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German deal veto sets back quiet rise of China’s Yantai Taihai

Cracking sector dominated by state companies has made owner Wang Xuexin a billionaire

Yantai Taihai produces casting and forging components for nuclear reactor.    © Reuters

TOKYO -- China is building more nuclear power plants than any other country and its companies are among the most active developing projects around the globe.

Overwhelmingly in China, this is a business for big state-owned companies. However Wang Xuexin, a former municipal official from northeast China, realized years ago that the state nuclear companies would need help. Yantai Taihai Group, his private company, has prospered as a supplier, turning Wang into a low-profile billionaire.

Yantai Taihai however has been thrust into an uncomfortable spotlight this week. The German cabinet on Wednesday voted on national security grounds to block Wang's company from buying Leifeld Metal Spinning, a local maker of machines for producing high-specification metals for nuclear and other applications.

Amid media reports that the government would stop the deal, Yantai Taihai reportedly tried to pre-empt the cabinet veto by withdrawing its application for approval earlier the same day. In contrast to its experience this time, the German government late last year authorized Yantai Taihai Yantai to purchase Duisburg Tubes Production, an insolvent producer of zirconium tubes for the nuclear industry.

It is not yet clear why Berlin stopped Yantai Taihai from buying Leifeld but not Duisburg, though Duisburg's financial distress may have been a factor. Yantai Taihai officials also have yet to comment on the setbacks.

Wang, who previously worked for the government of Yantai, a port city in Shandong Province, started building his international business ties around 2001 by forming a joint venture with France's Manoir Industries, according to a rare report on him in the local Yantai Daily newspaper in 2013. 

Established in 1917, Manoir has been known for the development and manufacture of proprietary alloys and high-performance metal components for industries including nuclear power, petrochemicals, oil extraction, civil engineering and construction. The tie-up with Wang took the place of a joint venture Manoir with another local company in Yantai.

Wang and Manoir later separated their interests for several years before forming a new joint venture in 2006. In 2013, Wang used Yantai Taihai to fully acquire Manoir, which had been suffering from the impact of the Eurozone debt crisis.

When the deal closed, a news release quoted Wang Xuexin to say, "We are delighted with this transaction which embodies the cooperation between Yantai Taihai and Manoir for many years allowing the two groups to prosper."

Yantai Taihai expanded further in France in 2016 with the acquisition of a majority interest in CTI Group, which specializes in metalwork and industrial pipes, mainly for the nuclear, petrochemical and food-processing sectors. Noting France's leading position in nuclear power, Wang at the time said the deal would allow Yantai Taihai to access "high-quality know-how" held by CTI. "We are increasing industrial cooperation between China and France in a strategic sector," he said.

The personal fortune of Wang, 50, has been estimated at around $1.3 billion in two recent rankings of China's wealthy. Yantai Taihai's global activities meanwhile earned it a place in a feature this week in the international edition of the Communist Party's People's Daily newspaper on the current "golden age" of Chinese nuclear construction around the world. It was the only private company mentioned by name, though the article said the private sector was playing an indispensable role in the industry's development "under strong policy support by the central government."

At home, Yantai Taihai mainly produces casting and forging components for power plants. Its products are included in China's Hualong One nuclear reactor design, which is being used in a project in the U.K.

Yantai was the only private company among the four initial strategic partners of the Yantai Nuclear Power Research and Development Center established in 2016, along side State Power Investment Corp., China National Nuclear Corp. and China General Nuclear Power Corp.

A People's Daily-affiliated industry publication said Yantai Taihai was including to "inject vitality," as the state companies are seen as less innovative. The center has been tasked by Beijing with researching solutions to technical challenges facing the accelerating development of domestic nuclear power plants.

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