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The Woes of Wang Jianlin

Wanda chairman’s terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad year

Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group has been trying to bat away rumors that its chairman, Wang Jianlin, once China’s wealthiest man, was barred from a flight from Tianjin to London because he’s not allowed to leave China. Wanda’s stocks have plunged, and the company has desperately tried to reassure investors that “certain individuals with ulterior motives” are “spreading various vicious rumors.”

Regardless, it’s been a pretty awful few months for Wang. Wanda once owned all kinds of investments overseas, including a movie studio (Legendary) and cinema chains (AMC, Odeon-UCI and Nordic Cinema, and a failed attempt to buy Dick Clark Productions), as well as football teams and theme parks, but now it is having to downsize in a big way. The Chinese government, concerned about debt, has been cracking down on overseas investment; as a major investor overseas, Wanda is in a precarious position.

Wanda’s woes have been partly caused by the fact Chinese banks aren’t lending to the company anymore. The company has reportedly been approached by regulators and told that six of its overseas investments were subject to capital controls, designed to prevent outflows of RMB from China.

Recently, the company had to back down from a $600 million real-estate investment in London, while negotiations were underway. The asset was instead sold to another Chinese property company, R&F Guangzhou, which has been buying up Wanda assets.

Earlier this year, Wang was China’s richest man. He first lost that crown to Alibaba founder Jack Ma, then was bumped to third place as Tencent co-founder Ma Huateng shot to the top spot .

It’s just one more headache in a head-splitting few months for Wang, and a bumpy ride over the last year or so.

Wanda’s film investments have long been subject to ups and downs. As China’s film industry has increasingly become crucial to the box-office success of Hollywood hits, Wanda has been stretching itself overseas with acquisitions like AMC, which has its own massive portfolio of investments. With the Chinese authorities clamping down on Wanda’s ability to finance overseas investments, questions have been raised about what still belongs to AMC, with AMC strenuously arguing that their assets are purchased with their own finances.

Then there are sporting investments. Investing in a foreign football team is a risky gamble at the best of times, but doing so with the hope of boosting the ever-disappointing Chinese football environment just seems like masochism. Last year, Wanda bought 20 percent of Spanish football club Atletico Madrid, even as China’s Alibaba-backed Guangzhou Evergrande team was poaching one of its key players at a price of 42 million euros. With regulators now casting an eye over the wisdom of Wanda’s overseas acquisitions, this purchase might become difficult to justify.

Even Wang’s China-based purchases have run into controversy. Last year, Wang came out swinging against Disney in China, saying he hoped to render the $5.5-billion Shanghai Disneyland unprofitable within years, and that his own theme parks (which he compared to a pack of wolves) would easily put Disney out of business. “They shouldn’t have entered China,” the billionaire warned. “The frenzy of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and the era of blindly following them have passed.”

But his threats were mocked after reporters the launch of Wanda’s Nanchang theme park spotted employees dressed as Disney characters, including Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Captain America and a  “poorly costumed” Stormtrooper (Disney vowed to take legal action if its rights were infringed upon). Shortly after, the Wuhan Wanda Movie Park was shut for renovations, after just 19 months; employees told local media that attendance had been dismal, with the park considered overpriced and dull.

Last month, Wang’s “wolves” finally had to put their tails between their legs as he sold off all his theme park assets, a decision some analysts have claimed as a smart move.

Despite his travails, Wang is a still billionaire and one of China’s top three richest men, so at least he still has piles of money he can use to comfort himself.


Cover image from ifeng.com


David Dawson is the former deputy editor of The World of Chinese.

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