Guo Guangchang, one of the richest men in China, has disappeared. Guo, the founder and owner of the conglomerate Fosun International, was approached by police at the Shanghai airport on Dec. 10 and then vanished, according to a reconstruction published in Caixin, an influential Chinese business magazine.
His cell phone was turned off, and no one has heard from him since that day. The first rumors in the international press suggested his disappearance was an “extraordinary detention” motivated by the government’s fierce campaign against corruption. Meanwhile, the company, founded by Guo and his college buddies in 1992, closed trading of its own shares on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. The company’s headquarters issued a single statement late that evening saying the boss would be helping authorities in an investigation. Nothing more.
Guo is a celebrity in China and abroad, a native of Zhejiang Province, known for the commercial spirit of its inhabitants, including the capitalist prodigy Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba. Seemingly out of nowhere, Guo, 48, created the largest private company in China, investing in health insurance and gradually creating an empire now worth over €7 billion.
As the Financial Times reported in a 2014 profile of Guo, his economic greatness can be explained through some examples. In China, it is likely the hospital treating you is owned by Fosun, as is the bakery where you buy your birthday cake, the resort where you spend the holidays and the house where you live. So as not to miss anything, he also invested abroad, acquiring the Portuguese insurance company Caixa Seguros and then, after two years of courtship and confrontations, negotiations and delays, he bought Club Med. He also owns shares of Cirque du Soleil.
Guo is bold, according to some, and highly energetic in his business explorations overseas. In 2013, he became a person of interest after high-profile arrests seemed to link him to murky practices, which are not much appreciated by the political leadership. He has always denied participation in corruption.
As a member of the People’s Consultative Assembly, he leads or participates in various Chinese business associations (including one that recently visited Italy) and renowned philanthropic initiatives.
Guo studied at Shanghai’s Fudan University and garnered his power, economic and political base in Shanghai. His family suffered, but not too much, during the Cultural Revolution, so much so that his memories about it have always seemed more sorrowful than resentful. But it is a delicate period in history in which hardly a businessman, one of the richest in China and the world, would be able to express himself with sincerity. Contrary to Jack Ma, who is considered a kind of “genius” (and these days Alibaba acquired the South China Morning Post, an influential English-language newspaper in Hong Kong), Guo calls himself a “regular guy.”
He practices tai chi and believes this physical and mental discipline, along with Buddhism and Taoism, have opened the doors of business. It’s not about strength, the vegetarian Guo has always stressed, but timing. Understanding the time to plunge. So the businessman would read the dynamics and time his market interventions. And these are the features that attach him to a person he sees as a kind of reference point, to whom he is frequently compared: Warren Buffett.
But being a billionaire in China is not easy, and his disappearance is surrounded by mystery. The rumors of his arrest spread so quickly as to cast doubt on their validity. As of yesterday evening, another official statement only reaffirmed: He is cooperating with an investigation.
But “cooperating with an investigation” rings similar to the expression “let’s have a cup of tea” — indicating the possibility of a sour ending. Following the ouster and sentencing of former security boss Zhou Yongkang, Guo could be the second “tiger” — as President Xi Jinping calls them — that the Party leadership outwits. The cause may be rooted in power struggles between groups in Beijing and Shanghai, or perhaps in the fallout of this summer’s Stock Exchange tumble.
As often happens, Guo’s fate may already be decided. All that’s left is to wait for the Party’s announcement.