Confusion persists over China Unicom’s $12b ownership-reforms plan

Photo: REUTERS/Petar Kujundzic/File Photo

Telecoms group China Unicom‘s $11.7 billion ownership-reforms plan, billed as a model case for revitalising Chinese state firms with private capital, remained under a cloud on Friday, with confusion about fundraising details persisting.

The state-owned group had announced on Wednesday it was raising the funds via its Shanghai-listed unit from more than a dozen investors, including tech giants Alibaba Group, Tencent Holdings, and Baidu.

But since then, China Unicom has taken down the announcement of the fundraising from the Shanghai stock exchange, shares of its two listed units remain suspended, and one investor named by Unicom in the fundraising denied involvement in the deal.

“It’s very, very odd,” said Hao Hong, head of research at brokerage BOCOM International, referring to the deal announcement and its subsequent withdrawal.

“Investors who were trying to get into this stock after the ownership reforms will be disappointed,” he said. “At this stage it’s difficult to speculate about the reason for the withdrawal, but I think it’s just a matter of time before they sort it out.”

The China Unicom fundraising is part of Beijing’s push for state-owned enterprises to be revitalised with private capital. China Unicom is among the first batch of state-owned enterprises slated for “mixed-ownership” reforms”.

The deal represents the largest capital raising in the Asia-Pacific region since insurer AIA’s 2010 market debut, as per Thomson Reuters data.

But the deal has become mired in confusion. Rail equipment maker CRRC Corp Ltd , one of the 14 investors named by China Unicom, denied making an investment.

A China Unicom spokesman in Hong Kong then said a wholly-owned unit of CRRC was the investor in the telecoms group and not the listed company itself, which was corroborated later by a senior CRRC executive.

CRRC declined to comment when contacted by Reuters.

Shares in China Unicom’s Hong Kong and Shanghai listed units remained suspended from trading even on Friday, contrary to expectations they would resume trading after the fundraising announcement.

Moreover, the deal announcement was taken down from the Shanghai bourse website late on Wednesday, a few hours after its posting, although it has remained on the Hong Kong bourse’s website as well as the website of the Hong Kong unit.

An official at China Unicom Hong Kong Ltd said the announcement was taken down from the Shanghai exchange due to “technical issues”, but did not elaborate.

China United Network Communications, the Shanghai-listed unit, did not respond to Reuters requests for comment. The company said on Wednesday it would issue documents on the share placement within three trading days and would resume trade.

The Shanghai bourse also did not respond to a faxed request for comment.

BOARD SEATS

China Unicom has said the funds would be raised by the group’s Shanghai unit via sale of new as well as existing shares, and the investors will get a combined 35.2 percent stake in that company.

Post the deal closure, the Shanghai-listed unit’s board will have six state representatives including two from Unicom group, four from strategic investors, mainly from the private sector, and five independent non-executive directors, China Unicom said in an emailed statement on Friday.

It did not disclose the name of the new investors who would get board seats. But people with direct knowledge of the deal said Baidu, JD.com and Tencent would get one board seat each among private investors.

Baidu said it was happy to be one of the strategic investors in China Unicom, but did not comment on the board seat. A JD.com spokeswoman said they have no immediate comment, while Tencent did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Jefferies earlier said in a note the diversified nature and representation of private investors was unprecedented for a Chinese state-owned enterprise, signifying the degree of support Unicom receives from the government.

“The announcement appears rushed,” Edison Lee, analyst at Jefferies, told Reuters. He called the flip-flop regarding the deal “weird”, but added it won’t “affect the overall ownership reform plan”.

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Reuters

Singapore Reporter/s

In Singapore, we are looking to double our reporting team by this year-end to comprehensively cover the fast-moving world of funded startups and VC, PE & M&A deals. We want reporters who can tell our readers what is really happening in these sectors and why it matters to markets, companies and consumers. The ability to write precisely and urgently is crucial for these roles. Ideal candidates must have to ability to work in a collaborative, dynamic, and fast-changing environment. We want our new hires to be digitally savvy and ready to experiment with new forms of storytelling. Most importantly, we are looking for hard-hitting reporters who work well in a team. Collaboration and collegiality are a must.

Following vacancies can be applied for (only in Singapore).

Following vacancies can be applied for (only in Singapore).   

  • A reporter to track companies/startups that have raised private capital, and have the potential to become unicorns. SEA currently has over 40 companies with a valuation of over $100 million and under $1 billion.
  • A reporter who can get behind the scenes and reveal how funding rounds are put together, or why they’ve failed to materialise. She/he in this role will largely focus on long-format stories. 
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Singapore Reporter/s

In Singapore, we are looking to double our reporting team by this year-end to comprehensively cover the fast-moving world of funded startups and VC, PE & M&A deals. We want reporters who can tell our readers what is really happening in these sectors and why it matters to markets, companies and consumers. The ability to write precisely and urgently is crucial for these roles. Ideal candidates must have to ability to work in a collaborative, dynamic, and fast-changing environment. We want our new hires to be digitally savvy and ready to experiment with new forms of storytelling. Most importantly, we are looking for hard-hitting reporters who work well in a team. Collaboration and collegiality are a must.

Following vacancies can be applied for (only in Singapore).

Following vacancies can be applied for (only in Singapore).   

  • A reporter to track companies/startups that have raised private capital, and have the potential to become unicorns. SEA currently has over 40 companies with a valuation of over $100 million and under $1 billion.
  • A reporter who can get behind the scenes and reveal how funding rounds are put together, or why they’ve failed to materialise. She/he in this role will largely focus on long-format stories. 
  • A journalist to track special situations funds, distressed debt and private credit (from the PE angle) across Asia.