Fall of 'Sun King' and his empire

PHOTO: Fall of 'Sun King' and his empire

SYDNEY - For solar power tycoon Shi Zhengrong, aka the "Sun King", his spectacular rise from humble beginnings in China to wealth and global fame has been matched only by his sudden fall and the swift collapse of his empire.

The younger of twin brothers born in 1963, he was given up for adoption by his poverty-stricken parents in a farming village on the Yangtze River. More than four decades later, he would become not only the richest person in China but also the world's first solar billionaire. In 2007, Time magazine hailed him as a "hero of the environment".

But the tycoon's fall has been rapid, as has the demise of his massive solar panel empire.

Dr Shi is reportedly barred from leaving China and faces possible charges over unspecified allegations of "wrongdoing". Chinese media reported that he has been accused of tax evasion and fraudulently claiming export rebates.

Suntech Power, which he founded in 2001, was the first solar energy company to list on the New York Stock Exchange and, just a year ago, it was the world's largest producer of solar panels.

But poor management and a flooding of the solar panel market caused the company to default on US$541 million (S$671 million) worth of bonds two weeks ago and it was forced to declare bankruptcy.

In a final humiliation, Dr Shi, 50, whose fortune was as high as US$2.9 billion (S$3.6 billion) in 2009, was dumped as company chairman.

The fall of the scientist-entrepreneur made headlines in Australia, where Dr Shi, an Australian citizen, established his career and received some of his highest praise. He was on good terms with former prime ministers John Howard and Kevin Rudd.

"There's something cruelly ironic about the fact that perhaps Australia's greatest ever 'green entrepreneur' has been cut down when the attention given to climate change has never been higher," reported BRW, a business magazine. "It's also sad to see a great rags-to-riches story come undone."

Chinese media generally expressed sympathy towards the fall of arguably one of China's most famous re-adopted sons.

A commentary by the 21st Century Business Herald was headlined "Abandoned kid Shi Zheng- rong: A China-style tragedy", pointing the finger at the company's board and the Chinese government that had wooed him to set up shop in China.

Dr Shi arrived in Sydney in 1988 from Shanghai with a master's degree in optics and won a scholarship to study at the University of New South Wales, where he completed the fastest PhD in electrical engineering in the university's history. He spent more than a decade researching high- performance solar cells.

In 2001, he moved back to China to eastern Wuxi city to head a solar-cell start-up company. Regarded as a Sino-Australian collaboration, it soared as solar power took off, in part due to Germany's focus on renewable energy. It had 10,000 employees and flew Chinese and Australian flags outside its headquarters.

After Suntech listed in New York in 2005, Dr Shi made his debut on Australia's richest list as the fourth richest person.

But in the past 12 months, the company's fortunes turned sour, in part due to a saturated solar panel market as other Chinese producers jumped on the bandwagon.

Global production of solar panels grew tenfold between 2008 and last year, while prices plummeted by about 75 per cent.

By March last year, Suntech was saddled with US$1.6 billion (S$1.99 billion) in debt and Dr Shi stepped down as chief executive five months later.

When he was eventually ousted as chairman on March 4, he was "shocked" and accused the directors of acting unlawfully.

"All the stakeholders want to talk to me," he told Bloomberg. "All the bank CEOs want to talk to me. They want to know why Dr Shi didn't show up."

But the collapse has thrown the spotlight on reportedly suspect dealings by Suntech, its founder and other company executives.

A report in the Australian Financial Review last week said Dr Shi benefited from deals in which Suntech would overpay or buy out suppliers, which were themselves registered in the Virgin Islands and controlled by Dr Shi. One of these cases has led to a lawsuit filed in California.

The report suggested that Suntech's collapse showed the pitfalls of China's tendency to "pick winners". "Showered with cheap money and endless subsidies (by the Wuxi city government), the company lost its edge," the newspaper said.

An anonymous insider told the Global Entrepreneur magazine that the problems stemmed in part from Dr Shi's own sidelines.

"Shi Zhengrong can easily create another Suntech. But from another perspective, if Shi did not have all these private enterprises, Suntech may not be in such a bad situation," the source said.

Last week, China's Shanghai Securities News reported that Dr Shi would not be allowed to leave the country pending an investigation relating to his role at Suntech. The company is expected to be delisted by the New York Stock Exchange, and a group of Chinese banks have filed a petition in a Chinese court, claiming debts of as much as US$1.14 billion (S$1.42 billion).

Xiamen University analyst Lin Boqiang told the International Financial News, run by the People's Daily, that Suntech could be "nationalised" and then undergo restructuring by the local government.

Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said its embassy in Beijing had been advised that Dr Shi "has not been detained and is not subject to travel restrictions".

But Xinhua news agency quoted an official in Wuxi as saying "he's really in trouble this time".

While the precise charges against Dr Shi are not known, the sun has clearly set for him and his empire.

jonathanmpearlman@gmail.com


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