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The Waldorf Astoria Hotel's Backstory Illuminates China's Ambitions


But a good moment to tell you something about Noel King. She's a veteran correspondent who's worked from Sudan to the American Southwest. And in a few weeks, she becomes co-host of this program while continuing her work for NPR's Planet Money, which got her looking into New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Chinese regulators have seized Anbang, the Chinese company that owns it. And Noel now reports on a hotel controlled by China's government.

NOEL KING, BYLINE: In a way, China kind of created this mess. For a little over a decade, the Chinese government has been pushing its biggest companies to invest some of their money overseas. It even has a policy called the Go Out policy, as in go out of China and invest in tech companies and mines and real estate. Chinese state banks gave companies cheap loans to go out with. And, says Victor Shih, an expert in Chinese politics at UC San Diego, a couple years ago, a handful of very ambitious Chinese companies started taking advantage of the Go Out policy in a big way.

VICTOR SHIH: Politically-connected companies certainly began to take full advantage of that by concluding billion-dollar deals after billion-dollar deals overseas.

KING: One Chinese company scooped up the entire Radisson Hotel chain, another bought AMC Theaters, another bought Club Med and a big stake in Cirque du Soleil. And an insurance company called the Anbang Group bought the Waldorf Astoria. But then about a year ago, China realized just how much money was flooding out of the country. Derek Scissors is with the American Enterprise Institute. He tracks Chinese investments in the U.S. And for the past few years, he has been watching billions go out of China.

DEREK SCISSORS: So you had 2013 go out, 2014 go out, 2015 go out. And by 2016, the Chinese government said, whoa, whoa, whoa, what are you doing?

KING: Anbang was one of a handful of big Chinese companies spending billions of borrowed dollars. But it's the only company that the government has seized because Anbang was making Chinese officials especially nervous. Anbang is an insurance company. It got its start selling car insurance, and now it sells all kinds - life insurance, health insurance. But the company has also been selling wealth management products to mom-and-pop investors in China and promising them suspiciously steady returns. Anbang's clients are middle-class Chinese people. And if something happened to Anbang - if it went belly up because of debt - that would ripple through middle-class households, and that could be devastating. Here's Derek Scissors.

SCISSORS: This isn't a real estate company where you don't have enough money, you sell a building. If Anbang doesn't have enough money, it can't meet insurance claims by elderly Chinese or Chinese that were in need after some sort of weather event or other event that caused them to lose their life savings and their home.

KING: Until last summer, Anbang was run by Wu Xiaohui. He was rich and powerful and well-connected and spent billions on properties like the Waldorf. And then last June, Chinese authorities detained Wu. He all but vanished. Now, he's facing charges of economic crimes. Anbang will be under the control of Chinese regulators for the next year. But the experts I talked to said this move may not be temporary, that it could be a step toward full or partial nationalization of the company. To people watching from the U.S., this might seem familiar - cheap money, a big insurance company with a lot of debt, authorities stepping in to save the day. And, not to go too far, but, Anbang Insurance Group initials? AIG. Noel King, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF EDAMAME'S "FOLLOW MERIDIAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.