The Fitzwilliams Foundation, a London think tank, engages Michael D'Arcy, the overeducated son of a well-connected Irish diplomat, to gather information for a report on the trafficking of tropical timber from Papua New Guinea's rain forests to China.
His girlfriend Lucy Wang, the daughter of a Shanghai tycoon and property developer, has returned home and the idea of heading east pleases Michael.
When Michael arrives in Papua he learns how rich Chinese-Malaysian conglomerates, with the complicity of corrupt officials, illegally clearcut the rain forest for its valuable timber, the first step in the development of vast oil palm plantations.
Michael's investigation shows cargoes of raw logs are regularly shipped to Delta Timber, one of China's leading timber importers, part of a diversified business empire owned by Wang Huiyao aka Henry Wang, Lucy's father.
Whose side will Lucy take when she discovers the catastrophic consequences of her father’s business operations as his group is caught in a gathering crisis, a Lehman Brothers moment, as China's markets are shaken by the greatest debt crisis in the country's modern history?
As Michael heads for China, its property market is hit and prices tumble, millions of apartments lie empty and banks are reluctant to lend.
A perfect storm as President Xin Jinping clamps down on China's tycoons, on anti-patriotic acts, including financial crime, commercial espionage and free expression, a crisis compounded by the reappearance of the Covid virus.
THAT SPLENDID EARLY SUMMER day, we arrived in the village of Entrains-sur-Nièvre, somewhere between the Loire and the Natural Park of the Morvan.
We, that’s Lucy and I, the guests of Anne de Fieubet de Launay, daughter of a French viscount. We had been invited to a party to celebrate her graduation from Langues O’, that’s in Paris, where we had been studying various exotic languages.
Anne’s family had been owners of the chateau since the 17th century. The splendid edifice and its dependencies lay in the heart of Burgundy, a region of more than 30,000 square kilometres, covered by rich farmland, vineyards and forests, filled with history, which according to legend went back to Saint Mary Magdalene who was buried in the basilica that bore her name in Vézelay.
Lucy’s father, Wang Huiyao aka Henry Wang, was one of those crazy rich Asians, worth a billion or so, head of a conglomerate specialised in mainly though not only, real estate, construction materials and commodities. He’d built his business during China’s boom years, when fortunes were made in the decades of double digit growth and billionaires mushroomed almost overnight.
Henry Wang discovered another kind of commodity in Burgundy—French oak, which he bought in large quantities and exported to China, but I’ll tell you more about that later.
Henry was a connoisseur of fine wines and French cuisine, thanks in part to the viscount, André de Launay, who he had met at an auction of the world’s finest wines in Paris at an annual Sotheby’s Wine sale. André’s family was one of Burgundy’s oldest winegrowers and a respected member of the Bourgogne Wine Board.
The sale was memorable with the region’s most famous wine—Romanée-Conti, selling for thousands and even hundreds of thousands of dollars a bottle. Henry broke a record with the highest successful bid for several lots and was invited to André’s chateau and domaine. He hit it off with the viscount and soon became a regular visitor to Burgundy and its capital, Beaune, arriving by helicopter from Geneva or Lyons after jetting in from Shanghai with his friends in his own private jet, an Airbus 320.
Lucy’s brother, Long, was six years older than her, he was in fact her half-brother whose mother had died in a road accident when he was young. Long, or Xiaolong as Lucy liked to call him, had spent three years in London—two at the LSE and a year at a City investment bank.
Long and Lucy counted amongst their Chinese friends certain princelings—the sons and daughters of leaders, high level Party members and government officials with whom they had studied in London or Paris, jetsetting around Europe on occasions, developing guanxi, that essential Chinese networking that would later serve them when they went into business, which in Long’s case would be soon.
THE TROUBLE IS MY GUANXI wasn’t sufficient. If it had been perhaps I wouldn’t have ended up in this Chinese prison? Me, 32 years old, the over-educated privileged son of an Irish diplomat.
How long I’d been here was anyone’s guess. There were no windows. No doors, neither to the interrogation room nor to the shower or crapper. The lights were on and off intermittently. I had no notion of time, night or day, no watch, no phone. Meals were delivered through a hatch. The temperature was constant—cold.
Well, it was a complicated story.
Perhaps I should start at the beginning.
It commenced a fine Tuesday, July 3, 2018, to be precise, in Bonnieux, a small and picturesque medieval French village near Avignon. At approximately half ten in the morning a tourist fell from a wall high above an ancient stone stairway.
The village stood on a hill dominated by the old church that dated from the 12th century, the Haute Eglise de Bonnieux, which the hapless tourist had been visiting with four companions and a guide. In the distance, beyond the wall that bordered the church, were the mountains of the Petit Luberon, clearly defined under the luminous morning sky. In the foreground the intense green of the pines and cedars on the flank of the hill contrasted with the white stone of the church and the surrounding houses.
The village, set in a splendid Provencal panorama, admired, photographed and painted by countless visitor as far back as locals could remember, was suddenly struck by what seemed to be a dramatic accident.
I, together with my then girlfriend, Suzie, witnessed the accident. We were strolling up the stairs of the steep stone passage that led to the old church, when we heard screams. As we rounded a corner we saw people rushing down to a landing, a dozen or more steps ahead of us, where a man wearing a red polo and a beige Bermuda lay in a small pool of blood on the polished grey stone slab, apparently he’d fallen from the wall that rose high above us.
We stopped in our tracks, stunned, there was nothing we could do. We stood paralysed, hypnotised by the drama.
It was not long before help arrived followed by a local doctor, then the village police officer who took control of the situation and ushered us away, down the stairs, where we crossed medics from the emergency services hurrying up to the scene of the accident.
We were in Provence for the summer festivals—Avignon, Aix and Vaison la Romaine, which ran for most of the month. We’d been taking in the picturesque villages that dotted the region between Avignon and Aix, enjoying the fine weather and remarkably beautiful landscapes.
We were shaken by the accident, Suzie more so than I by the fact that it had happened to a Chinese tourist. There was nothing we could have done as the others accompanying the injured man were immediately at his side.
How it had happened we didn’t know, a silly accident it seemed. Apparently he was alive, still breathing, from what we’d seen.
We decided to move on and walked back to our car, then headed for L’isle-sur-la-Sorge, further along the road back to Avignon.
* * *
We skipped lunch and wandered through the town, trying to forget the accident and concentrate our thoughts on something less disconcerting, admiring the antique shops and ancient waterwheels on the River Sorgue which wound its way through the town centre.
It was four in the afternoon when we finally stopped for a pause, taking a coffee and a pastry in a small café. We’d almost forgotten what we’d seen in Bonnieux and were figuring out our plans for the evening and where to eat diner.
We’d driven down from Grenoble where we’d bid a final goodbye to our student’s quarters and the city, where I’d spent the last couple of very agreeable years at INP-Pagora—the Graduate School of Engineering in Paper, Print Media and Biomaterials.
We were looking forward to the long summer vacation, both of us had completed our post graduate degree courses and were unfixed on our future plans, apart from our immediate priority, which was enjoying the next couple of months.
That evening we wandered through the narrow streets of Avignon, looking for a not too touristy restaurant with a terrace. It wasn’t easy as the crowds were already pouring in for the festival about to start in another day or two.
We found a nice place set in a small courtyard, stylish, a bit expensive, and not yet full. They seated us at a table shaded from the evening sun, under an ancient fig tree, where we ordered a couple of before dinner drinks and started to study the menu.
The evening was delicious, the air, the food and Suzie.
I’d met her in Grenoble where she was studying French, she was into fashion, and French went with fashion. She was from Beijing, her family was something in media and arts, exactly what I didn’t really understand or care that much. I enjoyed her company and she tried to teach me Chinese, which suited me fine.
The meal and the wine were great, then as we paused to order coffee Suzie checked her messages. In Beijing it was early morning.
Her eyes opened wide. ‘Mike! He’s dead!'
‘Who?’ I said alarmed.
‘Wang Jian, the head of HNA!’
I was none the wiser.
‘The man we saw today in Bonnieux, who fell from the wall, he’s very famous in China, very rich.’
‘Who was he?’
‘One of China’s top businessmen, his group HNA owns Hainan Airlines.’
I googled HNA, it was one of the world’s biggest leasers of commercial aircraft, into airports and hotels, worth billions.
‘What was he doing here in France?’
The next morning I learnt HNA was a hugely indebted diversified conglomerate. It seemed crazy, the flamboyant boss of a multinational group as huge and indebted as HNA, had according to Chinese media reports fallen off a wall posing for a banal photograph in that small Provencal village so, far from his home.