Wang Jian, co-founder and co-chairman of HNA Group, a Chinese conglomerate with significant real estate ownerships across the U.S., died in an accident while on a business trip in France on Tuesday. He was 57.
HNA said in a press release Wednesday that Wang died after suffering “severe injuries” from an accidental fall in Provence in southern France.
French radio network France Bleu said Wang fell from a 10-meter-tall (32-feet) wall near the church of Bonnieux while trying to take a photo. He was with a group of 10 Chinese tourists. Wang’s fellow travelers told local police that the fall was an accident, the radio station reported. The French police is investigating further into the cause of death.
The surprising news inspired some conspiracists to draw connections between Wang’s death and HNA’s mysterious relationship with the Chinese government.
HNA is one of several Chinese companies that aggressively acquired overseas assets between 2015 and 2017, in most cases with heavy borrowings. In October 2016, HNA bought a $6.5 billion stake in Hilton Worldwide Holdings from the hotel chain’s largest shareholder, Blackstone. The deal was made just six months after HNA bought Carlson Hotels Inc, owner of Radisson hotels, for an undisclosed amount.
In late 2017, fearing the risk of over-leveraging, regulators in Beijing ordered HNA and its fellow acquirers like Dalian Wanda (owner of AMC) and Anbang Group (owner of the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York) to scale back on overseas buying and gradually liquidate foreign assets. In a quite extreme case, the Chinese government seized control over Anbang Group after indicting its CEO, Wu Xiaohui, over financial fraud allegations.
Wang didn’t face any criminal charges like Wu did, but his relationship with Beijing was questioned when the cash-strapped HNA received unsolicited support from the provincial government of Hainan, HNA’s home base, with fundraising this year, BBC reported.
So far in 2018, HNA has offloaded $1 billion of the Hilton holdings and is in the process of selling $3 billion more assets.
Analysts expect that the sudden death of Wang will speed up HNA’s asset shedding.
“[HNA’s] disposal of its overseas assets will probably be accelerated, as that’s something in the best interests of the company,” Wu Kan, a fund manager at Shanshan Finance in Shanghai, told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post on Wednesday.
Wang and his co-chairman, Chen Feng, each own 15 percent of HNA shares. In a company statement last year, both of them pledged to donate all of their shares to two charitable organizations—Hainan Cihang Charity Foundation and Hainan Province Cihang Foundation—upon resignation or death. The two charities already own 52 percent of the company.
Wang’s company shares will be redistributed per this agreement, the South China Morning Post reported.