Wanda rode China’s ever-rising rivers of debt and political connections to become one of the country’s largest real estate and entertainment conglomerates. Theme parks were central to the strategic vision of its billionaire founder, Wang Jianlin, to diversify beyond the company’s roots developing apartment towers, office blocks and shopping malls.
But most of Wanda’s empire is being dismantled, as the company faces pressure to pay off its debt. The government is increasing its scrutiny of prolific dealmakers like Wanda that depended heavily on loans from state-controlled banks, concerned that they pose a threat to the financial system and economic growth.
Wanda’s hastily reworked deal last month to sell a portfolio of theme parks and hotels shows the extent of the retreat. With the sale, the company will also liquidate most of its real estate holdings.
Wanda’s $6.5 billion sale of 13 theme parks to Sunac includes vast real estate projects in various stages of development. The properties, when completed, will comprise 635 million square feet of floor space. By comparison, all of Manhattan has 500 million square feet of office space.
The conglomerate also off-loaded 77 hotels to R & F Properties at fire sale prices. At $3 billion, the deal represents a 40 percent discount to the net asset value at which Wanda was carrying the hotels on its books.
Wanda is now a much slimmed down version of itself. The conglomerate is keeping a large ski resort and 10 hotels in northeastern China on the border with North Korea, as well as four other hotels, including a Sofitel next to its Beijing headquarters and the Wanda Reign here in Wuhan. Wanda owns about 180 shopping malls scattered across China and manages 30 more. Wanda also retains AMC Entertainment, the world’s largest operator of movie theaters, and a struggling 300-employee Hollywood studio.
By dumping much of its real estate, Wanda is pursuing what the founder describes as an “asset-light” strategy, after the government’s recent policy discouraging overseas investments and heavy borrowing. Rather than owning properties that require big loans, it will try to make money by managing hotels, theme parks and shopping malls.
As part of the deal with Sunac, Wanda will get almost $100 million annually for the next 20 years to manage all 13 projects. Its main business will be building shopping malls for other investors and managing them, in exchange for about 30 percent of each location’s revenues.
That represents a hope that many Chinese will keep shopping at malls, when the popularity of e-commerce is soaring instead. But Mr. Wang, once one of the wealthiest men in Asia, dismissed that worry.
“E-commerce will never substitute for real shops,” he said in a written reply to questions. “The real economy has come into an era in which it needs to be transformed and upgraded.”
Mr. Wang initially modeled Wanda after the Walt Disney Company, which acquired nearly 40 square miles near Orlando, Fla., and built hotels and planned communities around theme parks. Mr. Wang, a former army officer with political connections, persuaded 13 second-tier cities around China to hand him vast plots of land at low cost.
In Nanchang, in southeastern China, Wanda built the highest and fastest roller coaster in China. In Xishuangbanna, in southwestern China, Wanda built a vast “science and technology theater” with a roof shaped like an enormous golden palm leaf.
Wanda planned an entire city on the Chinese coast at Qingdao. It even built a movie studio there, drawing stars like Nicole Kidman, John Travolta, Leonardo DiCaprio, Zhang Ziyi and others to its opening four years ago.
When Disney opened a theme park in Shanghai, Mr. Wang promised to defeat the American entertainment giant.
Much of his empire, now being sold off, remains half finished. Only four of the 13 theme parks have opened; the others are still under construction, along with the apartment towers around them. Wanda and Sunac are still negotiating over whether that movie studio will be included in the deal.
The project at Wuhan, which holds the main real estate left in the portfolio, is in better shape.
The company poured more than $7 billion into the city over the last decade, building a mile-long street of stores and restaurants flanked by apartment buildings and office towers. Wanda moved in early, before most developers realized that the city would evolve from basic steel-making into one of the biggest auto manufacturing hubs in China.
Wuhan handed over for redevelopment a big chunk of downtown that previously had many state-owned dormitories. Almost every other city granted large plots of outlying land to Wanda.
Unlike elsewhere, essentially all of Wanda’s construction here is done. Approximately half the apartments have already been sold in a booming local market.
Real estate agents here said that the luxurious apartments sold for twice as much per square foot as other apartments in Wuhan. It likely means Wanda was able pay off much or all of the debt associated with the project, allowing it to book considerable profit on sales of the remaining apartments.
Wanda declined to comment.
But Wuhan also shows why Wanda will not be a major challenger to Disney.
The Wanda Movie Park, a huge indoor theme park near the heart of Wuhan, closed just 19 months after opening. Attendance was anemic. A dozen ticket windows, all shuttered, still list entrance prices. The going rate was steep: $35 for an adult, several days’ wages for a blue-collar worker in this city.
Local residents complained that the six activity areas in the park, with names like Star Journey, Ultimate Energy and Power of Nature, weren’t worth the price. They consisted largely of sitting in motion-simulator chairs or walking through mock-ups of sets designed to promote Wanda’s movies.
Wanda has so enthusiastically followed Beijing’s message of instilling national pride that other attractions sometimes verged on propaganda. The show at the 2,000-seat theater, by the former director of Cirque du Soleil, Franco Dragone, is supposed to combine acrobatic stunts and artistic pageantry with the heritage of China’s Han ethnic majority. Even Mr. Wang’s son complained on social media that the Han Show was incomprehensible.
Dalian Wanda has said that it will redesign the activities here and reopen the park. But there was little sign of activity during a recent visit.
“If it were a choice of going to Disney again or Wanda again, I would go to Disney,” said Liu Lina, a 38-year-old solar-panel installation manager here. “The Disney parks have lots of activities to experience.”