Sunday, May 31, 2015

Villa Del Mare: Lola Wang Li and the secretive web of Chinese wealth


Villa del Mare is a mansion on Australia’s most expensive street, Wolseley Road, Point Piper. Chinese billionaire Xu Jiayin was forced to sell the mansion in March this year by Treasurer Joe Hockey. Xu is one of China’s wealthiest men. He founded Guangzhou Evergrande, which has a reputation as one of China’s largest and most aggressively expanding real estate conglomerates.

When Joe Hockey shocked the real estate world by forcing Chinese billionaire Xu Jiayin to sell his $39 million Point Piper mansion Villa Del Mare in March, the Treasurer wanted to demonstrate that he was serious about stopping foreigners from evading ownership restrictions and inflating the bubbling market.

The Treasurer showed he wouldn't be fooled by an intervening string of shelf companies that stretched via the British Virgin Islands to the headquarters of Xu's property development empire in southern China.

And it was also a way for government political advisers to nod towards the kind of sentiment that turned ugly over the weekend, when a race hate group attempted to provoke a protest rally to "stop the Chinese invasion".  

Last month, as Sydney's elite real estate agents were scratching their heads at the absence of any marketing campaign, Xu Jiayin's palazzo-style harbourfront residence was quietly sold to an Australian citizen, Lola Wang Li, who told the treasurer in a statutory declaration that she was "not associated" with the previous owner "in any way". 


If only the Treasurer had been invited to Villa De Mare on New Year's Eve, around the corner from local representative Malcolm Turnbull, he would have glimpsed the webs of fabulous wealth and power that had come together on Sydney's night of nights.

Xu was not at his Point Piper home. He had generously thrown open his doors in his absence. 

Taking refuge in Australia

Still, Hockey would also have learnt something about the fragility of life at the top in China which is pushing the mega-rich and powerful to take refuge in the safe harbours of Sydney and Melbourne.

It now seems that Hockey's move to uphold the law against foreigners buying established property has only underscored how little Australian authorities know about the changing identities, hidden connections and rivers of mysterious money heating up high-end real estate markets.

Fairfax Media can reveal that Lola Wang Li was one of the handful of exclusive guests for one of Sydney's grandest New Year's Eve parties at Xu's Villa De Mare, enjoying the view of the midnight fireworks so much she later decided to buy it.

Not only that, Fairfax understands the 48-year-old mother of young twins was there at the invitation of one of China's most famous "red princelings", Zeng Wei, the son of the former vice president, Zeng Qinghong, who was the great powerbroker of Chinese politics for two decades.

Associates say the owner, Xu, had lent his house for the night to Zeng and his former news anchor wife, Jiang Mei, whose 100-year-old Craig-y-Mor mansion was being knocked down and rebuilt just a few doors up the road.

And an investigation of title deeds and corporate filings in Australia, Hong Kong and mainland China reveals that the purchaser Lola Wang Li stands at the centre of a glittering circle of family members and business associates who have all clung close to political power to earn what people in China like to call "the first pot of gold".

Trickle now a pour

The story of Chinese money pouring into Australia began as a trickle in the 1990s, after Deng Xiaoping revived China's economic reforms following the "turmoil" of 1989 and as fears were rising in Hong Kong about returning under Beijing rule.

Lola Wang Li, also known as Li Nuo Wang and Lola Li (as is common in the Chinese community), made her first humble foray into Sydney real estate in 1997, the  year of the Hong Kong handover, with a two-bedroom apartment in Haymarket, overlooking Chinatown.

At the start of the new millennium, China joined the World Trade Organisation and the economy kicked into a decade of hyper-development. The combination of opaque Communist Party politics and open-market economics proved a heady cocktail, producing the greatest burst of extreme wealth the world has ever seen.

Some of that money began flooding into Australia around the Communist Party's 17th Party Congress, in November 2007, when the political machinations behind a crucial power transition to current president Xi Jinping were being thrashed out.

Lola Wang Li's husband, Li Liang, struck his pot of gold when he teamed up with Li Xiaolin, one-time business partner of Clive Palmer and the daughter of former premier Li Peng, whose family dominates China's state and private electricity industry.

The husband, better-known by his Cantonese name Lai Leong, burst onto the front pages of Hong Kong magazines in 2007 when his previously obscure Bermuda-incorporated company was renamed on the Hong Kong stock exchange as China Power New Energy Development Company Ltd and became a key investment vehicle for renewable energy projects in mainland China.

Li Liang's shares, held through one of his four British Virgin Island companies, shot up to be worth as much as $HK500 million, before he stepped down as chief executive in 2009. These days, in Sydney circles, Li Liang is known chiefly as a casino high-roller with a private jet and formidable Chinese connections.

Lola Wang Li turned heads in Vaucluse in 2008 when she door-knocked on the Hall family residence, asking the owners to name their price. She paid $16.6 million for the freshly-renovated Vaucluse Road mansion, which agents say remains comfortably above even today's market value.

Vicky Wang's connections

Throughout this time, Lola Wang Li's younger sister, Vicky Wang, had been busily helping Chinese investors navigate their way in Australia. She would meet her future husband, former NSW police officer Jamie Dickson, whose consultancy AJL Global helped advise Australian companies going the other way.

Among a string of private company directorships, Vicky Wang sits on an Australian company board with father-son property developers Wang Zhicai and Wang Shuo.

The elder Wang is famous in China for marrying one of the country's best known television stars, 41-year-old actor Wang Yan, who is currently headlining a citywide anti-smoking ad campaign in Beijing. They live under the radar in a luxury apartment in Kirribilli's Craiglea complex.

The younger Wang had become as famous as his stepmother, but for wholly different reasons. Already dubbed one of Beijing's four "capital playboys", his notoriety peaked when he pulled a gun on one of the other three and reared his station wagon into the friend's Audi, causing both a tabloid sensation and a flaming car wreck.

Vicky Wang is also a shareholder of an Australian company called Fruit Master International, along with Chinese shopping centre tycoon Dai Yong'ge – son of a former head of the Chinese central bank – and his wife Zhang Xingmei, who bought a Dumaresq Road Rose Bay mansion for $17.7 million in 2008.

And there is an even bigger name on the Fruit Master share registry: Zeng Wei, the former vice president's son. 

Zeng used the lustre of his father to win all kinds of concessions, which Fairfax has previously investigated. Among the most profitable was helping Dai's Hong Kong-listed company, Renhe Commercial, gain military approval to convert underground bomb shelters into a maze of glitzy shopping centres in southern China.

In 2008, immediately after Renhe had listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange and Zeng Wei's father brokered the deal that promoted Xi Jinping into his job as vice president of China, Zeng and his wife inspected the Point Piper trophy Villa del Mare, thought better of it, and then handed over $32.4 million for the former mansion Craig-y-Mor just up the road. This transaction, including the saga of knocking down a century-old home to build a bigger modern one, remains the most egregious example of China's Communist Party princelings flaunting their wealth abroad.

Such is the awe the Zeng Wei name carries in Chinese circles that once the couple had settled on their purchase, agents say it impacted on subsequent buyers of Villa del Mare. At least one offer fell through because Zeng Wei was considered so high in the social-political hierarchy that only someone of the highest standing could buy a home that equalled his.

Intensely secretive sale

And all of these glittering names and their stories could be found within the innermost circle of the latest Villa del Mare purchaser, Lola Wang Li, as she was celebrating among the lavish food and flower displays and musical performances on New Year's Eve.

Xu Jiayin, who was forced to sell the property, is the founder of one of China's largest property conglomerates, Evergrande.

Lola Wang Li's lawyer insists that Xu was not in any way "associated" with his client, Lola Wang Li, and therefore the Treasurer had not been deceived. He says Xu was not even home when he threw the doors open for his near neighbours. Fairfax Media makes no claim to the contrary and notes that Xu's private jet, an Airbus A319, was not in Australia at the time.

But the intensely-secretive manner of the sale, including Xu's offhand dismissal of other offers at the same price, reveals something not only of the extraordinary opulence of China's new uber-rich but also the insecurity that causes them to circle together and protect each other's privacy in safe harbours far from their original homes.

An average of two US-dollar billionaires are minted every week in China. They make their wealth without the constraints of rule-of-law but, equally, they know there is little to stop the even more powerful from taking it away.

Sydney's princeling aristocracy

Xu's key patron, according to sources that include rivals, was the former Communist Party chief of Guangzhou city, Wan Qingliang, who was brought down for corruption last year.

And Lola Wang Li's husband, Li Liang, was forced to step down as chief executive of China Power New Energy in June 2009 as word spread that Communist Party leaders were scrutinising the dealings of his princeling patron, Li Xiaolin. The announcement to the Hong Kong Stock Exchange said only he was departing for "personal reasons", while Li Xiaolin remains the company's chair.

Further away from elite politics, Lola Wang Li's ultra-cautious sister, Vicky Wang, has adopted an even lower profile since her business associate Wang Shuo was charged with illegal possession of firearms and destruction of property.

And for Zeng Wei, the central figure in Sydney's princeling aristocracy, the dangers have reached much closer to home.

His father brokered the deal that elevated Xi Jinping to the presidency. Their families used to holiday together at the Politburo's beachside resort of Beidaihe, where their villas were right alongside each other, according to friends who have visited.  

But according to close associates, Zeng's father, the former vice president and kingmaker of China, Zeng Qinghong, has recently found his movements in China restricted as part of President Xi's deepening political and anti-corruption purge.

For Zeng Wei, and many others, Sydney offers a safe harbour from the gathering storms in China. Sydney Morning Herald

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