BEIJING — China accused the deal maker who bought the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York of bilking investors of more than $10 billion.
The vast amount of money that officials said the deal maker, Wu Xiaohui, had obtained illegally raised the stakes in a prosecution meant to show Beijing’s resolve to crack down on the titanic borrowing binge of recent years. The Chinese government last month seized Mr. Wu’s company, Anbang Insurance Group, in a move seen as making an example of a firm that piled on too much debt too fast and added risks to the country’s already creaky financial system.
The $10.3 billion that prosecutors allege that Mr. Wu and Anbang raised illegally would make the case one of China’s biggest financial crimes trials.
Mr. Wu pleaded guilty to the charges and asked the court for a light sentence, according to an account of the proceedings posted late Wednesday on the official social media account of the court in Shanghai where he is standing trial. He is almost certain to be found guilty, as Chinese courts convict nearly everyone prosecutors accuse.
His plea was a turnabout from what the court had earlier described as a more defiant stance. Earlier on Wednesday, the court had said Mr. Wu had told the court that he did not know whether what he did constituted a crime, suggesting he would fight the charges. Mr. Wu had also denied charges that he had instructed his employees to escape abroad, to change their computers and mobile phones and to delete emails, financial data and corporate records once officials began investigating Anbang in March 2017, according to the court.
Lawyers for the tycoon could not be reached for comment. The court in Shanghai released only a partial accounting of the proceedings online, and an independent description of them was not available. In China, such proceedings are typically closed to foreign news media.
Prosecutors accuse Mr. Wu, who founded Anbang, of illegally raising funds from investors by using false financial statements and promotional materials, according to the official account posted by the Shanghai No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. Prosecutors also charged Mr. Wu with embezzlement. If convicted, he could face life imprisonment.
The police detained Mr. Wu in June, and he has not been seen in public since.
A former car salesman who married a granddaughter of Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader in the 1980s, Mr. Wu was one of the many Chinese deal makers who rode the wave of credit stimulus that followed the 2008 global financial crisis. This new generation of Chinese companies and their high-flying executives used cheap money raised from state banks or individual investors to buy up hotels, cinemas and soccer clubs both at home and abroad.
Anbang had gotten its start just a few years before the crisis, selling car insurance in the city of Ningbo, but grew to become one of China’s most ambitious insurers.
To do so, it relied on selling Chinese customers short-term investment products that promised hefty payouts. The products are sold by Anbang and many other Chinese companies, but they disclose little about the underlying investment. Many customers assume the investments are backed by the government even though they are not, putting pressure on officials to make sure investors are paid with government money if the investments go south.
In the case of Anbang, both the company and government officials have said that the money given to it by small investors is sound. Anbang said in a statement on its website that its business operations were stable and that it has “sufficient cash flow to fulfill its policy commitments to all Anbang customers and ensure that the legitimate rights of its policyholders are not lost.”
After acquiring the Waldorf Astoria, Anbang tried a number of prominent global deals, including an unsuccessful campaign to buy Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide and a bid to buy a stake in a Manhattan office building partly owned by Jared Kushner’s family company. The deal with Mr. Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law, was eventually abandoned after it was covered by the news media.
Mr. Wu’s fortunes took a turn for the worse last year when the government, wary about rising levels of debt, began to scrutinize its big deal makers. That led to public criticism of some of those companies and restrictions on capital outflow. On top of that, Anbang was never able to explain fully who its shareholders were to American regulators, who were pressing the company on its ownership structure.
China is now trying to rein in the growth of its wealth management products industry, fearful that excessive levels of debt could destabilize its economy, the world’s second-largest behind that of the United States. The scrutiny on Anbang roughly coincided with the removal of the commissioner of the China Insurance Regulatory Commission a year ago. On March 12, the Chinese government said it would merge banking and insurance regulators in an effort to close regulatory loopholes.
Prosecutors in China say that Mr. Wu concealed his control of companies that he then used to hold shares of Anbang Insurance and Anbang Group. Using one of Anbang Group’s subsidiaries, Anbang Property & Casualty Insurance Company, as a funding platform, he ordered the development of investment-type insurance products.
According to prosecutors, Mr. Wu led the design of the products and instructed the company to make false financial statements and marketing brochures. By doing that, he managed to get approval from the insurance regulatory agency to raise funds from the public.
By Jan. 5, 2017, the company had sold $116.5 billion of products, far more than the amount the government had approved. Some of that money was then moved to the companies that Mr. Wu controlled. Those funds were used to invest, to repay debts and for personal spending, according to prosecutors. Mr. Wu said the capital increase was from his self-owned funds.
Follow Sui-Lee Wee on Twitter: @suilee.
Alexandra Stevenson contributed reporting from Hong Kong. Elsie Chen contributed research from Beijing and Cao Li from Hong Kong.
Follow Sui-Lee Wee on Twitter: @suilee.