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Chinese conglomerate HNA says chief executive and chair arrested by police

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Chinese police have detained the two remaining co-founders of HNA in the latest twist in the collapse of China’s hitherto most acquisitive group.

The bankrupt Chinese conglomerate, which is under state control, said chair Chen Feng and chief executive Adam Tan were taken into custody on Friday over suspected crimes, without providing details of the alleged offences.

The arrests return to the spotlight one of China’s most tumultuous corporate sagas. The move by Chinese officials comes three years after co-founder Wang Jian fell to his death in Bonnieux, southern France, in what French police said was an accident.

The enigmatic trio amassed a debt pile of nearly $90bn in an acquisition spree that expanded the group’s assets by about $40bn in just two years in the mid-2010s.

What started as an airline became a travel industry-focused conglomerate that owned stakes in the Hilton hotel chain, Dutch transport group TIP Trailer Services and Irish aircraft leaser Avolon. It boasted the biggest single stake in Deutsche Bank, marquee properties such as New York’s 245 Park Avenue and US computer chip manufacturer Ingram Micro.

But the acquisitions were highly leveraged — borrowing against its base of Chinese assets — raising concerns about a domino effect back home, if the group suddenly could not repay, or refinance, its debts.

Chinese creditors in late January launched bankruptcy proceedings and days later, HNA subsidiaries said billions of dollars in funds had been misused.

Before their arrests on Friday, the formerly high-flying executives had mostly vanished from public view over the past few years. Chen was barred from taking flights and high-speed rail. Tan’s name last appeared on a company statement in September 2018.

State bankers and regulators have set up camp at the company’s offices in Hainan, an island off China’s south-east coastline for several years, trying to clean up the mess.

The executive chair of the group, Gu Gang, said on September 18 that debt restructuring talks had “entered the decisive last stage”. The proposed restructuring plan would break up the sprawling conglomerate into four entities, with new shareholders taking control of the aviation, airport, financial and commercial sectors.

“Experience tells us blind diversification rarely goes well,” said Gu, who is also leading the working committee responsible for unwinding HNA’s estimated $77bn of debts.

Even before Wang’s mysterious death, the group was facing immense pressure from regulators in China, and abroad, over the company’s opaque governance and ultimate ownership and its debts.

The group is one of China’s “grey rhinos” — so-called because they are threats seen but not acted upon. They have been likened to Evergrande, China’s embattled property developer whose debt problems have shaken global markets over recent weeks.

Experts say the experiences of HNA might have served as a clear warning over the future direction of the relationship between the authoritarian Chinese Communist party leadership and the entrepreneurs and business leaders on whom the country relies for economic growth.

Gu said on September 18 that the restructured group should “carry forward HNA’s excellent culture and abandon bad culture”.

Additional reporting by Sherry Fei Ju in Beijing


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