In the who’s who of Chinese tycoons, the “three horses” top the list. Alibaba founder Jack Ma, Tencent boss Pony Ma and Ping An chairman Peter Ma – whose surnames mean “horse” in Mandarin – have built some of the biggest companies in the world and claim to have fortunes of tens of billions. But Peter Ma, who last week staged a militant bomb attack on HSBC, had previously kept a low profile.

That all changed when Ping An, HSBC’s largest investor with 9.2% of its shares, took the surprise decision to call on the lender to split its Asian and Western operations in what would be the biggest restructuring in 157 years. of HSBC history. This was all the more unexpected as the Chinese insurance company was itself partly owned by HSBC.

It was also an uncomfortable step into the spotlight for Ma, 67, who founded Ping An – which translates to ‘peace and security’ – in 1988 and made it the world’s second largest insurance company in terms of market cap, at $116.7. billion. Unlike Jack or Pony Ma, he rarely appears in public, hardly ever gives interviews, and his business has caught neither the attention of Beijing regulators nor Chinese state media. “He’s a more skilful and less flashy player,” said a veteran Hong Kong financier who frequents Ma’s social circles. “He’s cultivated a calm attitude. He understands that he is on a boat of which he is not the captain.

Under the wary eye of officials in Beijing, Ma pioneered modern insurance in China. When Ping An was founded, the country had no life insurance industry, and the southern city of Shenzhen, where it established its base, was largely farmland. Ma had to overcome resistance to selling life insurance due to the Chinese taboo on discussing death. Private enterprise was such a new concept that its first employees had to carry a copy of Ping An’s insurance license with them as proof that they were not acting illegally.

Three decades later, Ping An has over 360,000 employees and 220 million customers, almost all of them in China. Building a business of this scale requires political acumen. Ma hijacked Ping An from controlling China’s state banks, its major shareholders, into an independent company. He then courted foreign investment, opening up the company’s ownership structure to Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and HSBC. It became the first Chinese financial institution to have foreign investors and, in 2004, the largest company to list on the Hong Kong stock exchange.

At the center of Ping An’s operations is an attempt to reconcile eastern and western cultures. My collection of essays on the history of the company, Ping An’s Heart Language, describes the group’s construction on the values ​​of Chinese philosopher Confucius and German scientist Albert Einstein. Bronze statues of the two men sit in the main hall of the company’s training campus in Shenzhen. His decision to buy shares of HSBC – a global bank that has historically bridged Asia and Europe – evolved from conversations with his old friend Mark Tucker, the bank’s chairman and former chief executive. ‘AIA, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Even as his ambition extended beyond insurance and embarked on an aggressive acquisition strategy in banking, blockchain, wealth management and traffic control, Ma maintained that his program was purely national. In 2018, he told the Financial Times in a rare interview that Ping An was “one of the most international Chinese companies” but rejected the idea of ​​expanding overseas. “He plays the political game, being seen as focused on the domestic market,” said an acquaintance, suggesting he was in favor of a much more international role for the company. While Ma attended Wuhan University, her co-CEO Jessica Tan studied at MIT and worked for global consultancy McKinsey for more than a decade.

Maintaining a modest profile has proven wise, given the fate of other business tycoons such as Jack Ma, punished by Beijing for perceived transgressions or excesses. “[Ma] is emotionally intelligent about the reality of . . . modern China,” the financier said. The capitalists face lingering suspicion in China. The arrests at insurer Anbang in 2018 and the torpedoed IPO of Ant Financial in 2020 are powerful cautionary tales.

Aligning more closely with the government can also prove to be a shrewd defensive move. Chinese authorities have sought to stem systemic risks by requiring higher capital requirements from too-big-to-fail financial firms: if Ping An faces further regulatory scrutiny, Ma and his immense fortune will be firmly in the sights of the CCP. The company is already under financial pressure after a disastrous investment in China Fortune Land resulted in a $6.5 billion write-off last year. Its share price has been halved since the start of 2021.

Ma’s change in attitude towards HSBC is likely to have at least been approved by Beijing. Attempting to locate control of the bank – which is part of Hong Kong’s financial fabric but has retained its London headquarters – reflects China’s wider economic decoupling from the West. “Given the current environment of these nominally private companies, the idea that Ping An would do this without getting a very strong green light from the government is unthinkable,” the acquaintance said.

If he succeeds in breaking up HSBC, the fiercely private insurance magnate could find himself in the spotlight as Beijing wields its influence over one of the world’s biggest banks.

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Additional reporting by Stephen Morris in London and Cheng Leng in Hong Kong