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Luxury homes bind the Chinese communist elite to the fate of Hong Kong

HONG KONG – Li Qianxin, the eldest daughter of Chinese Communist Party leader No. 3, has quietly created a life in Hong Kong that crosses the city’s financial elite and the secret world of Chinese politics.

For several years, she has been involved with senior executives in state-owned enterprises throughout Hong Kong and mainland clubs known for caring for the sons and daughters of white-collar workers. She has represented Hong Kong in Chinese political advisory groups. She is the chairman of a state-owned investment bank based in Hong Kong that has long done business with relatives of top Chinese officials.

Li, 38, also has deep economic roots in the city, having bought a 15-story townhouse at the top of a beach. Her partner owns a now retired racehorse and spent hundreds of millions on an effort on the located peninsula Hotel which he later sold.

Li and other members of the communist nobility are embedded in the structure of Hong Kong society and financial systems and bind the former British colony closer to the mainland. By building alliances and investing their money in Hong Kong’s properties, China’s top leaders have vaguely linked to the city’s fate.

As the party now takes a stronger hand to run Hong Kong, the top leadership in Beijing has an interest, politically and personally. Li’s father, Li Zhanshu, oversaw the rapid passage of Hong Kong’s new national security legislation, which gave the party a powerful new weapon to counter dissent.

The law could protect the families’ party leaders by stopping the protests that wreaked havoc on the economy, or leaving them vulnerable by losing corporate confidence in the territory. It can also subject them to sanctions.

The law has already prompted penalties from foreign countries that could threaten Hong Kong’s access to the global financial system. The Trump administration on Friday imposed sanctions on Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, and ten other senior officials in the city and mainland who they accuse of curtailing freedoms in Hong Kong.

“Members of the Red Aristocracy in China, including the princes, have made major investments in Hong Kong,” said Willy Lam, an adjunct professor of Chinese studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “If Hong Kong suddenly loses its economic status, they can not park their money here.”

One of the management’s biggest exposures to Hong Kong is real estate. Including Ms. Li, relatives of three of the top four members of China’s Communist Party have in recent years bought luxury homes in Hong Kong worth more than $ 51 million together, a New York Times investigation shows.

Qi Qiaoqiao, the older sister of Xi Jinping, China’s president, began buying real estate in Hong Kong as early as 1991, according to the Hong Kong Real Estate Register. Her daughter, Zhang Yannan, owns a villa in Repulse Bay, which she bought in 2009 for $ 19.3 million, and at least five other apartments, according to the city’s real estate and business registry.

Wang Xisha, a former CEO of Deutsche Bank who is the daughter of Wang Yang, Party Leader No. 4, bought a $ 2 million house in Hong Kong in 2010, according to the city’s real estate registry.

The Communist Party has long been secretive to many of its leaders’ relatives, aware that such an accumulation of wealth could be seen as the elite abusing their privilege of personal gain. In Hong Kong, the party is also aware that the presence of princelings could further exacerbate bitterness towards Beijing.

Li, like many relatives of top Chinese officials, maintains a low profile.

On the mainland, there are some mentions of Mr. Li’s family in the party – controlled news media, and searches for his daughter’s name on social media sites yield minimal results. A trip to Nangoucun, his ancestral village in northern Hebei Province, provided little insight into his children.

But internal documents from Deutsche Bank obtained by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and reviewed by The New York Times late last year referred to a woman with the same name in English and Chinese as the older daughter of Li Zhanshu, now number 3 leader in China. These documents were part of an internal investigation stemming from an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission into the bank’s politically affiliated employees.

Hong Kong’s identity number used by Li in a Hong Kong company record listing the executives of China Construction Bank International is the same as that used in the records linked to the beachfront property and a company she owns with her partner.

A well-connected businessman and an employee have confirmed that Li, the managing director of China Construction Bank International, is the daughter of Li Zhanshu, as well as a biography of the official written by Cheng Li, an expert on the Chinese elite at the Brookings Institution.

The rest of her CV can be shared through news sections and archived web pages. They showed how Li has strengthened her ties to the city in a way that places her well for a political career on the mainland.

She joined networks such as the Hua Jing Society in Hong Kong, which is a forum for princes to meet children in Hong Kong’s tycoons and political class.

In 2013, she and other Hong Kong representatives of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, or CPPCC, a party-run political advisory group, helped organize aid for a village. Two years later, she visited farmers and carried young children in the same province to promote the United Front Work Department, a party unit that develops overseas political networks.

Li is now chairman of China Construction Bank International, the investment arm of a major government lender, according to a Beijing company record. Li, her partner and the bank have not responded to several requests for comment from The Times.

“There is often an assumption that it is enough to be well connected to move forward in Chinese politics,” said Rana Mitter, a professor of Chinese history and politics at Oxford University, who did not comment on Li. “In fact, there is still a great deal of interest in candidates proving themselves for higher positions in institutions such as the Communist Youth League and the CPPCC.”

Like many other members of China’s communist elite, she has amassed a significant wealth, according to a review of corporate and real estate documents filed in Hong Kong. Li also took advantage of a tax haven popular with the world elite.

She bought the townhouse by the water overlooking Stanley Beach through Century Joy Holdings Ltd., a company registered in Hong Kong and incorporated in the British Virgin Islands, for $ 15 million in 2013, according to a document filed in the city’s land registry.

Li, then 30, was the Hong Kong unit’s sole director. This unit was dissolved in October, hours after The Times contacted Li to comment on the publication of the article on Deutsche Bank’s employment in China.

Her partner, a 35-year-old Chinese-born Singaporean businessman, Chua Hwa Por, has used a similar strategy.

He was named the sole recipient of a company registered in the British Virgin Islands, according to the Panama Papers, a 2016 leak of confidential documents that revealed how prominent business leaders and politicians may have used shell companies and offshore bank accounts to avoid taxes. Mr Chua uses a variety of addresses and multiple identification numbers, but he can be linked to Li, the real estate and companies through his Singaporean identity number.

The nature of Li’s relationship with Mr. Chua is unclear, but they own a business together and have used the same home addresses in documents as they have filed in Hong Kong’s Property and Business Register. Hong Kong news reports have speculated that the couple was married.

That year, he also began making a number of major purchases, according to reports to the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. He took over Tai United, a little-known investment company listed in Hong Kong, and used it to buy trophy assets including a large stake in the Peninsula Hotel and the 79th floor of an iconic skyscraper.

In July 2017, less than five months after he was appointed chairman of Tai United, Mr. Chua from the company. He resigned shortly after Next Magazine, a Hong Kong news store owned by pro-Democrat tycoon Jimmy Lai, reported on the purchases and his possible ties to Mr. Li, the senior Chinese official. (The publisher, Mr. Lai, was arrested this week, charged with national security and other crimes.)

Mr Li, the official, was at the time ready for promotion to the Standing Committee of the Politburo, the party’s top power, and even the cork of corruption in his family would have been potentially damaging. In January next year, Mr. Chua maintains its stake in Tai United.

Without disclosing the wealth of officials and their relatives, it is impossible to know how Chua and Li got their income. There are legitimate reasons for people to own offshore companies, nor is it illegal for Chinese citizens to do so.

Shirley Yam, a prominent economic writer in Hong Kong, also raised questions about the couple’s financial dealings in a 2017 column in The South China Morning Post, a local newspaper owned by Jack Ma, one of China’s richest tech tycoons.

The paper later pulled the column from its website, citing “several verifiable insinuations.” Ms Yam resigned and defended her column in a statement.

But if there was fallout from the revelation, Li Li probably appeared unharmed; in October 2017, he was promoted to the party’s powerful standing committee.

Since then, Mr. Chua largely shot away from the public eye. But he and Ms. Li remain partners in a company called Chua & Li Membership. In annual applications with the government, both had listed the $ 15 million beach house as their residence until earlier this year, when Li changed his address to an apartment owned by Mr. Chua on the 60th floor of an exclusive property.

Li made a rare public appearance in April 2019 and took part in an event that now seems to have foreseen Hong Kong’s current fate.

She, along with Hong Kong’s leader, Mrs Lam, applauded at the opening of a government – sponsored exhibition promoting national security for Hong Kong, a campaign video for the event showed. Other special guests included the Deputy Commander of the People’s Liberation Army in Hong Kong and the directors of the highest offices representing the mainland authorities in Hong Kong.

Shields and bulletproof vests hung on the walls when members of the Hong Kong Army Cadet Association – a youth group supported by the government and the People’s Liberation Army – were taken on a tour of the exhibition.

Fourteen months later, Beijing introduced a national security law in Hong Kong.

Sui-Lee Wee contributed reporting from Nangoucun, China.

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