators may be investigating Anbang's compliance with insurance products or insurance fund investments.

In May the Insurance Regulatory Commission accused Anbang of violating certain provisions and banned the group from filing applications for new insurance products for three months.

Anbang held controversial negotiations with the company owned by Trump's White House adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, for an investment in an office tower on New York's famous Fifth Avenue.

But the talks were broken off in March after critics of the Trump administration warned of a potential conflict of interest.

Established just 13 years ago, Anbang has grown from a domestic seller of property insurance into a financial services powerhouse, making a name for itself abroad by buying New York's historic Waldorf Astoria hotel for a record $1.95 billion in 2014.

But in April US insurer Fidelity & Guaranty Life turned down a $1.6 billion acquisition bid by Anbang.

While Wu has stepped aside, Anbang said in its statement that business continues "as usual".

- Billionaires under the gun -

If his detention is confirmed, Wu, who is married to a granddaughter of late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, would be the latest billionaire to run afoul of the authorities.

Guo Wengui, a real estate tycoon, left China in 2014 and authorities are seeking his arrest. From his luxurious New York City apartment, Guo has used social media to lob allegations of corruption against some of China's most powerful people.

Financier Xiao Jianhua vanished from his Hong Kong apartment earlier this year and reports suggest he was abducted by mainland security agents. He was reportedly under investigation in connection with China's 2015 stocks crash.

The country is in the middle of an important year politically, with the Communist Party holding a major congress in a few months that is expected to consolidate Xi's power and lead to a reshuffle of top leadership posts.

Perched in his opulent Manhattan apartment, a flamboyant Chinese billionaire armed with a smartphone has used social media to rattle the Communist-ruled political system back in his homeland.

With a keen sense of drama, real estate tycoon Guo Wengui has spent the last three months waging a one-man guerrilla war against China's elite with explosive accusations of corruption among the powerful.

While his posts and videos appear on websites banned in China, they have angered party officials as they prepare for their twice a decade congress later this year.

The major meeting is expected to firmly consolidate President Xi Jinping's grip on power by filling top leadership posts with his allies.

But Guo's verbal grenades have threatened to derail the carefully orchestrated plans, creating what political commentator Liang Jing has called the "biggest Chinese political black swan of 2017".

"What's notable is how much attention (Guo) has gotten both from the party itself and from politically aware Chinese people," said Trey McArver, founder of Beijing-based research firm Trivium China.

"It's not so much what he's done, but the potential for what he could do."

Authorities have fired back, seeking his arrest and putting executives from a company linked to Guo on trial last week.

He is also in legal trouble in the United States, where a lawyer announced this week that he faced a lawsuit by nine creditors demanding $50 million for outstanding debts.

Guo is not the only billionaire who has run into legal trouble as the authorities crack down on corruption and risky investments in the corporate world.

Just on Wednesday, the chairman of Anbang Insurance Group, Wu Xiaohui, stepped aside following a report that he was taken away by authorities.

- Hard to ignore -

Guo's saga burst into view in April, when the billionaire sat for an interview with the US government-funded news outlet Voice of America (VOA) that was cut short amid accusations of pressure from China's embassy in Washington.

But Guo, who fled China in 2014, has proven hard to ignore.

He maintains a larger-than-life social media presence, posting photos of his palatial living quarters, updates on his workout routine, selfies with his white puppy and an image of him frolicking at US President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.

But it is his unsubstantiated allegations about China's rich and powerful that have infuriated the authorities while earning him supporters on Twitter who offer him dubious tips on official corruption.

One of China's most powerful real estate developers, Pan Shiyi, and the editor-in-chief of the hard-charging investigative magazine Caixin, Hu Shuli, have threatened to take him to court over his accusations.

Some of Guo's own real estate deals have been tainted by corruption allegations, including that he bought off top Chinese officials.

- 'To the death' -

In the lead-up to Guo's VOA appearance, China announced it had requested a non-binding Interpol warrant for his arrest.

An expose into Guo by the state-controlled Beijing News and a video of a former top spy chief confessing to accepting bribes from Guo appeared on YouTube around the same time.

Then, last Friday, former employees of a Chinese company linked to Guo confessed in court to fraudulently obtaining loans at his direction.

The following day the HNA Group issued a statement denying Guo's accusations that the conglomerate was partly owned by relatives of Wang Qishan, the powerful head of China's anti-corruption watchdog, who has acted as Xi's top enforcer.

The terse statement came almost two months after Guo first accused the company of an improper relationship with Wang, tipped to be the country's next premier.

That same day the Global Times, a Communist Party-controlled tabloid, published a lacerating editorial accusing Guo of "political slander".

"His dirty tricks which aim to challenge China's strict legal proceedings will only make his crimes even more serious and worsen his legal case in China," it said.

Guo is not backing down, vowing to make more revelations in a press conference this autumn. The timing suggests he may want to influence the outcome of the upcoming party congress.

The unfolding battle poses a "conundrum" for China's politicians, said David Kelly, research director of Beijing-based consulting firm China Policy.

"You cannot deal with him without revealing the power of informal politics," Kelly said.

"How it plays out is too hard to predict," he said. But, he added, "it is really gloves off and it's to the death."




China web users take aim at property clampdown
Shanghai (AFP) June 11, 2017
Chinese social media users on Sunday angrily criticised a Shanghai government crackdown on unauthorised real estate activity after images emerged online showing an apparent protest in the city over the restrictions. Pictures and video have circulated showing hundreds of people engaged in a tense stand-off with police, said to have taken place late Saturday night in a busy central Shanghai sh ... read more

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