China’s HNA group chairman Wang Jian dies from 15-metre fall while posing for photo in France

Potrait shot of Wang Jian on a red background

The co-chairman of HNA Group, a conglomerate that operates China’s fourth-largest airline and finance, logistics and other businesses around the world, died in an accident while on a business trip in France, the company said.

Key points:

  • Wang was in charge of the companies strategy and day-to-day operations
  • HNA has been forced to sell off assets due to increased pressure from Beijing
  • Social media posts on China’s Weibo site about the death appeared to be censored

Wang Jian, a co-founder of the company, suffered “severe injuries” in a fall in Provence in southern France and died Tuesday at age 57, said an HNA Group statement.

It gave no other details.

Wang fell 15 metres off a wall in the village of Bonnieux, near Avignon, a picturesque area popular with tourists, lieutenant-colonel Hubert Meriaux of the Vaucluse gendarmerie force told Reuters.

“He stood on the edge of a sharp drop to get his family to take a picture of him and fell,” he said.

Launched in 1993 on the southern island of Hainan, HNA expanded into finance, hotels, logistics and other businesses in a multibillion-dollar global acquisition spree.

More recently, HNA has been selling some assets as Chinese regulators tighten lending controls and press companies to rein in debt.

Wang, 57, is regarded as the architect of an eye-popping $50 billion acquisition spree that saw HNA accumulate assets ranging from a stake in Deutsche Bank AG to high-profile overseas properties.

HNA also holds a 19 per cent stake in Virgin Australia Holdings, who operate the popular Virgin Australia airlines.

But, under pressure from Beijing, HNA has sold off many of its prime assets to slash debt, with recent sales including holdings in companies such as Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc, Park Hotels & Resorts and Spain’s NH Hotels.

Earlier this week, HNA was also forced to terminate a $400 million deal with Australia’s Automative Holdings Group for their refrigerated logistics and trucking arm, with AHG citing HNAs cashflow options as the cause of the breakdown.

Wang was in charge of HNA’s strategy and ran day-to-day operations, sources familiar with the matter have said, while his fellow chairman and co-founder Chen Feng was often the public face of the group.

“HNA Group extends deepest condolences to Mr Wang’s family and many friends,” HNA’s board and management team said in a statement.

“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.”

Social media posts about Wang’s death appeared to have been censored on China’s tightly controlled internet soon after the news was announced by the group.

“HNA Wang Jian died” briefly ranked 11th on the Twitter-like Weibo’s hot topics page, but was quickly gone from the top 50.

“It’s really shocking news to us,” said an employee who works in finance at HNA, declining to give his name.

“Everyone in the office is talking about it, but we don’t know what impact it will have on the company’s direction.”

Wang graduated from the Civil Aviation University of China and received an MBA from the Maastricht School of Management in the Netherlands, according to his company.

He held a 15 per cent stake in HNA.

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