The Mystery of Deng Hong: Shadowy Chinese billionaire behind world’s largest building vanishes

From Malcolm Moore, The TelegraphIt is the biggest building in the world; 16 Wembley stadiums could fit underneath its vast roof. (See The Telegraph’s feature article and spectacular photo essay here)

But the New Century Global Centre, a behemoth in the central city of Chengdu which formally opened at the end of last month, has instantly become China’s largest and most embarrassing monument to the allegations of corruption that have wormed through the Communist Party.

The 50-year-old billionaire behind the project, Deng Hong, once one of China’s richest men, has vanished and is thought to be in police custody. “We don’t know where he is,”a spokesman for his company, Entertainment and Travel Group (ETG) said.

A water park is seen in the "New Century Global Centre" building in Chengdu, southwest China's Sichuan province.  AFP/Getty Images

A water park is seen in the “New Century Global Centre” building in Chengdu, southwest China’s Sichuan province.
AFP/Getty Images

In his wake, more than 50 government officials have been detained by a series of overlapping investigations that reach to the highest level of the party, according to a former editor of a state newspaper. “There are more investigations, and more arrests, to come,” the editor added.

Another source with connections to the local government said: “Deng Hong had ties to almost every official in Sichuan.”

"New Century Global Centre" building in Chengdu, southwest China's Sichuan province. /AFP/Getty Images

“New Century Global Centre” building in Chengdu, southwest China’s Sichuan province.
/AFP/Getty Images

In Chengdu, the capital of the province, there is little outward sign of the investigations that have sliced through the local government.

The undulating silhouette of the New Century Global Centre is pictured on the side of the airport shuttle bus, with the slogan “Better quality, integrity, honesty,” written above.

Among the offerings inside is a shopping centre of four million square feet, a convention centre, a university campus, an Intercontinental hotel, a pirate ship, a skating rink, an Imax cinema and a 54,000 sq ft artificial beach, flanked by a 500ft LED screen that is roughly the same height as the Statue of Liberty and displays tropical sunsets to swimmers.

It is a marvel, even on the ever more ambitious scale of Chinese mega projects, and while no one knows how much it cost, the local government is rumoured to have spent as much as $8-billion on the project. “We are absolutely full at the weekend,” said one employee at the Lavazza coffee shop inside.

But on a weekday, the centre was quiet. A few tourists wandered its striped marble halls, two swimmers in the indoor sea seemed like ants from the stadium seating above. A long, golden escalator, inlaid with electric blue screens showing jellyfish, carried tourists from the ground floor to the fifth, where they could cross a nerve-shredding glass bridge above a central atrium.

Sources in Chengdu suggested that the building might soon be taken over by the government and that Mr Deng would be lucky to escape prison.

Most embarrassingly, the centre was built specifically to host the Global Fortune 500 Conference, a showpiece event much-loved by the Communist Party. But, given the potential for political humiliation, the conference was moved at the last minute to the Shangri-La Hotel. “The centre was supposed to open in March as an exhibition centre for government officials, but Beijing disapproved,” said one source in Chengdu.

Mr Deng joined the People’s Liberation Army as a teenager and fought in a border war with Vietnam. In 1985, he left and began a property business before emigrating to the United States in the early 1990s. But he returned to Chengdu when China began to accelerate its economy and persuaded the local government that he could draw both Chinese and foreign tourists and businessmen to the city. “I really don’t have anything to do with my fellow businessmen,” he told the Washington Post in 2002. “My business depends on the government.”

The newspaper noted that he owned 35 cars including a Ferrari, a Lamborghini, and several Mercedes-Benzes.

His connections were so close that he handed over a 30 per cent stake in his first convention centre, the Shawan Exhibition Centre in the north-west of the city, to the city government without charge in 2001. “His first show was a car event,” said a source in Chengdu, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the investigations. “He was quite good at showmanship. The local government in Jiuzhaigou [a nature reserve] were so impressed they gave him a huge plot of land for free to build a resort.”

However, his ties to Li Chuncheng, the deputy party secretary of Sichuan province who has also been detained and expelled from the party, saw him questioned by anti-corruption officials.

Mr Li, 57, is thought to have served on ETG’s board when he was the deputy mayor of Chengdu. Local activists in Chengdu have compiled a long list of property developments from which they claim he may have profited.

“In fact, a lot of the officials in Chengdu and Sichuan now hate Li Chuncheng,” said the source with ties to the local government.

Officials believe that when he was detained he made allegations against others, the source said.

“After he was officially expelled from the party, lots of people had celebratory parties,” he added.

National Post – “Shadowy Chinese billionaire behind world’s largest building vanishes amid corruption scandal”  – Malcolm Moore 

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