Few Chinese tech entrepreneurs have been thought of as “China’s Steve Jobs,” but Jia Yueting was one of them (paywall). The 44-year-old founder of tech company LeEco vowed to build an empire to rival Apple, Netflix, Amazon, and Tesla all at once. Just over a year ago, LeEco made an overblown US debut involving phones, cars, TVs, and movies.
“We’ve created the world’s first open-loop ecosystem,” Jia said while onstage in San Francisco. “In the internet content domain, we’ve blazed a new path. We want to bring this content to America.” His black t-shirt and simple presentation slides reminded many people of Jobs.
But a lot can happen in a year. Now Jia has a new label: He’s called a laolai, or “deadbeat borrower,” by Chinese media, apparently for failing to repay loans numerous times. His tech empire is running out of cash, having become overstretched by its attempts to expand internationally.
Yesterday (Dec. 11), China added Jia’s name to its official database for debt defaulters, after a court in Beijing ruled that he owes around 480 million yuan ($73 million)—including interest and late fines—to Ping An Securities, an investment arm of China’s second-largest insurer. The information is published on shixin.court.gov.cn, and searchable by anyone. Jia is now arguably the best-known individual on the list. In September, two LeEco subsidiaries were also added to the list.
China’s top court launched the blacklist in 2013 and made it public the following year in a bid to name and shame companies and individuals who default on their debts. According to regulations, individuals included on it are banned from traveling by airplane or first-class on bullet trains. Neither are they allowed to buy properties or go to certain hotels, night clubs, or golf courses. Their children are banned from entering private schools.
Such rules apply only in China, of course. Jia has been living in the US for months. Earlier this year, he resigned from his posts as CEO and chairman of Leshi—LeEco’s publicly traded and core video-streaming unit—after securing over $2 billion in investments for various LeEco subsidiaries from property developer Sunac China Holdings. He then shifted his focus to serving as chairman of LeEco’s auto unit, the main financial backer of the Faraday Future, a struggling Los Angeles-based startup focused on electric vehicles.
Jia hasn’t made any public appearances in mainland China since March. During his absence, creditors have held loud protests outside LeEco’s Beijing headquarters, and at least two Chinese courts have ordered a freeze on assets belonging to Jia valued at about $220 million in total.
Forbes estimates that Jia had a net worth of $3.8 billion in March, down from $6 billion two years earlier. Late last year, after LeEco’s financial struggles became apparent, Jia vowed in an open letter to staff (link in Chinese) to cut his annual salary to a nominal one yuan.
“Running blindfolded, we plant the fruit of our dream in the desert,” he wrote at the time.