To the British Museum for an audience with Asia's richest man. Wang Jianlin was in town for the launch of his book The Wanda Way: the managerial philosophy and values of one of China’s largest companies. Jianlin is a property guy described by The Economist as a man ‘of Napoleonic ambition’. Having founded his empire in 1988 with a loan of £80,000, he’s now worth an estimated £30 billion. His company Dalian Wanda owns shopping centres in 100 Chinese cities with revenue growing at an amazing 30% year on year until 2015. He is also now the world’s biggest owner of five-star hotels.
It was a sell-out event for an excited, largely Chinese audience. ‘Maybe he’s doing it here because he wants to buy the place,’ said one British wag. Next to purchasing Her Majesty herself the British Museum is probably our most glorious jewel in the national collection. I wondered if there was any intent behind the fact that he was booked to talk beneath the reading room where Marx wrote Das Kapital.
When he finally hit the stage about an hour late it was as if Tom Jones or Taylor Swift had appeared. There was wild applause and everyone got up to attempt to get a snap of the great man with their smartphone. I can report that the 61-year-old’s jet black hair is not quite as lustrous or extensive as is shown on the book jacket cover. But make no mistake Mr Wang is a national hero in China. And the fact that he has now spread his wings and is acquiring assets abroad - showing Chinese wealth and power on the global stage - doubles his attraction.
Accompanying Mr Wang was John Whittingdale, the minister of culture, media and sport. The fact he had dragged himself away from the Bojo Brexit shenanigans in the commons just shows how big a deal Dalian Wanda is to HMG. Immensely polite speeches of very little content or consequence were made and within 20 mins it was all over. Definitely no questions from the audience. I didn’t notice any other hacks.
Had I been permitted to ask something, I would have posed a question like this. 'Mister Wang are you troubled by the recent spate of in-the-night arrests by the authorities in China of senior Chinese business people who then disappear for days on end as they assist the police with their enquiries? And, if so, do you fear such a thing happening to yourself?’
His high level connections may mean he’s untouchable. Born with a red spoon in his mouth, his father was a military hero who fought alongside Mao in the People’s Liberation Army. He then joined the PLA himself at 15 so missed starving during the Cultural Revolution. He’s a longstanding member of the party and has been named ‘Economic Person of the Year’ twice by state broadcaster CCTV. When asked about this influence he has previously laughed it off by stating that all he ever receives from old army mates is requests for money.
In the end if he is to be undone it will be, as occurs with every property magnate, the disastrous cyclical boom and bust nature of the sector. He is, for example, planning to build a massive hotel on the Nine Elms site in Battersea in South London, amid increasing rumblings that the market there is about to go pop. Large numbers of Chinese buyers who have been trading options on luxury flats in the area off-plan are said to be about to run a mile from their obligation to complete. But he’s already diversifying into cultural stuff having bought a chunk of the football team Atletico Madrid and the US chain of cinemas AMC. He’s building the world’s largest studio complex in Qingdao and flew Leonardo di Caprio, Kate Beckinsale and John Travolta out there to celebrate the project's launch in 2013. And he owns Sunseeker yachts, a must have item for any self-respecting multi-millionaire and oligarch.
I’d recommend a look at the book by the way. There’s a lot of quite dull planted Q&A stuff in there but also some interesting personal titbits. Apparently he didn’t sleep at all for nine days, fainted during a board meeting and was ‘on the verge of paranoid schizophrenia’ when he suffered a loan suspension in 1992. His female employees may only wear three pieces of jewellery - earrings count as two pieces.
The Chinese aren’t coming any more. They’ve arrived. And if we really feel so terribly squeamish about our European neighbours then we should feel thankful that the Chinese like things British, especially our property. (And they can have Wayne Rooney for nothing.) If we ever want any more new nuclear power stations the Chinese may well be building and financing those, too.
When I left the museum at half past eight - it really is the most beautiful of places at night minus the tourist hoards - I felt hungry. I walked down Coptic Street and noticed a tiny Szechuan hot pot joint called Chang’s. Inside were eight Chinese students and I was the sole Brit. All the menus were in Chinese. I was given my bowl of boiling broth and popped in some prawns, noodles and dark, earthy mushrooms. There I was feeling cool like Deckard slurping his noodles in ‘Blade Runner’ when the chilli almost blew my head off and I spluttered. One of the students caught my eye and smiled politely. Then went back to her orange for pudding.