The “Warren Buffett of China” Disappears

December 11, 2015, 10:53 AM UTC
Fosun International Ltd. Chairman And Billionaire Guo Guangchang Attends Interim Results News Conference
Billionaire Guo Guangchang, chairman of Fosun International Ltd., speaks during a news conference in Hong Kong, China, on Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014. Fosun, the investment arm of Chinas biggest closely held conglomerate, is on an acquisition spree thats ranged from Australian energy companies to New York city office buildings. Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by Brent Lewin — Bloomberg via Getty Images

It’s hard to imagine Warren Buffett, JP Morgan’s CEO Jamie Dimon, or hedge fund manger Bill Ackman disappearing without explanation. But that’s what’s been happening to their counterparts in China over the last few months.

The latest is that the chairman of conglomerate Fosun, Guo Guangchang, has been out of contact with the company for at least a day, Caixin said. Trading was halted Friday in two of conglomerate’s listed firms in Hong Kong. Postings yesterday on Chinese social media said Guo was seen being taken away by police at a Shanghai airport, Caixin notes. Requests for comment to Fosun today went unreturned.

Guo and Fosun have international reputations for emulating Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate model by using insurance assets to expand into other industries. Fosun has taken stakes in Cirque du Soleil, Club Mediterranée, and two years ago bought the former Chase Manhattan Plaza in New York. Fosun dished out almost $6 billion over the past two years acquiring insurance assets, according to a Bloomberg tally.

In other words, this is not a provincial Chinese company without influence.

Guo’s absence doesn’t mean he’s guilty of anything. The process is just the way the Chinese run their investigations. Witnesses can be “taken away” to help police and investigators build cases. China’s judicial system is opaque and controlled by the ruling Communist Party; its investigations are no different.

China’s probe into its finance industry, and this summer’s stock meltdown in particular, is in full swing. Earlier this week, the resignation of the head of China’s fourth-largest state-owned bank was linked to a corruption investigation. Last week anonymous sources confirmed that one of the most powerful anti-corruption investigators, Fu Zhenghua, an enforcer with close ties to President Xi Jinping, was leading the probe into the summer’s stock meltdown.

Before Fosun, the most notable case of a disappearance was that of Li Yifei, chairwoman of the Chinese unit of London’s largest listed hedge fund manager, Man Group Plc. Bloomberg reported, and Li later denied, that she was taken into custody to assist with a police probe into the stock crash.

In China, these type of investigations must be viewed with cynicism because they can be used by the leadership to expunge rival power factions. China watchers note that the recent focus on the financial industry may be part honest insider trading investigation, but also a political purge of rival factions.

The Guo case is just the latest of disappearances.

In late November, a subsidiary of one of China’s largest brokerages, Guotai Junan, confirmed that it hadn’t been able to reach its chairman since the previous week. The suspicion was that Yim Fung had been “taken away” by authorities, a Chinese euphemism for executives being taken into police custody, to help in the investigation of the stock market crash that caused global equities to shed $5 trillion in shareholder value.

Earlier in September, the assistant chairman of the China Securities Regulatory Commission, Zhang Yujun, who was leading the regulators’ efforts to prop up the stock market this summer, was removed from office for a “severe violation of discipline,” or corruption.

In the beginning of the year, the president of China Minsheng Bank, the country’s first privately run bank, resigned after Caixin, again, reported that he had been investigated for corruption.

At the time, Fosun’s Guo sold off his entire stake in the publicly traded Minsheng. News of his disappearance has brought the probe full circle.