It was past 9 p.m. on Financial Street in Beijing by the time the figure inside Huarong Tower there picked up an inkbrush and, with practiced strokes, began to set characters to paper.

Another trying workday was ending for Wang Zhanfeng, corporate chairman, Chinese Communist Party functionary—and, less happily, replacement for a man who very recently had been executed.

On this April night, Wang was spotted unwinding as he often does in his office: practicing the art of Chinese calligraphy, a form that expresses the beauty of classical characters and, it is said, the nature of the person who writes them.

Its mastery requires patience, resolve, skill, calm—and Wang, 54, needs all that and more. Because here on Financial Street, a brisk walk from the hulking headquarters of the People’s Bank of China, a dark drama is playing out behind the mirrored façade of Huarong Tower. How it unfolds will test China’s vast, debt-ridden financial system, the technocrats working to fix it, and the foreign banks and investors caught in the middle.

Welcome to the headquarters of China Huarong Asset Management Co., the troubled state-owned ‘bad bank’ that has set teeth on edge around the financial world.

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