In 2021, on the back of China’s real estate boom, Yang Huiyan was the richest woman in Asia. As the majority shareholder of the country’s biggest property developer, Country Garden, she was worth about $30bn.
Two years later, the vast majority of that fortune has evaporated. A real estate liquidity crisis that has already felled dozens of Country Garden’s peers now threatens the business founded by her father three decades ago.
Shares of the company have lost nearly half their value in the past month alone. The developer cancelled a stock placement at the last minute in late July and missed payments on its international debts in early August. On Monday, it suspended trading in several of its mainland bonds, renewing global concerns over China’s property sector and struggling economy.
The coming weeks will be a crucial test not only for the company, which has liabilities of close to $200bn, but for Yang and her family. At other big collapsed developers, the founders’ assets have come under investor scrutiny during protracted restructuring negotiations.
The role of the Chinese government, which has in recent years sought to reduce inequality through a “common prosperity” campaign as well as to rein in the property development industry, will also be critical in determining Country Garden’s fate. For the family behind it, the political climate is now markedly different to an earlier era of rapid urbanisation that created vast wealth.
“The private sector and these individuals have largely disappeared from view in many ways,” said Fraser Howie, an independent expert on Chinese finance. “[The government] have reined in some of the excesses. The writing has been on the wall for a long time.”
Yang was born in 1981, a decade before her father, Yang Guoqiang, founded Country Garden in the southern province of Guangdong. As a teenager, she frequently attended company meetings, according to domestic media reports, and went on to study at Ohio State University.
When Country Garden listed in Hong Kong in 2007, her father transferred most of his shares to her, making her the richest woman in the country. The company went on to become China’s biggest developer, with thousands of projects across the country and smartly dressed staff selling properties with finely honed sales techniques.
Yang, who shies away from speaking publicly, became chair of the company in March this year, at a time when China’s property crisis had been raging for 18 months following the 2021 default of Evergrande, the world’s most indebted developer.
According to local media reports of a company meeting in March, she sought to dispel perceptions of Country Garden as a family business, recounting a discussion with her father after she returned from the US about how the company relied on wider talent from society.
At its headquarters in Foshan, a city in Guangdong province, both the former chair and his daughter were often chauffeured around in two Maybach cars that were parked outside the building, according to one former and one current employee.
“I don’t know whether it’s intimidating or inspiring,” the former employee said. Staff at the company were “very motivated to believe joining this company will make me rich within five to 10 years as long as I can get [a] project going”, the person added.
Yang was until recently also the largest shareholder in Country Garden Services, a separate business that generates income from managing apartment buildings.
In late July, on the same day that Country Garden issued a profit warning, Yang donated approximately 20 per cent of the services company, worth almost $1bn, to a Hong Kong-registered foundation that was set up as a charitable institution only weeks earlier by Yang Ziying, her younger sister.
According to a company filing, the donation was made for charitable purposes, including assisting vulnerable groups, funding disaster relief and promoting rural revitalisation in mainland China.
The timing of the donation, which came a week before bond payments were missed, was interpreted by some analysts and investors as a possible attempt to ringfence the shares. Services arms of other developers have played important roles in debt restructurings, such as Evergrande, which this week filed for bankruptcy in New York.
Cindy Li, an analyst at Citi, suggested the move was motivated by “charitable, family asset reallocation, inheritance and risk-segregation purposes”, and noted that charitable donations are encouraged by the Chinese government’s common prosperity policy.
The current Country Garden employee told the Financial Times that when government or business representatives visit the company’s headquarters, they are first taken to a school opposite that was funded by Yang and her father in order to emphasise their charitable approach.
In China, developers play a critical role in financing local governments through land purchases. At Country Garden, senior people within the company “always emphasised how important it was to understand Chinese politics”, the former employee said.
Victor Shih, professor of Chinese political economy at the University of California, San Diego, said that China’s large developers “had a great deal of political capital in the party”. They “were keys to local officials’ careers given their role in driving local growth”, said Shih.
But now, he added, local officials had “focused on appeasing the centre . . . instead of paying attention to the needs of local economic interests, including developers”. Beijing, which has centralised authority over recent years, has stopped short of any real estate bailouts, instead encouraging the completion of unfinished projects.
Country Garden and Yang Huiyan declined to comment.
Yang Huiyan and her sister have previously bought property in Hong Kong. Hui Ka Yan, the founder and chair of Evergrande, who was formerly China’s richest man, has seen his personal wealth come under intense scrutiny from investors amid the developer’s ongoing restructuring.
Howie predicts Chinese billionaires such as Yang will be put under pressure by Beijing to help shore up economic growth — an increasingly difficult ask.
“The [Communist] party clearly now is looking to the private sector, whether it be tech, whether it be property, and are saying you’ve [got] to contribute your fair share,” he said.