Wednesday, December 24, 2008

ap: Billionaire Wong Kwong-yu

SHANGHAI, China (AP) — Billionaire Wong Kwong-yu personifies the journey China has taken since it launched sweeping economic reforms 30 years that transformed the communist country into an economic power.
But as Wong — founder and chairman of the country's biggest appliance chain — is finding, getting rich in China is still plenty risky.
Born into poverty, Wong built a fortune selling appliances to a nation of consumers hankering for a modern, affluent lifestyle. Estimates of his wealth vary, but an October report by Shanghai-based researcher Rupert Hoogewerf named him the wealthiest Chinese individual, with assets worth about 43 billion yuan ($6.3 billion).
Last month, however, Beijing police confirmed that the 39-year-old Wong was the focus of an investigation into alleged economic crimes. His whereabouts are unclear. His company, Gome Electrical Appliances Holdings, has released scant information since it suspended its shares from trading in Hong Kong last month.
Scores of Chinese entrepreneurs like Wong have made fortunes by exploiting economic niches neglected by the state-run companies that still dominate many strategically vital businesses, such as banking.
But the loopholes and gray areas that are crucial assets in the early years sometimes come back to haunt those tycoons later — what some in China call the "original sin" problem. And apart from potential entanglement in corruption scandals, wealth inevitably draws unwelcome attention from the authorities. In China, the road to success often runs from rags to riches to, eventually, really big trouble.
"It's not because the government discourages wealth, but because of the 'original sin' problem," said Ge Dingkun, a professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the China Europe International Business School in Shanghai.
"Typically, the companies grew when the relevant legal system was lacking and they had to give 'sweets' to officials to get anything done that was not clearly legislated at that time, the so-called gray areas," Ge said.
The list is long, from Mou Qizhong, an early tycoon once billed as China's richest man who is now serving a life prison sentence for bank fraud, to Shanghai land mogul Zhou Zhengyi, sentenced earlier this year to 16 years in prison for bribery, tax receipt forgery and embezzlement.
The current era of what the Chinese call "reform and opening" officially began with a Communist Party gathering in December 1978 that legalized small-scale private farms, the first step toward the country's current melange of rollicking private enterprise and hefty government interference.
Wong was just a boy then. A few years later, he left his home in southern China's Shantou region, setting out as have millions of other Cantonese traders across the globe. But instead of migrating overseas, he went north, to peddle electrical products in Beijing.
Within a few years, Wong's knack for trading had enabled him to set up an electronics retailing chain. He dubbed it Gome (pronounced "go-may"), which literally means "country beautiful."
Typical of many first-generation tycoons, Wong is renowned for his modest, workaholic lifestyle. He flourished by satisfying escalating Chinese appetites for the accessories of the good life — first, black-and-white and then color televisions and later, refrigerators, washing machines and air conditioners.
Ramping up Gome's size and reach, Wong steadily acquired regional rivals, putting together a retailing empire that by now includes 1,300 stores employing some 300,000 people, according to Gome's Web site.
Wong, also is known as Huang Guangyu, and his wife Du Juan, who is an executive director on Gome's board, hold a controlling stake in the appliances chain. But public information about Wong's private business dealings is scarce. China's financial disclosure requirements lag behind those in the U.S. and Europe, and much of the tycoon's own wealth is held in a web of private companies.
Problems arose as Wong, facing stiff competition from other retailers including U.S.-based Best Buy, forayed into more lucrative real estate and financial dealings.
A 2006 investigation into an allegedly illegal loan to Wong was dropped. Gome announced in June that it was facing a tax probe, but the results of that investigation were not announced.
According to a report posted on the Web site of the China Internet Information Center, which is published by the State Council, China's Cabinet, authorities say they suspect Wong of alleged share price manipulation, money laundering, illicit asset transfers, tax evasion and of bribing officials to gain approval for Gome's 2006 share listing in Hong Kong.
Wong was aiding the investigation and was not allowed to leave Beijing, the report said. It linked the probe to reported graft allegations against several senior Commerce Ministry officials.
"The charges are classic. It's about taking money from one place and playing with it in another place. It's not kosher," said James McGregor, author of the book, "One Billion Customers: Lessons from the Front Lines of Doing Business in China."
Wong's case has gotten intensive coverage in China's state-run media.
Gome says Wong's case is a personal matter. It has named its chief executive officer, Chen Xiao, acting chairman. Last week, it said it had appointed independent external auditors to assess the company's finances and legal advisers to review its management and risk controls.
"The group's business, operations and relationship with its suppliers has remained normal and have not been affected by the investigation," Gome said in a notice to the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.
Last month, Gome reported that its net profit for the first nine months of the year had more than doubled from a year earlier to 1.6 billion yuan ($233 million). But Gome's last-traded share price at 1.12 Hong Kong dollars (14 U.S. cents) is a small fraction of its one-year high of HK$17.70.
Wong's case has highlighted China's struggle to improve corporate governance, even after 30 years of capitalist reforms.
A recent study by the think-tank RAND Corp. noted a slew of problems, from rampant insider trading to a lack of independent directors on corporate boards. Frequently, financial information is falsified, and many companies are only partially publicly traded, a situation that often compromises minority shareholders' rights, the study said.
While top state-owned companies with shares listed overseas are on a par with those elsewhere, many others lag far behind, says William Overholt, an expert with Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
"Below the top companies, the standards are far lower — better than 10 years ago but still highly vulnerable to personal and political manipulation," Overholt said.

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