Striding into the ballroom of one of his company’s hotels, glad-handing football stars and pouring champagne into a tower of flutes, Evergrande boss Hui Ka Yan was riding high.
It was 2015, and former Chelsea manager Luiz Felipe Scolari had just guided Hui’s football team, Guangzhou Evergrande, to victory in Asia’s Champions League. Also in the ballroom were team co-owner Chinese tech billionaire Jack Ma and Britain’s Prince Andrew.
Once a symbol of success and the embodiment of the incredible growth of China’s real estate sector over the past 20 years, Hui today faces a stunning reversal of fortunes. Evergrande is teetering on the brink of default, with more than $300bn of total liabilities and having missed an interest payment on a bond last month, which could spark China’s biggest debt restructuring.
The developer’s woes have thrown an uncomfortable spotlight on Hui’s lavish lifestyle and the offshore wealth he amassed while Evergrande expanded. Many Chinese retail investors who bought his flats or invested in wealth management products connected to his company are now demanding that he personally pay them back.
“What about his private jets, his luxury houses in Hong Kong? He has so much money,” said a woman who attended a creditor meeting with the company last month in a video that went viral on Weibo, calling on Hui to liquidate his assets.
His troubles coincide with a campaign by China’s president Xi Jinping against corporate excesses that has targeted some of the country’s highest profile entrepreneurs. But tracking down the assets of a man who mixed with the global elite and used shell companies to buy properties around the world will not be easy for angry creditors.
Dining with Prince Andrew
Only four years ago, Hui, who worked in the steel industry before setting up Evergrande in 1996, was China’s richest man, with a fortune estimated at $45bn.
Hui’s rise was marked by his extensive network of powerful Chinese and foreign friends. He courted Hong Kong tycoons as investors at card games and enlisted Chinese movie stars such as Fan Bingbing and Jackie Chan to help market his products.
Among his flashier international contacts was Prince Andrew, who he hosted as a guest at his luxury home in Hong Kong’s exclusive Peak neighbourhood during the royal’s visits to the territory, according to a person familiar with the soirées. Neither Hui nor Evergrande responded to a request for comment.
Hui met Prince Andrew over 2015 and 2016, photos and Chinese media reports show. The nature of these exchanges is unknown — they were not documented in the Court Circular, the public record of official royal engagements. Prince Andrew declined to comment.
When Xi visited London in October 2015, Chinese media reported that Hui joined the Chinese delegation and visited Buckingham Palace with the Duke of York. The prince sent a congratulatory message to Evergrande’s 20-year anniversary party a year later.
Shell companies and exuberant spending
Hui, who was named in the Panama papers, a leak of documents from offshore law firm Mossack Fonseca, often bought assets outside China and Hong Kong through shell companies.
These included one of Australia’s most luxurious houses in Sydney’s Point Piper, Villa del Mare, in 2014, which was bought through a company called Golden Fast Foods.
When he was ordered to divest the property under Australia’s foreign investment laws, Hui shunned real estate agents and held a private sale. “It was done fairly quickly and in house,” a person with knowledge of the sale told the Financial Times.
Hui also bought his Peak property in Hong Kong through a shell company. The price of the 2009 purchase is undisclosed, but in 1997, land documents for the address showed a transaction of about $94m. In August this year, as Evergrande’s liquidity crisis mounted, he transferred the directorship in the company to Tan Haijun, an associate, documents showed.
Some of the billionaire’s other assets include Rolls Royces and private jets, such as a Gulfstream G450, which can cost up to $43m, according to Chinese media. More well known is his $90m Airbus A319 — a commercial passenger-size jet that can seat up to 160 people — which Hui used to scout for properties on Australia’s Queensland’s Gold Coast in 2014, including the city’s Sheraton Mirage Resort and Spa.
He also bought a 60-metre mega yacht called “Event” from Dutch boat designer Amels in 2015, according to two people familiar with the matter. A similar yacht from the same builder is listed for €67m. A former employee who worked on the yacht said it had hosted a member of the British royal family.
Desmond Shum, the author of Red Roulette — an account of the “golden age” for Chinese entrepreneurs in the mid-1990s — wrote that Hui “envisioned a floating palace to wine and dine officials off China’s coast, away from the prying eyes of China’s anti-corruption cops and its nascent paparazzi”.
Shum also detailed how Hui bought two $1m rings on a whim at a Beijing jewellery store. He wrote: “In China, there are several ways to get the attention of those in power . . . [Hui’s] preferred method was through giving outrageously expensive gifts.”
Despite Evergrande’s mounting problems, Hui seemed to remain in favour with China’s senior leadership as Xi launched a crackdown on the country’s most prominent entrepreneurs over the past year. As recently as July 1, Hui was photographed in Beijing with the ruling elite at a celebration of the party’s 100-year anniversary.
“Doing big business on the mainland is mostly dependent on big networks,” said Zhiwu Chen, a professor of finance at Hong Kong university. Hui “has been known as a pretty nice, generous friend to have”.
But Hui’s luck ran out this year as Beijing enforced rules to reduce leverage in the real estate sector. Since July, as Evergrande’s liquidity crisis has worsened, its value has fallen more than 80 per cent, hitting Hui’s personal wealth through his 71 per cent stake. However, he is still worth $11.8bn, according to Forbes.
As Hui’s fortune crumbles, few may step in to save him. His companions from the football celebration in 2015 increasingly resemble a line-up of the fallen — Ma has been humbled by Xi’s “common prosperity” drive and Prince Andrew is facing a scandal over his association with the late sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
Even Hong Kong tycoon Joseph Lau, a longstanding Hui ally, has been offloading his company’s stake in Evergrande. “Now, he’s a friend nobody wants to have,” Chen said. “The golden era for making big money multiple times over is over.”