• Mon
  • Sep 22, 2014
  • Updated: 9:40pm
Mr. Shangkong
PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 January, 2013, 8:17am

Ping An as seen by the media: tip-offs, denials and rows

Weeks of anonymous phone calls, confrontations and threats took place in the media as the story of HSBC's Ping An stake sale unfolded

BIO

George Chen is the financial editor and columnist at the South China Morning Post. George has covered China's financial industry and economic reforms since 2002. George is the author of Foreign Banks in China. He muses about the interplay between Shanghai and Hong Kong in Mr. Shangkong columns every Monday in print and online. Follow George on Twitter: @george_chen
 

The past week was hectic in terms of the news coverage of HSBC's deal to sell its stake in Ping An Insurance. Much of the focus was on who the behind-the-scenes buyer was.

Today, I will try to offer a personal look at the coverage from behind the scenes.

As a journalist who has covered the mainland's financial industry for more than a decade and written a book about foreign banks in China, I was not surprised when HSBC announced its intention to sell its entire 15.6 per cent stake in Ping An, which the bank had held for a decade.

What surprised me was the buyer, Charoen Pokphand (CP), a Thai firm that is a major exporter of poultry to China.

A greater surprise came when, a few days after HSBC's announcement of the deal in early December, a colleague and I began to get anonymous phone calls about who was the real buyer of the Ping An stake.

We asked one of the people who made the first few anonymous calls to come out from the shadows for an interview, but he declined.

When we tried to follow up the news tip through other channels and sources, the respected mainland financial magazine Caixin Century Weekly broke the news that Xiao Jianhua, a secretive mainland businessman with a mixed reputation and investment track record, was believed to be the behind-the-scenes buyer.

The report was soon confirmed by other media outlets at home and abroad. Xiao, whose whereabouts has remained a secret for the past few years following a government investigation into a listed company in which his fund invested, denied the reports through his lawyers.

But the media didn't really trust Xiao's denial given his reputation in the mainland's capital markets.

What made the situation more suspicious was when two men appeared at the Beijing office of a major media organisation and demanded that the chief editor give them a preview of a story about Xiao.

The men almost forced the editor to turn on his computer and print the story out for them to review. When the editor tried to call the police, the two men, who are believed to have been sent by Xiao, left.

Stories about the Ping An stake sale shared on social media such as Sina Weibo began to be removed or hidden from public view. One reason may have been the publication by The New York Times of a report, just a month before HSBC's announcement of the Ping An deal, about the involvement of outgoing premier Wen Jiabao's relatives in Ping An's history.

The South China Morning Post and other media reported that China Development Bank had backed off from its plan to provide loan support to CP, the only buyer on record.

Right after the Post broke the news, I received an anonymous call. This time it was a warning: "Don't write [any more], and be careful." The tone didn't sound very friendly.

Could Caixin, the Post, the Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal all have been fooled - as some media relations people for HSBC, CP and Ping An suggested - by anonymous tipsters who wanted, for their own reasons, to prevent the deal from going ahead?

 

George Chen is the Post's financial services editor. Mr. Shangkong appears every Monday in the print version of the SCMP. Like it? Visit facebook.com/mrshangkong

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