China Railway Construction chairman Chen Fenjian dead at 58 after reported fall from building

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The chairman of China Railway Construction, the main builder of the world’s longest high-speed railway network, has died suddenly, aged 58.

Chen Fenjian, who took the helm two years ago, died on Sunday, China Railway said in a filing to the Hong Kong stock exchange on Tuesday, without giving more details. Some mainland media reported that he took his own life.

The company is running as normal and will soon appoint a replacement, according to the company statement. Shares of China Railway fell in both Shanghai and Hong Kong exchanges, with declines of up to 4.2 per cent.

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While there was no official explanation for Chen’s death, Caixin magazine said he had committed suicide by jumping from a building, citing industry insiders and banking executives who do business with China Railway.

An official from the investor relations department of China Railway, who would not give his name, declined to comment on the media reports.

The Paper, a news app owned by the Shanghai government, also reported that Chen killed himself by falling from a building.

His death comes as a team dispatched by the nation’s regulator of state-owned assets has been inspecting China Railway. The inspection is close to an end, according to Yicai, a Shanghai newspaper.

Chen’s death has nothing to do with the inspection by the regulator, and the police are investigating his death, according to the National Business Daily newspaper.

Chen Fenjian, pictured in September, 2017. Photo: Xinhua
Chen Fenjian, pictured in September, 2017. Photo: Xinhua

Chen’s death is not the first to hit the headlines among top executives at Chinese companies. It has followed several other sudden and unexplained demise in recent years, notably the boss of HNA Group Wang Jian who died in Provence, France in July 2018.

Huang Wei, vice president of film producer Bona Film Group died at 52 after jumping from the company’s Beijing headquarters in June. Bai Zhongren, the president of China Railway Group, another major state-owned railway builder, jumped to his death in 2014.

Chen made his last public appearance on Thursday, when he met the vice governor of Hebei province to discuss development projects in the Xiong’an New Area, a special economic zone hand-picked by President Xi Jinping, according to the website of China Railway.

A native of Guangdong province, he worked in a bureau of the transport ministry from 1983 to 1997 after graduating from a college in Changsha.

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He then served in various senior positions, from general manager to vice-chairman, at China Communications Construction Group and its listed unit until 2018, when he moved to China Railway.

China Railway’s shares dropped 1.8 per cent to 9.10 yuan at the close of trading in Shanghai and fell 4.2 per cent to HK$6.55 in Hong Kong. The stock has declined 10 per cent and 23 per cent respectively, this year.

The railway networks are part of Xi’s blueprint for a “modern socialist country”. China plans to double the length of its high-speed rail tracks in the next 15 years, according to the government plan. It has about 36,000 kilometres (22,369 miles) of high-speed rail lines, making up more than two-thirds of the global total.

Railway investment has helped to counter the economic damage of the coronavirus epidemic this year. Spending on rail projects rose 1.2 per cent from a year earlier to 325.8 billion yuan (US$47 billion) in the first half, while China’s overall fixed-asset investment fell 3.1 per cent in the same period.

China Railway Construction had a debt-to-asset ratio of 27.3 per cent by the end of the first quarter, compared with 27 per cent for China Railway Group, and a 24 per cent industry average, according to Bloomberg data.

Its first-quarter profit dropped 24 per cent from a year earlier. Interim results are due on August 29.

Additonal reporting by Yujing Liu

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