China Telecom shares fall as chairman becomes subject of graft probe

File photo from Nov 19, 2014 of Chang Xiaobing, then Chairman of China Unicom, attending the first World Internet Conference in east China's Zhejiang province.
File photo from Nov 19, 2014 of Chang Xiaobing, then Chairman of China Unicom, attending the first World Internet Conference in east China's Zhejiang province.PHOTO: EPA

SHANGHAI (BLOOMBERG) - China Telecom Corp, the nation's third- largest wireless carrier, fell in Hong Kong trading on Monday (Dec 28) after its chairman became the latest high-ranking executive to be targeted by anti-graft investigators.

The stock dropped as much as 3 per cent to HK$3.62 in early trading in Hong Kong. China's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection said in a statement on Sunday that Mr Chang Xiaobing, who headed China Unicom (Hong Kong) for more than a decade before becoming chairman and chief executive officer of China Telecom in September, is being probed for severe disciplinary violations.

Though the statement from China's anti-graft authority lacked specifics, it used language often used to refer to corruption investigations. Under President Xi Jinping, anti- graft probes have snared more than 100,000 officials and spanned across areas such as the military, oil industry and the finance sector.

China Telecom said in a filing to Hong Kong's stock exchange on Sunday evening that although Mr Chang was under investigation, its business operations are "normal" and that the company would make further disclosures when appropriate.

Mr Chang, 58, moved across from Unicom earlier this year as part of a leadership reshuffle in the telecommunications industry, which like many state-controlled sectors, is undergoing an overhaul to make companies more efficient.

Telecom is not the only industry that has been under scrutiny by investigators. Last month, the anti-graft authority announced a probe of China Southern Airlines chairman Si Xianmin, and in October, the former chairman of China's biggest oil producer was sentenced to 16 years in prison for taking bribes and abuse of power.

Not all investigations lead to convictions. The head of the Hong Kong unit of a Chinese brokerage resumed his duties this month after going missing in late November. While Guotai Junan International Holdings Ltd. chairman Yim Fung had been assisting the authorities, neither he nor the company were targets of investigations, the firm said.

Mr Chang's absence puts a vacuum atop China Telecom at a time the industry is facing a revamp. In October, the nation's three major wireless carriers - including industry leader China Mobile Ltd - agreed to transfer about US$35 billion (S$49.2 billion) of their network assets into a newly formed company called China Tower Corp in exchange for stakes in the infrastructure firm.

Prior to joining Unicom, Mr Chang served in various telecom-related government roles in China. He was appointed Unicom chairman in late 2004 and had served on the board of of Telefonica SA.

On the evening of Dec 26, China Telecom executives received notice that an annual meeting to be held in Beijing on Dec 28 had been postponed, Caijing magazine reported, citing several company executives it did not identify. Calls to Mr Chang's mobile phone were not answered as it was switched off, the report said.