AUSTRALIA

Zeng Wei angers Sydney by knocking down 106-year-old harbour mansion

Son of former leader angers many in Sydney by knocking down a 106-year-old harbourside mansion to build a five-storey residence

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 June, 2014, 11:25pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 June, 2014, 1:48am

In recent weeks, wrecking crews have embarked on a job that symbolises the international economic clout of the Chinese elite, demolishing a mansion with stunning views of one of the world's most picturesque harbours.

Craig-y-Mor, an elegant 106-year-old home owned over the years by several prominent Sydney businessmen, was bought in 2008 by the son and daughter-in-law of a former senior member of China's Politburo for A$32.4 million (HK$235 million).

The new owners, Zeng Wei and Jiang Mei, sought permission to demolish the two-storey brick house and replace it, at a cost of A$4.5 million, with a five-level concrete structure with huge windows. The plan horrified some neighbours and government officials, who thought the building would be too big and unattractive. After the municipality refused to allow the demolition, Zeng's lawyers appealed to a New South Wales state judge, who overruled that decision.

Credit Suisse estimates that 18 per cent of new houses and flats in Sydney are bought by Chinese citizens. In Melbourne, the figure is14 per cent.

These figures are likely to rise. To stimulate the economy, the Australian government recently expanded a programme to grant permanent residence to foreigners prepared to invest at least A$5 million in Australian businesses. To date, 90 per cent of the applicants have been Chinese.

Concerns that Chinese buyers could be driving a property bubble are so widespread that the Australian parliament recently began an investigation.

Research given to the inquiry by two academics found that people with Chinese surnames paid slightly less than other buyers for similar houses and flats in Sydney, suggesting they were tough negotiators and not pushing up prices.

Many Australians are not convinced, according to submissions to the inquiry from the public.

"Widespread injustice will continue with Australians being outbid by foreigners on an uneven playing field," a woman named Pat Sutton wrote to the investigators.

The concerns reflect a belief among many that Chinese are using cities such as Sydney to protect their wealth from theft or seizure by Beijing authorities.

Little is known about Zeng's personal or professional life. But his father, Zeng Qinghong , was vice-president from 2003 to 2008 and a player in the manoeuvring over the past decade that led to the rise of President Xi Jinping .

Foreign Policy magazine reported in 2012 that Zeng Wei was involved in the clandestine privatisation of the state-owned Luneng power generating company, which had more than US$9 billion in net assets.

Zeng, who is reportedly in his mid-40s and has young children, did not respond to a letter seeking comment on the Sydney home.

The start of demolition of Craig-y-Mor last month was front-page news in Sydney.

Bill Malouf, a veteran estate agent whose firm brokered the sale of the house, said that the property was not in need of repair. Chinese buyers simply preferred modern, symmetrical houses lacking the ornate detail common to many of Sydney's grand older homes, he said.

"He was always going to do a major renovation," Malouf said of the buyer. "There was nothing wrong with the house."

The Craig-y-Mor site has become a regular stop on the Chinese tourist circuit.

"They all want to have their photos in front of the house that belongs to a famous Chinese," said neighbour Denise Gilman.