Friday, September 2, 2016

Mongolia’s nomads

Mongolia’s nomads

Mongolia’s nomads: masters of their destiny in a changing world

What does the future hold for the next generation of nomads? Join us as we follow traditional herdsmen and their camels on a trek across the vast plains of remote Western Mongolia

Words and pictures: Tessa Chan

One piece of advice if you’re planning a trip to Mongolia: never ask a local, “When will we arrive?”
Not only is it bad luck, it’s also considered extremely rude.
When our guide, Australian adventurer, filmmaker and author Tim Cope, tells us this, I presume it’s a romantic reference to nomadic life being all about “the journey”. A few car breakdowns later, I discover it’s to be taken literally: in this vast, unpredictable country, it’s pointless trying to predict how long it’ll take you to get anywhere.

Bird’s eye view: see Mongolia like you’ve never seen it before

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We’re in Khovd – three hours by plane (flight times are a little easier to estimate) from the capital, Ulan Bator – and have driven to the end of the road. Cars no longer being an option, the nine of us – a mixed group from around the world who’ve joined the World Expeditions “Nomads and Naadam with Tim Cope” trek – will spend the next couple of weeks following herdsmen and their animals through remote Western Mongolia.
Click the map icons to follow the trekkers on their journey.
We’re also told we’ll no longer need our watches (or smartphones – there’s no network). Cope and his right-hand man, Tsenkhee, an urban Mongolian who communicates with his boss in fluent Russian, will see to it that we get plenty to eat and enough sleep. Rushing is sacrilege here, and it will not be until I return to Hong Kong that I’ll realise how tightly measured my time usually is; divided into tiny allotted portions from breakfast to bedtime.
While just under a third of Mongolians are nomadic or semi-nomadic, the four herders travelling with us are different in that they’re living much the same life as they would have thousands of years ago. They still travel by camel and use no generators or water pumps. They’re not tour guides, as such; they’ve been hired specifically to accompany us and apply their skills to our needs.
It takes time for eyes that are unfamiliar with the sprawling sandy plains and endless blue sky to adjust to the scale of the environment. There is no private land ownership, here, no farms, fields or fences. There’s no tourism infrastructure where we’re heading, either: no stores, no fridges, just what we (and our camels) can carry.
The herders laugh when I tell them they live like kings compared with us. But you do the maths: Mongolia’s 1.5 million square kilometres are shared by just 3 million people, making it the most sparsely populated country in the world. Hong Kong, at just 1,104 sq km, is home to 7.24 million.
We walk from breakfast through to dinner, the camel train following with our tents and duffel bags. One beast groans loudly each time its load is packed and unpacked, protesting like a grumpy old man, his mouth full of food. These creatures are surprisingly agile and strong, however, and when nomadic communities migrate from one pasture to another, a single animal will carry up to 300kg: all a family’s wordly belongings and their ger, their round tent-like homes commonly referred to by the Turkic word yurt.

During a nomad family migration, camels can carry loads of up to 300kg. These camels dutifully wait to be loaded up with trekking gear as support for the tour.
Cope has a secondary career as a postman; on each tour he leads, he brings photographs from previous trips and delivers them to people on the steppe, often a year after the pictures were taken. Families gather around him in delight, sifting through his photos, and pose for us as we take snaps that will be delivered next time.
By the time we reach our first camp – the herdsmen having raced ahead on the camels to set up the tents – our legs are buckling.
We’re invited into a ger that has been set up for the season nearby, and offered salted yaks’ milk tea, curd and boortsog (fried dough sticks). The tent’s residents are the first of many Khovd families we’ll pay informal visits to. At each ger, we’ll be given a traditional nomad welcome: copious amounts of food, tea and home-brewed vodka.
Twelve years ago, such hospitality provided Cope with a lifeline during a three-and-a-half-year horseback ride from Mongolia to Hungary, a journey he later recounted in a film series and book, titled On the Trail of Genghis Khan.

Source: 2015 World Bank data
“I remember being invited in, in all states of disrepair, sometimes in the winter, when it was minus 40 or 50 degrees Celsius, sometimes in the summer, when it was 40 or 50 degrees. They’d take me in like a long lost son,” says Cope. “The people here offer us a very different approach to life. They’re very trusting – they’ll give you their own shirt off their back. Hospitality really is the lynchpin of survival here.”
One night, sitting in front of the icy Shivreen River, we introduce ourselves properly to the herdsmen and our two beautiful young Mongolian cooks, Otga and Nana. They listen intently while we ramble on about our jobs, families and pets, Tsenkhee translating. I ask them what they like most about being a nomad.
“All,” says one. “The animals,” says another. What do they like least? “Nothing.”
Over the days that follow, we trace the migratory path of nomadic families as they move to their summer camps, seeking out higher pastures to escape the heat and mosquitoes.

Three young nomads (L-R) Otga, Nana and Choinum sit by the Shivreen River. Their generation faces a difficult choice: continue their traditional life or move to the city.

Chief herdsman Myagaa (C) and his friends live much the same lifestyle as their ancestors did 5,000 years ago.
“They move according to the needs of their animals,” says Cope. “Horses, goats, camels and yaks are all naturally nomadic, so instead of putting them into paddocks with fences and stables, they move with them the way the animals would naturally move in the wild.”
Each day we trek for anywhere between six and 10 hours, up and down steep slopes, over sand dunes, through deep snow, alpine forests, wet marshlands and numbingly cold streams. The weather swings from one extreme to the other, and we frantically change from thermals into rain gear and back into summer clothes in an effort to keep up with it. At one point I give up, and find myself walking in sodden shorts, my legs pelted by a hailstorm just minutes after they’d been scorched by the sun.
The herders, on the other hand, wear a heavy coat called a deel whatever the weather. It prevents saddle sores and seems to be endlessly capacious, as anything you give a nomad, no matter how large, gets promptly tucked away into the tunic’s front fold. Only at night do they take off their deel, to sleep huddled together in the great outdoors, under a pile of felts they share with the camels when the temperature drops. And, when we wake with frost on our tents, shivering in our thermals and Arctic-grade sleeping bags, the herders greet us cheerfully.
The higher we ascend, the richer the pastures become. We cross over the high pass between the Turgen and Kharkhiraa peaks, reaching, at about 2,900 metres, a series of shimmering, partially frozen lakes.

Trekkers visit a glacial lake on the high pass between the Turgen and Kharkhiraa ranges.
“It’s not that cold!” shouts Max, an intrepid 69-year-old who’s celebrating his retirement, as he jumps into one of the lakes in his underpants.
Some of us opt to continue the climb to the top of a vertiginous snowy ridge in the Turgen range. The air noticeably thins as we inch higher up a steep, gravelly slope, leaning on our trekking poles and panting like old women. From the top, at some 3,700 metres, the valley looks white and glacial. Few Mongolians venture this far, Cope says, let alone tourists. And, true enough, it feels like this massive land is ours alone. There’s nobody in sight, not even a single ger.
The descent proves even more challenging, as we slip and slide down a giant slab of ice, landing in rocky swamps below.
It’s a relief to make it to camp, in the shadow of the Kharkhiraa-Turgen mountains, where we’re introduced to Stephen. The lamb – it’s not clear who named him but it was unlikely to have been the herders – was purchased from a nearby family and is to be our lunch (Stephen Pasta), dinner (Stephen Soup) and breakfast (Stephen Surprise) for days to come.

Myagaa skillfully performs a traditional lamb slaughter, where no blood is spilt.
Myagaa, 37, the lead herdsman, who has astonishingly white teeth – which he flashes often – and the unmistakable swagger of a cowboy, invites us to watch the slaughter. He cuts open the lamb’s stomach, puts a hand inside and breaks the aorta, without spilling a single drop of blood. Instead, he lets the upper cavity fill with the blood, which will later be boiled in the intestine. Myagaa and fellow herdsman Ankha skin and dry the hide; nothing goes to waste.
Trekking through the green summer pastures of Belchir – it's hard to keep track of exactly where we are – we come across a foal lying on the ground. It’s barely alive and there’s a large bite mark on one of its haunches. The victim of a wolf attack, its own herd must have fought, kicking to protect it from the pack.
Wolves represent a physical threat but are considered sacred by the nomads, who carry their dead to the mountains in the belief that when the predators devour a corpse, the spirit within will be transported to the afterlife. Wolves – like humans – also play an important role in keeping the numbers of grazing animals in check. Nevertheless, an increasing number of goats – prized because of the value of cashmere – has led to overgrazing in Mongolia.
A nomad’s wealth is measured by how many horses and livestock he has.
“We don’t need an income,” says the mother of a Khoton family – a tribe whose Turkic roots are apparent in their fair hair and eyes . “We live off our animals.”
That evening, while I jostle for washing space in a stream shared by yaks, camels and horses, I see the mother and her small children climb down the side of a steep gorge to fill up containers with water – about 30 litres, enough for the family for the following day.
“They live within the limitations and the confines of the environment that they were born into,” says Cope. “It’s an extremely different way of life to what most of us live, where we’ve basically moulded the land for our own convenience.”

Young nomads Otga and Nana sing to the trekking group by the fire.

A travelling nomad stops by the camp's bonfire with his son for food and drink.
What does the future hold for these nomads? They don’t fit into a market economy: they’re too self-sufficient and constantly on the move. They don’t spend money so they don’t need salaries; they don’t own fixed homes so the government can only tax them on their livestock.
Myagaa comes from a long line of nomadic herdsmen but isn’t sure what will become of his four children.
“I don’t know yet whether they will also become herders, it will depend on government policy,” he says. “If I send them to university, afterwards they may have no opportunity to work. How do I imagine our future? I don’t know at all.”
During one of our photo delivery rounds, we meet Davaa, who took Cope in one night 12 years ago, fed him marmot meat and offered him shelter. Will his grandchildren become nomads like him?
“Probably not,” says Davaa, passing around a mug of vodka while his wife plies us with freshly fried boortsog and heavy clotted cream. “They will follow their own path.”
The biggest change he’s seen in recent years, he says, is in the climate: “There’s not as much good grass any more. Life’s not as productive. Things are harder.”

Temperature graph from 1937 - 2014

Shown are temperature anomalies, or how many degrees variation from the long term average, recorded each July at a weather station near the Turgen Mountains. Source: UK Met Office
The annual mean temperature in Mongolia has increased by 2.14 degrees Celsius since the 1940s, according to a United Nations Environment Programme report, while precipitation is decreasing.
“When I was small, there was a lot of rain. Now, there’s not enough water,” says Myagaa. It is a situation that has been aggravated by the country’s sprawling, thirsty mining industry.
Given their dependence on the land, nomads are sensitive to even subtle changes in the climate. With the cold coming later in the year, for instance, they have to delay the freezing and preservation of the meat that will see them through the winter months.
Although rivers are drier in the summer, glaciers are melting, resulting in storms and flash floods.
Winters are generally becoming warmer but Mongolia is also experiencing more zuds: extreme winters that sweep across the steppe and wipe out millions of animals – some starve, others freeze to death.
“Nomadic life is like a bellwether for the rest of us,” says Cope. “It’s these very extreme fragile ecosystems that are the first to show the signs of climate change – they really are the canaries in the coal mine.”

Most children here will master horse riding from the age of four or five.
Stepping out of Davaa’s ger, I see from a distance what look like miniature horsemen riding miniature horses and wonder if I’ve perhaps had too much vodka. The riders turn out to be little boys, no older than four or five years old, galloping bareback towards us. Dismounting effortlessly, they walk with the same swagger as Myagaa, eyeing us curiously. They exude freedom and independence.
“Mongolia is at a crossroads,” says Cope. “For the first time in thousands of years, the young generation of Mongolians have a choice, to be a herder or to pursue studies in the cities and towns and perhaps have a very different way of life.”
However, he remains optimistic that some will choose the steppe.
"Over the years I’ve been coming here, I’ve seen that nomads really take pride in this life. And while there are some who may prefer to move to the city, there’s always someone in the family who wouldn’t give all this up for a million dollars."– Tim Cope
“Over the years I’ve been coming here, I’ve seen that nomads really take pride in this life. And while there are some who may prefer to move to the city, there’s always someone in the family who wouldn’t give all this up for a million dollars.”
As the days progress, our notion of “home” changes. If before it meant mortgages and rooms full of belongings, for now, at least, it’s been reduced to the place we walk to each day, where we stop to eat and rest for the night.
Our group has begun to feel like a family – animals included. We’ve become used to camping out in the wild, to sleeping to the sound of animals munching outside our tents, even to the smell of camel sweat, which permeates our camping mats.
On our last night with the herdsmen, before we head back into a world of hot showers, Wi-fi and walls, they sing to us; songs of the land, their animals and their families, in rich baritone voices that fill the valley, leaving us speechless. And then mortified, when they ask us, smiling encouragingly, to return the favour.
Our only excuse is that they get a lot more practice than we do: they sing as they ride, they sing as they work.
Tessa Chan travelled as part of a small group trek in collaboration with World Expeditions.

  • A view to wake up to: horses graze by the frozen Shivreen River, Western Mongolia. Photos: Tessa Chan
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© 2016 SCMP. Al
  • Young nomads Otga and Nana keep warm by the bonfire.
  • A view to wake up to: horses graze by the frozen Shivreen River, Western Mongolia. Photos: Tessa Chan
  • A young girl plays outside her ger on freshly sheared wool. It's sheep shearing season, and this family will take their wool to sell in town.
  • The number of goats being kept as livestock in Mongolia has been growing due to the increased value of cashmere, leading to overgrazing.
  • A Khoton nomad rides home on his camel, in Khovd, Western Mongolia.
  • A lamb peeps out from a family ger in Khovd. The nomads living here have no salaries: it’s their livestock that sustains them.
  • Family photos hang in a frame on the rear wall of a ger. All the gers follow the same internal layout, with their photo shrine holding a key position.
  • Young nomads Otga and Nana keep warm by the bonfire. 
  • new generation of Chinese artists


    Breaking with tradition: new generation of Chinese artists reflect a globalising world

    Emerging generation of Chinese artists offer new materials and experimental styles, ditching the overtly political works of some of their predecessors, writes Daniel Scheffler
    Global art icons Ai Weiwei and Zeng Fanzhi, step aside. Song Yige, Wang Yuyang, Song Ta and Zhang Ruyi are in the vanguard of young Chinese artists breaking with tradition and using new technologies wherever possible.
    "We are used to associating Chinese artists with the Cultural Revolution and now the younger generation have a refreshed approach from their predecessors," says Alexander Platon, senior director at Marlborough Fine Art in London.
    "Their ideology and their individual experiences are totally different to the previous generation, so their art is broad and not purely political, which brings them closer to practising artists from other parts of the world." This has resulted in a host of new materials and interesting experimental styles coming to the market. In time, Song, Wang and Zhang might become household names in the art cognoscenti world.
    Wany Yuyang's Quarterly, 2015. Materials used in this installation include silicon, bronze, red copper, brass, stainless steel and a tree.
    "Song Yige, a painter who works and lives in Beijing, had her first show outside Asia earlier this year at Marlborough Fine Art in London. The exhibition attracted enormous attention from international media and collectors throughout the West," Platon says. A show called "A Beautiful Disorder", at the Cass Sculpture Foundation in Britain, is another where the work of young Chinese artists is prominently displayed and lauded.
    A handful of promising artists have caught the eye of industry experts such as Platon. These names include Wang (solo show at Long Museum in Shanghai and recent book by Flash Art), Jennifer Wen Ma (Paradise Interrupted at Lincoln Center Festival), Cao Fei (recent solo show at MoMA PS1) and Lu Pingyuan (Liverpool Biennial and Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art in Manchester).
    Wang Yuyang’s Sigularity, 2015. Materials used include metal frame, motor and LED lights.
    Niru Ratnam, the director of START Art Fair - which is held at the Saatchi Gallery in London in September as a salute to emerging artists - thinks it is important to see emerging Asian artists show "side by side" with their peers from the west. "What I believe becomes apparent through doing this is that while there are strong links between what emerging artists in Asia and Europe are making, there are also significant local nuances," Ratnam says. "This might be to do with the mediums they are using but more often is to do with subject matter and the way in which they are using different media."
    The world is showing interest, slowly but surely. Artist Liang Yuanwei says that early in her career her only connection to the global market was through Western scholars studying Chinese art. Nowadays, she is connected "through partnerships with galleries and participation in international art projects, and also thanks to art exhibitions which were supported by international collectors and international media".
    Platon agrees with this new attention: "There is an increased interest in contemporary Chinese art that is being reflected in museum and gallery programmes and in art criticism. This new generation of artists are creating impressive works that reflect a globalising art world."
    Zhao Yangs’s Eskimo, oil on canvas, 2014. Photo: K11 Art Foundation
    One of the defining factors of this emergence of young Chinese artists is the increased access to technology, and how they seem to all have embraced it or intentionally shunned it in different ways. "I see them breaking away from the very particular language and political imagery used by their predecessors," Platon says. "Like many other artists around the world, Chinese artists appreciate the advantages provided by new technology employing new media, new materials and new methods to realise their work, while questioning the social problems that accompany these changes.
    "Using 3D rendering and modelling software, Wang Yuyang has converted one of the most iconic and influential texts in modern history - Karl Marx's "Capital: Critique of Political Economy" (1867) - into a binary code that entirely determined the material, colour and structure of the sculptural outcome."
    Liang Yuanwei’s 2015 work, oil on linen. Liang says she is connected to the global market through partnerships with galleries and international art projects.
    The work, Platon says, not only alludes to the "collapsing boundaries between art and technology", but also raises pertinent questions concerning the "power of ideology in today's hyper-networked, globalised world".
    This point of no return is the perfect hotbed where artists such as Wang Yuanwei start to contemplate technology.
    "Technology has penetrated into my daily life, and made an impact on how I understand and express art," Wang says. "Technology has also become a key factor in my decision-making process and attitude towards art."
    For Zhao Yang, who specialises in oil on canvas, the comparison of his medium and material is looking at the primitive against the most contemporary. "I cannot deny that photos and images have impacted and influenced painting in Chinese Contemporary art; technology is meaningful, therefore images I obtain from the internet will, to some extent, affect the way we create," he says.
    Cao Fei’s Back to the Garden. It was exhibited at the Lombard-Freid Projects in Chelsea.
    There is ample support from the western world and China. One of the evangelists for young Chinese artists is the K11 Foundation (KAF) based in Hong Kong. Founded by Adrian Cheng in 2010, KAF is a not-for-profit organisation, which "supports the development of Chinese contemporary art from Greater China". The organisation is devoted to promoting contemporary Chinese artists through international programmes, and finding ways that these artists can fit themselves into a global art world as part of their career development.
    Artists such as Zhao feel the love. "I feel very lucky to be living in an era in which the society is welcoming and open and because of that I can indulge in my own dreams without sacrificing much. My achievements would not have happened without support from many art institutions, such as the K11 Art Foundation," Zhao says. "I participated in a couple of international art exhibitions organised by KAF, including: "WE: A Community of Chinese Contemporary Artists" (2016) and "Today: History, Art, Architecture and Design, the '80s" at the Centre Pompidou, Paris.
    La Town by Cao Fei (2014)
    "All these events have been very well-received by the global media and public," Zhao adds. "As time passes there has been an increase in the number of international collectors of my works. I think art is a common language and perfect channel to connect people."
    This message of globalisation is echoed by many in his industry. Artist Zhang Enli eloquently says: "I am determined to narrow the borders between regions and avoid my work becoming a symbol, as art is meant to be open to interpretation."
    Marcel Duchamp had the urinal, Andy Warhol that soup can and Ai Weiwei his bicycle. Perhaps the next big artist will again come out of China - and technology could be the thing raising Chinese art to new and exciting frontiers.
    Space Painting by Zhang Enli
    Five contemporary Chinese artists to keep an eye on:
    • Nabuqi, who is from Inner Mongolia, works with drawing and sculptures.
    • Xinyi Cheng, working in Amsterdam, is known for her use of glowing colours.
    • Shanghai native Chen Zhou was selected as a finalist in Beijing's Today Art Museum's "Focus on Talents Project" in 2012.
    • Miao Ying uses the Chinese internet as her inspiration and contributed to the Venice Biennale last year.
    • Liu Yefu, who works between New York and Beijing, splices together images to comment on mass media.





    Anbang, a Chinese insurer | A Chinese Mystery: Who Owns a Firm on a Global Shopping Spree?

    Pingyang County’s verdant hills still hint at a long-lost China. Rice paddies and villages surround its bustling towns, and in the fields, farmers wade into the mud to plant seedlings as they have for thousands of years.
    It is an odd place to find the people behind a Chinese corporate powerhouse that is turning heads on Wall Street with a global takeover binge. Yet the area is home to a tiny group of just such people — small-time merchants and villagers who happen to control multibillion-dollar stakes in the Anbang Insurance Group, which owns the Waldorf Astoria in New York and a portfolio of global names and properties.
    American regulators are now asking who these shareholders are — and whether they are holding their stakes on behalf of others.
    The questions add to the mystery surrounding a company that seemed to come out of nowhere, surprising deal makers with offers to pay more than $30 billion for assets around the world.
    Anbang’s shopping spree is part of an outflow of money from China that has reshaped global markets but has often been shrouded in secrecy, sometimes by prominent Chinese looking to shift their wealth abroad without attracting attention at home. That poses a problem for international regulators trying to identify the buyers behind major acquisitions and to assess the riskiness of these deals.
    The Anbang shareholders in the Pingyang County area hold their stakes through a byzantine collection of holding companies. But according to dozens of interviews and a review of thousands of pages of Anbang filings by The New York Times, many of them have something in common: They are family members and acquaintances of Wu Xiaohui, Anbang’s chairman, a native of the county who married into the family of Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader in the 1980s and ’90s.
    In many ways, Anbang and Mr. Wu appear to be archetypal products of China’s mix of freewheeling capitalism and Communist Party dominance, a formula that has fueled nearly four decades of untrammeled growth.
    Anbang got its start as an auto insurance company in 2004 in the eastern Chinese city of Ningbo. For years it was only a minor player. But it took off as it became more aggressive with its finances, buying stakes in Chinese banks and bringing in money by selling high-risk, high-yield investment funds to ordinary Chinese.
    Mr. Wu, 49, a former car salesman and low-level antismuggling official, led Anbang through this transformation and is now known as one of China’s most successful businessmen. He wears tailored suits and polished loafers, hobnobs with the likes of Stephen A. Schwarzman of Blackstone, and sometimes holds court at Harvard.
    But he does not appear in Anbang’s filings as an owner.
    It is common in China for the wealthy to have their shares in companies held in others’ names. Known in Chinese as baishoutao, or white gloves, these people are often trusted relatives or acquaintances. Many defend the practice as a way to protect their privacy in a nation where riches can be a political liability. But others say white gloves can be used to hide ill-gotten gains and thwart corruption investigators.
    On the fourth floor of this shabby building in Beijing is an office that is home to two companies with a total stake of more than $15 billion in assets of one of China’s biggest financial conglomerates: the Anbang Insurance Group. Credit Gilles Sabrie for The New York Times
    Anbang did not respond when asked if Mr. Wu was a shareholder and declined to answer questions about its owners.
    The company, a spokesman said, “has multiple shareholders who have made all required disclosures under Chinese law. They are a mix of individual and institutional shareholders who made a commercial decision to invest in the company. Anbang has now grown to be a global company thanks to the support of these long-term shareholders.”
    For investors and regulators, white gloves can make it difficult to evaluate the financial health of a Chinese buyer. Ownership may be concentrated in the hands of a few people, posing hidden risks, and companies with government connections could be vulnerable to political shifts or become magnets for corruption.
    “It is very important for businesses to know who they are ultimately doing business with, and for investors, what they are investing in,” said Keith Williamson, a managing director in Hong Kong at Alvarez & Marsal, a firm that carries out corporate fraud investigations.
    It is not clear whether the shareholders in the Pingyang County region are holding large stakes on behalf of anyone else. But on May 27, Anbang withdrew its application with New York State to buy an Iowa insurer, Fidelity & Guaranty Life, for $1.6 billion. Regulators had asked about ties between several shareholders with the same family names, said one person briefed on the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
    A $6.5 billion deal for a portfolio of hotels that includes the Essex House in New York and several Four Seasons locations is awaiting results from a security review by the American government. In March, Anbang withdrew a $14 billion bid for Starwood, the operator of Sheraton and Westin hotels, in a move that surprised Wall Street.
    The company could come under greater scrutiny as it prepares to sell shares in its life insurance business on the Hong Kong stock exchange next year. Already, at least one major New York-based investment bank has raised concerns about Anbang’s ownership after studying its shareholding structure to evaluate whether to help with its overseas deals, according to two people involved in the matter who asked not to be identified because the process was private. The bank did not participate in Anbang’s deals.
    Separately, the Chinese magazine Caixin reported in May that Chinese regulators were examining Anbang’s riskier financial products. It is unclear where that inquiry stands or whether Anbang’s ownership structure is being investigated.
    Continue reading the main story
    President Xi Jinping has waged a campaign against graft since taking office, and the use of white gloves has recently come under scrutiny. “White gloves are accompanied by power’s black hands,” the Communist Party’s disciplinary watchdog wrote in a report last year.
    Questions about Anbang’s owners come as Chinese companies make deals around the world — sometimes representing efforts by China’s powerful to move money out of the country, as the economy slows and the party tightens its grip on everyday life.
    Wu Xiaohui, chairman of Anbang, at a global insurance conference in 2015. Credit Ben Asen/International Insurance Society
    China has encouraged some capital outflow to improve the performance of its investments and expand its influence. But the subject of the elite moving money overseas is politically sensitive, raising questions about the source of their wealth and their confidence in the Chinese economy.
    Luo Yu, the son of a former chief of staff of China’s military, said China’s most politically powerful families had been transferring money out of the country for some time.
    “They don’t believe they will hold on to power long enough — sooner or later they would collapse,” said Mr. Luo, a former colonel in the Chinese Army whose younger brother was a business partner with one of Anbang’s founders. “So they transfer their money.”
    At its founding in 2004, Anbang had an impressive list of politically connected directors. Records show early Anbang directors included Levin Zhu, son of a former prime minister, and Chen Xiaolu, the son of an army marshal who helped bring Communist rule to China.
    Then there was Mr. Wu, who was born Wu Guanghui but was known as Wu Xiaohui from a young age. Relatives said he grew up in a Catholic family; a crucifix sat on his aunt’s dining room table, and she wears a necklace with a portrait of the Virgin Mary.
    Mr. Wu married Zhuo Ran, a granddaughter of Deng, the Chinese leader who brought China out of the chaos of the Mao era. Together, Mr. Wu, Ms. Zhuo, Mr. Chen and their relatives owned or ran the companies that controlled Anbang, according to company filings.
    Anbang leapt onto the global stage with last year’s purchase of the Waldorf Astoria and its aborted bid for the Starwood chain. By this year, Anbang’s assets had swelled to $295 billion.
    It is not clear what prompted Anbang’s sudden interest in overseas assets. But the shift came after a reshuffling of its ownership structure that also led to the injection of more than $7.5 billion into the company.
    Company documents filed with Chinese agencies show that the number of firms holding Anbang’s shares jumped to 39, from eight, over six months in 2014. Most of those firms received large injections of funds. At the same time, Anbang’s capital more than quintupled.
    Ms. Zhuo disappeared from the ownership records by the end of that year. Many of Mr. Wu’s relatives did as well. Mr. Wu and Mr. Chen had disappeared earlier from the records.
    The Anbang Insurance Group owns the Waldorf Astoria in New York, above, and a portfolio of global names and properties. Credit Chang W. Lee/The New York Times
    Mr. Zhu, who does not appear to have owned shares, disappeared in paper filings from Anbang’s roster of directors by 2009, though he was listed as a director on online government filings as late as 2014.
    Mr. Wu, Mr. Chen and Mr. Zhu did not respond to requests for comment, and Ms. Zhuo could not be reached. In March, Mr. Zhu told Chinese reporters that he was not an Anbang director.
    Anbang’s current shareholding firms are not well-known names in China, and some appear to have been set up just to hold Anbang shares. One lists its address as the empty 27th floor of a dusty Beijing office building. Two more list an address at a mail drop above a Beijing post office.
    Using corporate filings, The Times compiled a list of nearly 100 people who own shares in the firms and traced about a dozen to Pingyang County or nearby. Reporters visited the area, in China’s eastern Zhejiang Province, and interviewed dozens of residents, including several whose names appeared on the list. They also interviewed an uncle, an aunt and a nephew of Mr. Wu.
    The latter two, as well as others in the area, said one name matched that of his sister, Wu Xiaoxia. The family members said several other names matched those of Mr. Wu’s extended kin, including two cousins and others on his mother’s side of the family. Through their various stakes in Anbang shareholding companies, these people control a stake representing more than $17 billion in assets.
    Other names matched local acquaintances of Mr. Wu, including Huang Maosheng, a local businessman who confirmed in a brief phone interview that he had a business relationship with Mr. Wu but declined to elaborate.
    One village leader and neighbors identified the names of four of Mr. Huang’s relatives — including some whom they described as common workers — from among those on the list. Their Anbang holdings represent about $12 billion in assets.
    Another resident, Mei Xiaojing, said two names on the list matched those of her relatives. Asked if she knew Mr. Wu, she said, “Well, yes,” then ended the phone conversation and did not respond to subsequent calls. Through multiple holding companies, those three people have a stake representing about $19 billion in Anbang assets.
    As Anbang rose, so did Mr. Wu’s profile. In 2013 Mr. Wu secured a yearlong position as a visiting fellow at the Asia Center of Harvard, joining a growing list of politically connected Chinese billionaires with ties to Harvard.
    Ezra F. Vogel, a professor emeritus at Harvard who wrote a biography of Deng, said he met Mr. Wu on several occasions.
    “He had this staff of sharp people who were working for him,” Mr. Vogel said. “It seems that they were doing the detail work, and he was the friendly man supplying the connections.”
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