In 2021, against the background of China’s real estate boom, Yang Huiyan will become the richest woman in Asia. As the majority shareholder of Country Garden, China’s largest real estate developer, she is worth an estimated $30 billion.

Two years later, the vast majority of that fortune had evaporated. A real estate liquidity crisis that has already shut down dozens of Country Garden’s peers is now threatening the business her father founded three decades ago.

In the past month alone, the company’s stock price has fallen by nearly half. The developer canceled its share placement at the last minute in late July and failed to repay international debt in early August. On Monday, it suspended trading in several mainland bonds, reigniting global concerns about China’s property sector and struggling economy.

The coming weeks will be a crucial test not only for the company, which has debt approaching $200 billion, but also for Yang and her family. In other big developers that have collapsed, the assets of founders have come under scrutiny from investors amid protracted restructuring talks.

The Chinese government has been working in recent years to reduce inequality through a “shared prosperity” campaign and to rein in the property development industry, which is also crucial to Country Garden’s fortunes. For the family behind it, the current political climate is markedly different from the earlier era of rapid urbanization that created enormous wealth.

“The private sector and these individuals have largely disappeared from view in many ways,” said Fraser Howie, an independent expert on China’s finance. “(The government) has reined in some excesses. This The omens have been there for a long time.”

Yang was born in 1981, a decade before her father, Yang Guoqiang, founded Country Garden in southern China’s Guangdong province. As a teenager, she was a regular at company meetings and went on to study at Ohio State University, according to domestic media reports.

Country Garden founder Yang Guoqiang attended the 2017 China Signing Ceremony
Yang Guoqiang, founder of Country Garden, attends the signing ceremony held in Foshan, Guangdong in 2017 © Vision China Group/Getty Images

When Country Garden was listed in Hong Kong in 2007, her father transferred most of the shares to her, making her the richest woman in China. The company went on to become China’s largest developer, with thousands of projects across the country, well-dressed staff and skilled salespeople.

Mr Yang, who prefers not to speak publicly, became the company’s chairman in March, 18 months into China’s property crisis after Evergrande Group, the world’s most indebted developer, defaulted in 2021.

At a company meeting in March, she tried to dispel perceptions of Country Garden as a family business, according to local media reports, and recounted discussing with her father after returning from the United States how the company relied on talent from wider society.

At the headquarters in Foshan, Guangdong province, the former chairman and his daughter often drove around in two Maybachs parked outside the building, according to a former and a current employee.

“I don’t know if it’s intimidating or inspiring,” the former employee said. Employees at the company are “very motivated to believe that joining this company will make me rich in five to 10 years, as long as I can get the project off the ground,” the person added.

Until recently, Yang was the largest shareholder in Country Garden Services, an independent business that generates income by managing apartment buildings.

In late July, on the same day that Country Garden issued a profit warning, Yang Jiechi donated about 20 percent of the service company’s shares, worth nearly $1 billion, to a Hong Kong-registered foundation that had been established as a charity a few weeks earlier. established. It is the work of her sister Yang Ziying.

According to company filings, the donation was used for charitable purposes, including helping the disadvantaged, funding disaster relief and promoting rural revitalization in mainland China.

The timing of the donation, which came a week before a bond default, was interpreted by some analysts and investors as a possible attempt to contain stocks. The service arms of other developers, such as Evergrande, which filed for bankruptcy in New York this week, have played a major role in debt restructuring.

Citi analyst Cindy Lee said the move was motivated by “charitable, family asset redistribution, inheritance and risk isolation purposes,” noting that the Chinese government’s common prosperity policy encourages charitable donations.

Current Country Garden employees told the Financial Times that when government or business representatives visit the company’s headquarters, they are first taken across the street to a school funded by Yang and her father to highlight their philanthropic efforts.

In China, developers play a key role in financing local governments through land purchases. At Country Garden, company executives “always stressed the importance of understanding Chinese politics,” the former employee said.

China’s big developers “have a lot of political capital in the party,” said Viktor Schwartz, a professor of Chinese political economy at the University of California, San Diego. “Given their role in driving local economic growth, they are key to the careers of local officials,” Shi said.

But now, he added, local officials are “focused on appeasing the central government…”. . . Rather than focus on local economic interests, including the needs of developers”. In recent years, centralized Beijing has withdrawn from any real estate bailouts and instead encouraged the completion of unfinished projects.

Country Garden and Yang Huiyan declined to comment.

Yang Huiyan and her sister had previously purchased real estate in Hong Kong. The personal wealth of Evergrande founder and chairman Xu Jiayin, once China’s richest man, has come under intense scrutiny from investors amid Evergrande’s ongoing restructuring.

Howie predicts that Chinese billionaires such as Yang will face pressure from Beijing to help shore up economic growth — an increasingly difficult demand.

“(The Communist Party) is now clearly looking at the private sector, whether it’s tech or real estate, and saying you have to contribute your fair share,” he said.

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