HNA Group

The wealthy Chinese whose French dream turned into a nightmare

The allure of France’s vineyards and chateaux is strong for China’s super-rich, but in some cases things have gone badly wrong for these investors

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 July, 2018, 12:48pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 July, 2018, 3:48pm

The death of tycoon Wang Jian, who fell from a wall during a business trip to France, has highlighted the appeal of the European country as a source of investment for wealthy Chinese, including politicians and film stars.

France’s celebrated chateaux and vineyards are among the prime properties to be snapped up.

However, some of those investors have subsequently been beset by misfortune – either through an accident or because of their own actions. Here we look at some of the most high-profile cases.

Wang Jian

Wang, the chairman of the HNA Group, died after falling 15 metres (50 ft) onto rocks in a village in Provence in the country’s south. A local police officer said Wang had climbed onto a small wall to pose for a photograph but had lost his balance.

HNA Group chairman Wang Jian dies in France

He was the co-founder of HNA, which grew from a regional airline in southern China to a global conglomerate with US$230 billion in assets. As part of its aggressive expansion plans, the group became a major shareholder in the French airline Aigle Azur Transports Aeriens in 2012. Its 48 per cent stake gave it access to markets in western Europe and North Africa.

Wang died while taking time out from a business trip for a sightseeing tour. His death came at a time when HNA’s global expansion had been halted by the Chinese government’s drive to curb overseas investments and the group had been divesting itself of various foreign holdings.

Kok Lam

The Hong Kong-based Chinese billionaire and his 12-year-old son were among four people who died in a helicopter crash in the Bordeaux wine region in late 2013.

The helicopter crashed into the Dordogne river during a tour to view the Chateau de la Riviere vineyard, which Kok had bought for €30 million (US$34.9 million) the previous day from James Gregoire, who also died in the crash.

Billionaire Kok Lam feared dead in French helicopter crash

Kok was the head of the Hong Kong-based Brilliant Group and also a member of the Yunnan Provincial Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

Gu Kailai

Gu, the wife of disgraced former political heavyweight Bo Xilai, was jailed for life for the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood in 2011 following a business dispute.

Chinese court filings during Bo’s trial in 2013 said Gu owned a villa in one of the most exclusive neighbourhoods in the Riviera resort of Cannes.

Bo Xilai and Neil Heywood’s French connection

The court heard that Gu bought the house with money provided by Chinese businessman Xu Ming, who hoped to take advantage of Bo’s power and influence.

According to French court papers, the Cannes villa was owned by a French-registered company called Residences Fontaine Saint Georges, founded in 2001. Gu said she was behind the company and Heywood was one of the property’s managers. The villa went on sale with an asking price of €6.9 million (US$8 million) in 2014.