Sinosphere
By MICHAEL FORSYTHE

In the center of Beijing’s booming commercial district, with soaring office towers, gleaming shopping malls and luxury apartment complexes, sits a shabby, four-story building with an office that houses stupendous wealth.

To get there, visitors must first pass through an unmarked entrance next to a gray-tiled post office, then pass through a maze of carelessly strung phone and power lines. On the fourth floor, down a hallway where black scuff marks on the walls indicate years of neglect, is the Hujialou Concentrated Office Zone, an officially sanctioned domicile for shell companies.

According to government records, that office is home to two companies with a total stake that accounts for more than $15 billion in assets of one of China’s biggest financial conglomerates: the Anbang Insurance Group.

Prying visitors are not welcome. A woman at the office, who did not give her name, grew angry when a journalist told her that two companies there controlled a large share of Anbang.

“We’re just a private company, helping others register with the State Administration for Industry and Commerce,” she said, referring to the keepers of China’s corporate database. “It is none of our business whether they are shell companies.”

 

Another Anbang shareholding firm — one that controls $5.6 billion in assets — lists its address a few blocks away from the Hujialou building, at an office tower’s empty 27th floor.

Near the Temple of Heaven, the former imperial religious complex in Beijing, the listed address of yet another shareholding company turns out to be another empty office. The directory downstairs lists the former tenant: a shoe seller.

A group of 39 companies control Anbang, which was once a sleepy insurance company and now has $295 billion in assets and a reputation as an ambitious global deal maker. Many of those companies are in turn owned by a welter of shell companies, many with similar names and addresses or common owners.

Ultimately, as The New York Times reports, they are controlled by about 100 people, many of whom hail from a county called Pingyang on China’s east coast. Pingyang County is the home county of Anbang’s chairman, Wu Xiaohui.

In any major country, the shareholders of marquee companies are often household names themselves. General Electric counts major institutional investors such as the Vanguard Group and BlackRock as top owners. Berkshire Hathaway’s biggest shareholder is its chairman, Warren E. Buffett.

China is no exception. Dalian Wanda Commercial Properties, for example, led by China’s richest man, Wang Jianlin, may match Anbang in the breadth of itspolitical connections, but many of its biggest shareholders are easily recognizable Chinese companies like China Life Insurance.

Anbang is different. The companies that own it, and the people who back them, are almost all obscure. Two state-owned companies that collectively own less than 2 percent of Anbang are the only exceptions. I first started writing about Chinese companies 16 years ago and have never seen a similar ownership structure at a major company.

That is remarkable, given Anbang’s increasing size and prominence. Earlier this year, Anbang came close to executing what would have been the biggest takeover ever of an American company by a Chinese company, offering more than $14 billion for Starwood Hotels & Resorts.

In China, the company not only sells auto and life insurance, but also controls a major bank in southwestern China, is the largest shareholder of one of the country’s biggest financial conglomerates, China Minsheng Banking Corporation, and is the second-largest shareholder in another, China Merchants Bank.

But China is not an offshore haven like the Cayman Islands or the British Virgin Islands. The country’s online corporate records system allows those with patience to find the names behind the holding companies, even if — as with Anbang — the corporate shareholders frequently change names, addresses and owners.

After more than three months of combing through thousands of pages of records, The Times was able to piece together a corporate history for those 39 shareholders. One clear pattern emerged. At least 35 of the companies, collectively owning more than 92 percent of Anbang, can trace all or part of their ownership to relatives of Mr. Wu or to his wife, Zhuo Ran, who is the granddaughter of the former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping; or to Chen Xiaolu, the son of one of China’s most famous marshals, who helped Mao’s Communists to victory in 1949. Those relatives are either current or former owners or directors of those companies, or current or former owners of predecessor firms.

One example is Lin Cong, who owns a small share of the company. Mr. Lin is Mr. Wu’s cousin, the nephew of his mother, Lin Xiangmei, relatives say.

 

Back at the Hujialou Concentrated Office Zone, one of the Anbang shareholders there, a company called Beijing Bibo Investment Management Company, controls $10.9 billion in Anbang assets. Until Dec. 1, 2014, that stake was ultimately owned by a woman named Wu Xiaoxia, corporate records show. Relatives in Pingyang County say she is very close to Mr. Wu.

She is his sister.