NICE, France — Nobody serious is suggesting that the death of the Chinese billionaire and visionary businessman Wang Jian was anything more than a tragic accident in a postcard-perfect Provençal town—but the conspiracy theories surrounding the incident are revealing in themselves.
The timing of Wang’s demise is shining an unwanted spotlight on HNA Group Co., the controversial—and opaque—Chinese conglomerate Jian co-founded and which was described in 2017 as the “mysterious Chinese company worrying the world.”
Wang gave a speech in February saying HNA was the victim of a anti-Chinese conspiracy by international rivals jealous of the rise of Chinese companies and of the Chinese government. He was one of the richest men in China, owning 15 percent of HNA shares.
HNA is currently struggling with a reported $90 billion in debt after a going on a wildly overambitious, two-year global spending spree which included buying stakes in the Hilton Hotel chain as well as Deutsche Bank and other real estate, aviation and financial assets.
In late April, HNA dropped its bid to acquire Skybridge Capital, a hedge fund owned by President Donald Trump’s former aide Anthony Scaramucci as the deal stagnated with U.S. regulators after more than a year, Reuters reported.
HNA has been the target of curious and concerned government officials in the U.S. and Europe as well as the Chinese Communist leadership looking to rein in some of the country’s biggest, private sector companies.
Wang, 57, died Tuesday after climbing atop a wall at a medieval church perched high above the village of Bonnieux in the Luberon so his colleagues could take a photo of him. It’s believed he lost his balance and fell backwards 50 feet. He died of his injuries after receiving medical attention from local paramedics, police said.
He was on a business trip with colleagues, according to HNA. An HNA spokesman told The Daily Beast on Thursday that his wife had flown to southern France to retrieve his body.
But the local police officer overseeing the investigation acknowledged Thursday that calls were “coming in from all over,” given HNA’s notoriety and ongoing struggles. Conspiracy theories were rampant on China’s social media site Weibo.
BBC News Chinese reported that, oddly enough, HNA had to deny rumors last month that Wang had died.
“Everyone’s asking that question about what really happened,” Lt. Col Hubert Mériaux told the Daily Beast. “Right now it looks to be an accident and not suspicious. That was the first conclusion, but the case is very much under investigation and will be for quite some time. All we have right now are what the witnesses tell us. We don’t know what was going on in his mind.”
Wang was the No. 2 at the company, the junior of two chairmen, and there from the start. Starting in 1989, HNA Group leader Chen Feng and Wang turned HNA (Hainan Airlines) from a local airline into one of China’s biggest and most unwieldy corporations. The company has been in the process of selling down some of its international assets as fast as it bought them to reduce its domestic debt. Wang was crucial in that process and now leaves the company in a particularly difficult position.
“Together, we mourn the loss of an exceptionally gifted leader and role model, whose vision and values will continue to be a beacon for all who had the good fortune to know him, as well as for the many others whose lives he touched through his work and philanthropy,” HNA said in the statement.
Wang railed against enemies of the so-called “Chinese dream” in his February speech.
"We are carrying out a great transformation; we are realizing the great dreams of the secretary general [Xi Jinping]," Wang said, calling on HNA’s more than 400,000 employees to hang tough.
"They want to disrupt the entire Chinese economy, then disrupt HNA, leading to social unrest, subverting the entire 19th Party Congress, China’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative and the planning for further, deeper reform. This is their conspiracy, these are their evil motives, and they’ve been plotting for a long time. "
Wang has reportedly given only one official interview in 25 years. It was conducted by China Economic Weekly in April and lasted four hours. The interviewer described Wang as appearing “uneasy.”
"It's tough to run a business,” he told the outlet. “You can't do well, and you can't do badly. When you do well, someone will come and rob you. When you do badly, someone will come and hurt you, rob you. Would you give it to them or not? Why don't you tell me what I should do?"
One of the rumors swirling around Wang’s death involves HNA’s murky shareholder structure. Two charities, one domestic and one international, own a majority stake in the company. In 2017, Bloomberg reported that its executives pledged to donate all their shares to the charities should they resign or die.
Thomas Clare, a Washington D.C.-based attorney for HNA, did not return calls from The Daily Beast asking whether or not Wang’s shares would be donated to the charities.