Yang Huiyan: Country Garden owner who was once Asia’s richest woman

Just two years ago she was the richest woman in Asia with an estimated $29.6bn (£23.4bn) fortune, but now Yang Huiyan, the chair and majority owner of Chinese property developer Country Garden Holdings, is battling to save the company from collapsing into default.

Country Garden, which was founded by Yang’s father – a farmer – in 1992, had grown to become China’s largest property developer, completing thousands of projects across the country. As the Chinese property bubble bursts, the company is now fighting for its very survival and Yang’s billions have mostly evaporated.

On Wednesday, it reported a record 48.9bn yuan (£5.3bn) loss for the first six months of the year. Creditors were meeting on Thursday to vote on proposed plans to delay payments on a crucial $535m (£422m) bond that if approved would give the firm some breathing space. The result of the vote was expected Thursday evening local time.

If the company defaults, it could have a huge impact on the Chinese economy as Country Garden has more than $180bn of liabilities across 3,000 housing projects and employs more than 70,000 people. Real estate accounts for about 25% of China’s gross domestic product . About two-thirds of household wealth is held in property.

Country Garden’s share price has already dropped by more than 90% over the past two years, sending Yang plummeting down the rankings of the world’s richest people. In August, the Bloomberg billionaire’s index, which tracks the fortunes of the super-rich daily, estimated that Yang’s wealth had fallen by 84% since its June 2021 peak to about $5bn. It was the biggest fall among the world’s 500-richest people, and her fortune is likely to have fallen further since.

Yang, 42, became Asia’s richest woman in 2007 when the firm floated the company on the Hong Kong stock exchange. Her father, Yeung Kwok Keung, had transferred his stake in the company to her in 2005.

She had already been involved in the company for some years, and her father regularly took her to board meetings as a teenager, according to local newspaper reports.

Yang Huiyan at her wedding
Yang Huiyan at her wedding in 2007. Photograph: China Daily/Reuters

The pair are both media shy but chose to be chauffeured to the office in separate Mercedes Maybach cars. They worked together at company until he resigned this year, leaving Yang as the sole chair.

“She very much stood out as being a rich woman in China, a country where it’s generally businessmen who get all the headlines,” Fraser Howie, an independent analyst who specialises in the Chinese economy, told Australia’s ABC.

In 2007 the state-run the China Daily reported – with the headline “Sorry bachelors richest Chinese woman married” – that Yang had wed the son of a senior provincial official whom she met on a blind date. The story said the wedding pictures were the first time any images of Yang had been made public.

Yang, who studied at Ohio State University in the US, is reported to have received a “golden passport” to the EU from Cyprus after investing $2m in the country. She has never confirmed whether she holds a Cypriot passport, but article 3 of the nationality law of the People’s Republic of China states that it does not recognise dual nationality.

She also attracted controversy in July by announcing – on the same day Country Garden issued a profits warning – that she had donated 20% of a subsidiary company to a charity set up just weeks earlier by her younger sister.

While she has lost tens of billions, she is still not the biggest loser from the Chinese property crisis. Hui Ka Yan, the majority owner of Evergrande Group, has seen his fortune fall from a peak of $42bn to less than $3bn, and he was forced to try and sell a string of personal assets including two private jets and London’s most expensive home.


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