Billions in Hidden Riches for Family of Chinese Leader
The Only Son
Late one evening early this year, the prime minister's only son, Wen Yunsong, was in the cigar lounge at Xiu, an upscale bar and lounge at the Park Hyatt in Beijing. He was having cocktails as Beijing's nouveau riche gathered around, clutching designer bags and wearing expensive business suits, according to two guests who were present.
In China, the children of senior leaders are widely believed to be in a class of their own. Known as "princelings," they often hold Ivy League degrees, get V.I.P. treatment, and are even offered preferred pricing on shares in hot stock offerings.
They are also known as people who can get things done in China's heavily regulated marketplace, where the state controls access. And in recent years, few princelings have been as bold as the younger Mr. Wen, who goes by the English name Winston and is about 40 years old.
A Times review of Winston Wen's investments, and interviews with people who have known him for years, show that his deal-making has been extensive and lucrative, even by the standards of his princeling peers.
State-run giants like China Mobile have formed start-ups with him. In recent years, Winston Wen has been in talks with Hollywood studios about a financing deal.
Concerned that China does not have an elite boarding school for Chinese students, he recently hired the headmasters of Choate and Hotchkiss in Connecticut to oversee the creation of a $150 million private school now being built in the Beijing suburbs.
Winston Wen and his wife, moreover, have stakes in the technology industry and an electric company, as well as an indirect stake in Union Mobile Pay, the government-backed online payment platform — all while living in the prime minister's residence, in central Beijing, according to corporate records and people familiar with the family's investments.
"He's not shy about using his influence to get things done," said one venture capitalist who regularly meets with Winston Wen.
The younger Mr. Wen declined to comment. But in a telephone interview, his wife, Yang Xiaomeng, said her husband had been unfairly criticized for his business dealings.
"Everything that has been written about him has been wrong," she said. "He's really not doing that much business anymore."
Winston Wen was educated in Beijing and then earned an engineering degree from the Beijing Institute of Technology. He went abroad and earned a master's degree in engineering materials from the University of Windsor, in Canada, and an M.B.A. from the Kellogg School of Business at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., just outside Chicago.
When he returned to China in 2000, he helped set up three successful technology companies in five years, according to people familiar with those deals. Two of them were sold to Hong Kong businessmen, one to the family of Li Ka-shing, one of the wealthiest men in Asia.
Winston Wen's earliest venture, an Internet data services provider called Unihub Global, was founded in 2000 with $2 million in start-up capital, according to Hong Kong and Beijing corporate filings. Financing came from a tight-knit group of relatives and his mother's former colleagues from government and the diamond trade, as well as an associate of Cheng Yu-tung, patriarch of Hong Kong's second-wealthiest family. The firm's earliest customers were state-owned brokerage houses and Ping An, in which the Wen family has held a large financial stake.
He made an even bolder move in 2005, by pushing into private equity when he formed New Horizon Capital with a group of Chinese-born classmates from Northwestern. The firm quickly raised $100 million from investors, including SBI Holdings, a division of the Japanese group SoftBank, and Temasek, the Singapore government investment fund.
Under Mr. Wen, New Horizon established itself as a leading private equity firm, investing in biotech, solar, wind and construction equipment makers. Since it began operations, the firm has returned about $430 million to investors, a fourfold profit, according to SBI Holdings.
"Their first fund was dynamite," said Kathleen Ng, editor of Asia Private Equity Review, an industry publication in Hong Kong. "And that allowed them to raise a lot more money."
Today, New Horizon has more than $2.5 billion under management.
Some of Winston Wen's deal-making, though, has attracted unwanted attention for the prime minister.
In 2010, when New Horizon acquired a 9 percent stake in a company called Sihuan Pharmaceuticals just two months before its public offering, the Hong Kong Stock Exchange said the late-stage investment violated its rules and forced the firm to return the stake. Still, New Horizon made a $46.5 million profit on the sale.
Soon after, New Horizon announced that Winston Wen had handed over day-to-day operations and taken up a position at the China Satellite Communications Corporation, a state-owned company that has ties to the Chinese space program. He has since been named chairman.
In the late 1990s, Duan Weihong was managing an office building and several other properties in Tianjin, the prime minister's hometown in northern China, through her property company, Taihong. She was in her 20s and had studied at the Nanjing University of Science and Technology.
Around 2002, Ms. Duan went into business with several relatives of Wen Jiabao, transforming her property company into an investment vehicle of the same name. The company helped make Ms. Duan very wealthy.
It is not known whether Ms. Duan, now 43, is related to the prime minister. In a series of interviews, she first said she did not know any members of the Wen family, but later described herself as a friend of the family and particularly close to Zhang Beili, the prime minister's wife. As happened to a handful of other Chinese entrepreneurs, Ms. Duan's fortunes soared as she teamed up with the relatives and their network of friends and colleagues, though she described her relationship with them involving the shares in Ping An as existing on paper only and having no financial component.
Ms. Duan and other wealthy businesspeople — among them, six billionaires from across China — have been instrumental in getting multimillion-dollar ventures off the ground and, at crucial times, helping members of the Wen family set up investment vehicles to profit from them, according to investment bankers who have worked with all parties.
Established in Tianjin, Taihong had spectacular returns. In 2002, the company paid about $65 million to acquire a 3 percent stake in Ping An before its initial public offering, according to corporate records and Ms. Duan's graduate school thesis. Five years later, those shares were worth $3.7 billion
The company's Hong Kong affiliate, Great Ocean, also run by Ms. Duan, later formed a joint venture with the Beijing government and acquired a huge tract of land adjacent to Capital International Airport. Today, the site is home to a sprawling cargo and logistics center. Last year, Great Ocean sold its 53 percent stake in the project to a Singapore company for nearly $400 million.
That deal and several other investments, in luxury hotels, Beijing villa developments and the Hong Kong-listed BBMG, one of China's largest building materials companies, have been instrumental to Ms. Duan's accumulation of riches, according to The Times's review of corporate records.
The review also showed that over the past decade there have been nearly three dozen individual shareholders of Taihong, many of whom are either relatives of Wen Jiabao or former colleagues of his wife.
The other wealthy entrepreneurs who have worked with the prime minister's relatives declined to comment for this article. Ms. Duan strongly denied having financial ties to the prime minister or his relatives and said she was only trying to avoid publicity by listing others as owning Ping An shares. "The money I invested in Ping An was completely my own," said Ms. Duan, who has served as a member of the Ping An board of supervisors. "Everything I did was legal."
Another wealthy partner of the Wen relatives has been Cheng Yu-tung, who controls the Hong Kong conglomerate New World Development and is one of the richest men in Asia, worth about $15 billion, according to Forbes.
In the 1990s, New World was seeking a foothold in mainland China for a sister company that specializes in high-end retail jewelry. The retail chain, Chow Tai Fook, opened its first store in China in 1998.
Mr. Cheng and his associates invested in a diamond venture backed by the relatives of Mr. Wen and co-invested with them in an array of corporate entities, including Sino-Life, National Trust and Ping An, according to records and interviews with some of those involved. Those investments by Mr. Cheng are now worth at least $5 billion, according to the corporate filings. Chow Tai Fook, the jewelry chain, has also flourished. Today, China accounts for 60 percent of the chain's $4.2 billion in annual revenue.
Mr. Cheng, 87, could not be reached for comment. Calls to New World Development were not returned.
Fallout for Premier
In the winter of 2007, just before he began his second term as prime minister, Wen Jiabao called for new measures to fight corruption, particularly among high-ranking officials.
"Leaders at all levels of government should take the lead in the antigraft drive," he told a gathering of high-level party members in Beijing. "They should strictly ensure that their family members, friends and close subordinates do not abuse government influence."
The speech was consistent with the prime minister's earlier drive to toughen disclosure rules for public servants, and to require senior officials to reveal their family assets.
Whether Mr. Wen has made such disclosures for his own family is unclear, since the Communist Party does not release such information. Even so, many of the holdings found by The Times would not need to be disclosed under the rules since they are not held in the name of the prime minister's immediate family — his wife, son and daughter.
Eighty percent of the $2.7 billion in assets identified in The Times's investigation and verified by the outside auditors were held by, among others, the prime minister's mother, his younger brother, two brothers-in-law, a sister-in-law, daughter-in-law and the parents of his son's wife, none of whom is subject to party disclosure rules. The total value of the relatives' stake in Ping An is based on calculations by The Times that were confirmed by the auditors. The total includes shares held by the relatives that were sold between 2004 and 2006, and the value of the remaining shares in late 2007, the last time the holdings were publicly disclosed.
Legal experts said that determining the precise value of holdings in China could be difficult because there might be undisclosed side agreements about the true beneficiaries.
"Complex corporate structures are not necessarily insidious," said Curtis J. Milhaupt, a Columbia University Law School professor who has studied China's corporate group structures. "But in a system like China's, where corporate ownership and political power are closely intertwined, shell companies magnify questions about who owns what and where the money came from."
Among the investors in the Wen family ventures are longtime business associates, former colleagues and college classmates, including Yu Jianming, who attended Northwestern with Winston Wen, and Zhang Yuhong, a longtime colleague of Wen Jiahong, the prime minister's younger brother. The associates did not return telephone calls seeking comment.
Revelations about the Wen family's wealth could weaken him politically.
Next month, at the 18th Party Congress in Beijing, the Communist Party is expected to announce a new generation of leaders. But the selection process has already been marred by one of the worst political scandals in decades, the downfall of Bo Xilai, the Chongqing party boss, who was vying for a top position.
In Beijing, Wen Jiabao is expected to step down as prime minister because he has reached retirement age. Political analysts say that even after leaving office he could remain a strong backstage political force. But documents showing that his relatives amassed a fortune during his tenure could diminish his standing, the analysts said.
"This will affect whatever residual power Wen has," said Minxin Pei, an expert on Chinese leadership and a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California.
The prime minister's supporters say he has not personally benefited from his extended family's business dealings, and may not even be knowledgeable about the extent of them.
Last March, the prime minister hinted that he was at least aware of the persistent rumors about his relatives. During a nationally televised news conference in Beijing, he insisted that he had "never pursued personal gain" in public office.
"I have the courage to face the people and to face history," he said in an emotional session. "There are people who will appreciate what I have done, but there are also people who will criticize me. Ultimately, history will have the final say."