Wang Jian (王健; 1961 – 3 July 2018) was a Chinese entrepreneur and billionaire. Together with Chen Feng, he was co-founder and co-chairman of Hainan Airlines and the affiliated conglomerate HNA Group, with assets worth US$230 billion in 2018. HNA was the world’s 170th largest company by revenue in 2017 according to Fortune Global 500. Wang and Chen were HNA’s largest individual shareholders, with each owning about 15% of the company. He died from an accidental fall while travelling in France in July 2018.
Wang was born in Tianjin in 1961. He graduated from Civil Aviation University of China in 1983 with a bachelor’s degree in aviation business management, and worked for the Civil Aviation Administration of China afterwards. He later received training at Japan Airlines on a scholarship from the Association for Overseas Technical Scholarship (AOTS), and earned an MBA from the Maastricht School of Management in the Netherlands in 1995.
In 1990, Wang participated in the establishment of Hainan Airlines, based in Hainan province, and became the new company’s chief executive. Together with partner Chen Feng, Wang also founded the conglomerate HNA Group, which grew to become the world’s 170th largest company according to Fortune Global 500, with total revenue of US$53 billion in 2017.
Chen acted as the public face of the company, while Wang was a hands-on manager with a lower public profile. Both men were instrumental in HNA’s phenomenal transformation from a small airline to a global conglomerate with assets worth US$230 billion, including major stakes in Hilton Hotels & Resorts, Deutsche Bank, NH Hotel Group, and ownership of Ingram Micro. However, HNA’s acquisition spree was substantially funded by debt, which had reached US$90 billion in 2018, and it was working to sell billions of dollars of assets to reduce its debt load at the time of Wang’s accidental death.
Wang and Chen were the largest individual shareholders of HNA, with each owning about 15% of the company as of 2017, making them two of the richest people in China. In addition to his responsibilities at HNA, Wang also taught as a part-time professor at his alma mater, Civil Aviation University of China.
In July 2018, Wang went on a business trip in France. On 3 July, he took a sightseeing detour with his colleagues in Bonnieux, a hilltop village in the region of Provence. He climbed onto a low wall above a cliff to have his picture taken, but lost his balance and fell backward, landing on rocks about 15 metres (49 ft) below. He was pronounced dead a few hours later.
Wang’s death was a blow to HNA, which was in the midst of selling its foreign assets to reduce its debt load, and the prices of the company’s dollar bonds fell after his death was confirmed. Hainan Airlines changed its website to a gray color scheme in his honour.
Wang Jian had a younger brother, Wang Wei, who has played a key behind-the-scenes role at HNA Group.
HNA Group Chairman’s Sudden Death Stokes Conspiracy Theories
On July 4, HNA Group, one of China’s biggest conglomerates, announced that Wang Jian, the co-founder and chairman of the company, died in an accident during a business trip in France.
According to the simple obituary in Chinese posted on the company’s website, Wang, 57, suffered a fall during the trip and received medical treatment but failed to recover.
The obituary in English included a statement of HNA Group’s board and management team, led by co-founder and Chairman Chen Feng and CEO Adam Tan. It said: “Together, we mourn the loss of an exceptionally gifted leader and role model, whose vision and values will continue to be a beacon for all who had the good fortune to know him, as well as for the many others whose lives he touched through his work and philanthropy.”
The company’s website was made black and white to mourn Wang.
A police source in France told Reuters that Wang “tried to climb a low wall to see the view and take pictures” in the village of Bonnieux, near Avignon. “After failing a first time, Wang took a run up. ‘He fell over the top and dropped 10 meters.’”
Another police source told The New York Times that Wang’s death was being investigated but that the police had no immediate suspicions of foul play.
Wang’s sudden death immediately kindled conspiracy theories, as HNA has been haunted by negative gossip for quite a while.
HNA Group, headquartered in Haikou, Hainan, was founded in 2000. Growing into a multinational giant within two decades, the conglomerate now owns assets in numerous industries including aviation, real estate, financial services, tourism, and logistics.
However, the company’s ownership structure has always been complex and murky.
Last year, Guo Wengui, a high-profile exiled Chinese businessman who is famous for throwing incendiary — and largely unsubstantiated — allegations against Chinese officials, claimed that HNA has secret and illegal financial ties to top Chinese Communist Party officials.
According to Bloomberg, Wang Jian said in an internal speech in February that HNA has been a victim of a conspiracy against the Chinese government and “the Communist Party Central Committee with Xi Jinping at its core.”
Perhaps in an attempt to counter Guo’s allegations, HNA then released some details about the company’s ownership structure. Most notably, the company announced that its largest shareholder, a mysterious businessman named Guan Jun, had donated his 30 percent stake in the company to a charitable organization.
Despite — or perhaps because of — this unusual move, Guo’s sensational allegations had deeply damaged HNA’s reputation.
Furthermore, Guo had even predicted more than one year ago that HNA’s top management team members would die in an accident due to their secret ties with Chinese officials, according to a former employee of Voice of America.
Wang’s sudden death just adds more fuel to these conspiracy theories, even though there is no substantial reason to suspect foul play.
Even those longtime observers of China have been split into two groups. For example, Bill Bishop, who writes the influential China newsletter Sinocism, tweeted that “this accident is totally believable.” But Scott Kennedy, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, commented on Bishop’s tweet as saying: “Anything, including what has been reported, is possible. Chinese tourists take risks, and conspiracies abound in China.”