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Former Anbang Chief Gets 18-Year Prison Sentence For $12B Fraud, Embezzlement

Wu Xiaohui, the former chairman of Chinese insurance and investment giant Anbang Group, has been sentenced by a court in Shanghai to 18 years in prison for fraud and embezzlement. 

Anbang HQ in Beijing

Wu founded the company in 2004 as a minor auto insurer, but soon oversaw its transformation into an aggressive global investor with asset acquisitions in the billions, including U.S. CRE.

At its peak in early 2016, Anbang claimed to have assets of about $253B, including New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel, which it acquired in 2014 for almost $2B, and Strategic Hotels & Resorts, which it bought for $6.5B.

In mid-2017, Wu was arrested in Beijing on corruption charges. Early last month, China's insurance regulator seized control of Anbang and injected $9.7B to keep the insurer solvent, Reuters reported.

Not long ago, Wu was known as one of the best-connected businessmen in China, the South China Morning Post reported. Among other connections, he was married to the granddaughter of Deng Xiaoping, paramount leader of China from 1978 to 1989, who led the country through a series of far-reaching market-based reforms. China’s most powerful state firms and the industry’s top regulator also backed Wu's efforts to expand Anbang Group.

Wu's fall came fast. At first he contested the charges at his trial, but later pleaded guilty to charges of fraud worth about $10.2B, including illegal fundraising, and embezzlement to the tune of $1.5B. Wu received not only prison time, but had $1.65B in his assets confiscated by the state.

"He forgot he was the senior manager chosen by a powerful group to make money, and mistook himself as the power itself," the South China Morning Post reported, quoting an anonymous source on the nature of Wu's fall. 

Regulators have characterized Anbang's meteoric expansion as a possible systemic risk to China's financial system, the Wall Street Journal reports.

In late March, Wu came to court and wept in front of the China Central Television cameras, as happens with some regularity to major figures convicted in China. The fallen mogul said he regretted his mistakes, and begged for a lenient sentence. 

In a wider context, Wu fell afoul of the Chinese government's crackdown on corruption, which Xi Jinping, current paramount leader of China, instituted in 2012. Since then, Communist party chiefs, military officers and senior executives of state-owned companies have all been tried and convicted in the anti-corruption campaign.

China is also reining in overseas investment by acquisitive non-state firms in an effort to lower debt and financial risk in the economy. 

What happens now to Anbang and its vast asset holdings? Asset divestment is possible, though as yet neither the company nor regulators have said anything about it. Representatives from several investment banks recently made their way to Beijing to pitch their services in Anbang's divestment, which could possibly include shares in the company itself, according to Bloomberg