Money Matters

Fosun boss disappears despite saying all the right things

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 December, 2015, 4:14am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 December, 2015, 4:14am

Guo Guangchang has been doing everything possible to walk the fine line in a country where every private entrepreneur survives at the mercy of the Party.

The "Godfather of Shanghai Business World" has been amazingly successful in keeping a low profile despite being ranked the fourth-wealthiest man in China. The last time he made a public appearance, he was spouting his allegiance to the Party.

Last year, he penned an article for a local magazine that said: "People asked why I am not worried. You have to believe that as long as you have made no mistake, the government will not mess with you. Many don't think so. They say however good you are, the government can easily finish you off.

"My answer to that is if I have been good, why would the government want to target me? This is not in line with either the reform policy or the Party value.

"I believe in the future of China. I believe in the Party's reform policy. The four founders (of his Fosun empire) hold no foreign passports. We are PRC citizens.

"We have full confidence in our motherland. This is easily said. Yet, how many private entrepreneurs truly believe in it? I don't see many."

He said this when Beijing's promise of opening up restricted state turf to private investors has given way to building humongous state monopolies such as the shipping merger yesterday. He also said this at a time when private entrepreneurs have been busy seeking refuge as government officials continue to be culled in the unending graft crackdown.

Guo has paid more than lip-service. With Party Secretary Xi Jinping as the No 1 football fan in the country, Fosun Group became a football investor overnight. It signed a strategic agreement with top football agent Jorge Mendes three weeks ago to develop the mainland market and sponsored its first soccer league last month.

Donations by his charity platform, Fosun Foundation, have swollen from a negligible 17 million yuan to 3.4 billion yuan between 2013 and 2014.

The money has gone into youth education, encouraging entrepreneurship, health care for the elderly and the promotion of Chinese culture. All very politically correct causes.

Guo has also been carefully diversifying his business away from the property sector - the hotbed of corruption and therefore political causalities - into relatively less risky areas.

Though property continues to contribute about 30 per cent of Fosun International's profit, Guo has talked more about health care and the world's well-being in his statements.

At the same time, Fosun has been snapping up assets overseas - Club Med, Thomas Cook as well as insurance houses and private banks in Europe. Its percentage of overseas asset has grown from 1 per cent to 16.3 per cent in 2014 in just a year.

The official pitch is building a world business with Chinese roots. Or in other words, putting eggs in different baskets. That's what many of Guo's peers have been doing in the past few years to mitigate policy and political risks at home.

Billions of dollars have been spent on office towers in Manhattan, American cinemas and European brands. After all, who can claim innocence in a system where rules are confusing and checks and balances have never existed?

Yet, none of the above seems to have helped. Guo has been out of contact, leading to all kinds of speculation over his fate.

If he has a second chance, Guo should perhaps learn from his less risk-aware peers. It is the dai (tape) and zhai (debt) trick, as the saying goes in the business community. The reality lies in China's corridors of power - you do not survive for being loved. You have to be feared.

Either you stock up enough video tapes of senior cadres in bed with nubile young things or borrow grandiose debts that will bring down many banks. That causes fear - and ensures survival.

That is what has brought Kwok Sing-ying back into the chairman's seat of Kaisa Group after taking off for months to Hong Kong following the arrest of a senior Guangdong official. The government is understood to have compromised in return for him to sort out the debt he has racked up, the extent of which is yet to be determined.

That's called safety in numbers with Chinese characteristics. A very handy thing if you are a private entrepreneur in this country.