Pistons, PX, petroleum, politics: checking in with Chairman Ye Jianming

The incisive gaze of CEFC (Huaxin) Chairman Ye Jianming

The commanding gaze and handshake of CEFC / Huaxin Chairman Ye Jianming (source).

Since this blog last checked in with Ye Jianming in 2013, the youthful Chairman and his $40 billion CEFC (Huaxin) oil trading, storage and finance conglomerate have gone from strength to strength. It now ranks as the world’s 229th largest company by revenue.

CEFC originally attracted my attention due to Dai Xu‘s South China Sea warmongering under a “CEFC Strategic Analyst” title between 2011 and 2013. The company hasn’t been associating itself with that kind of militarism of late (at least not publicly), but its mystique has only intensified as various new information has come to light.

Here’s a brief rundown of what’s emerged since 2013:

  • Chairman Ye Jianming is not Lt-Gen Ye Xuanning’s son, nor Marshal Ye Jianying’s grandson. Far from being a princeling — my own and others’ best guess as to his background — he was born into a family of boatmen in the Fujian hinterland.
  • However, just as a blood relationship was finally disconfirmed, Chairman Ye turns out to be business partners with Ye Xuanning’s daughter in an entity bearing the PLA’s famous Carrie (凯利) brand.
  • The company’s oil trading business originates with assets confiscated from Fujian smuggling kingpin Lai Changxing, which it acquired in 2006. Chinese financial media reporting indicates that before becoming an oil baron, Ye made pots of gold by purchasing a state-owned piston factory, and wholesaling the industrial chemical PX.
  • Evidence of Chairman Ye’s involvement in the PLA General Political Department Liaison Department’s (GPD-LD) CAIFC system has continued to accumulate. Yet the GPD-LD’s fortunes appear to have been falling almost as fast as Chairman Ye’s have been rising.
  • There are signs the rise of Chairman Ye may be related to the rise of Chairman Xi — from Fujian via Shanghai, to Beijing, and out onto the Belt and Road. CEFC/Huaxin laid the groundwork for Xi’s triumphant state visit to the Czech Republic in March 2016, establishing a “key link” in his signature foreign policy initiative.

For those who find this all as irresistably intriguing as i do, these points are detailed below, followed by a selection of aphorisms from the expanding corpus of Ye Jianming’s Thought, and a brief personal disclaimer.

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The China Energy Fund Committee: mouthpiece of the Ye Jianying clan?

China Energy Fund Committee strategic analyst Dai Xu (戴旭)

After making waves last year with its call for war in the South China Sea, the shadowy China Energy Fund Committee (CEFC, 中国能源基金委员会) is back, going head-to-head once again with former PRC ambassador to the UN, Wu Jianmin, over the issue of “narrow-minded nationalism” in China. This time, however, it seems to have provided an answer to the riddle of last year’s “Long Tao” articles, and perhaps even the true nature of their significance.

On May 3, it appears (i can’t access the digital version), the Huanqiu Shibao ran side-by-side pieces by Wu and the CEFC’s “strategic analyst” Dai Xu, one titled ‘Beware narrow-minded nationalism’, the other ‘There is no narrow-minded nationalism in China’.

The piece by Wu, one of the more prominent doves of PRC foreign affairs discourse, argued:

As recent articles have pointed out, China is now in its third period of ‘letting 100 schools of thought contend’ (百家争鸣). In this process of contention, one thing to be wary of is that narrow-minded nationalism is now raising its head.

This narrow-minded nationalism, according to Wu, has three main manifestations: 1.) the belief that China is being victimised through international cooperation;  2.) challenging Deng Xiaoping’s “shelve differences and jointly develop” approach, advocating military action instead; and 3.) blind rejection of multinational companies.

Dai Xu’s response (one can only presume that he had been supplied with a copy of Wu’s article) was that no xenophobic (排外) incidents have ever taken place in China, so “narrow-minded nationalism” doesn’t exist:

Since the besieging of the Olympic Torch on a global scale in 2008, the encirclement by the US strategic alliance, and the urging on of internal separatists by external forces, voices advocating self-strengthening and vigilance against foreign anti-China forces creating chaos in China have indeed emerged. The author believes that this represents the shining spirit of China’s patriotic tradition. It is a good sign, a sign that China’s people are suddenly waking up from the hallucination of ‘Chimerica’ (中美国). Since Reform and Opening, despite China’s wholehearted constructiveness, we have still encountered much unfair treatment, so the Chinese people obviously have a reason to be angry, and a right to fight back. Chinese people of all strata should support this with voice and action to demonstrate national cohesion, uphold the overall [national] interest. How can this be seen as ‘narrow-minded nationalism’?

Dai goes on to claim that America is trying to build its global empire using the same multifaceted, winner-takes-all approach to China as it did the Soviet Union. However, while the US has no fear of China’s economic might, nor its military development, but what it does fear is China’s “patriotism” (爱国主义). This, Dai concludes, is the only way for China to fight back against America’s imperial ambitions.

In contrast to the almost conspiratorial overtones of the pen-name “Long Tao” (龙韬), Dai Xu is quite famous: he is a PLA Air Force researcher and author with the rank of colonel (上校) — similar to Luo Yuan — who has often appeared in the PRC media. His 2010 book argued that “China cannot escape the calamity of war, and this calamity may come in the not-too-distant future, at most in 10 to 20 years.” That work focused on the need to resist America’s anti-China plotting; two years on, his writing continues on the same theme.

He is also very, very angry about the South China Sea situation, as he demonstrates in this video. His arguments and turns of phrase in the video, make me strongly suspect that “CEFC strategic analyst” Long Tao was, in fact, “CEFC strategic analyst” Dai Xu.

Colonel Dai is a professor at China National Defense University, but this time (and on previous occasions if he is indeed “Long Tao”) he has for some reason chosen to appear on behalf of the China Energy Fund Committee. This brings me full-circle to the question i was left with last time: what exactly is the CEFC?

Last year, when its website actually worked, it was describing itself as a “non-profit, non-governmental think tank devoted to public diplomacy and researches on strategic issues with emphasis on energy and culture”. In February last year it was granted “consultative status” by the UN’s Committee on NGOs, which summarises it thus:

China Energy Fund Committee, an international NGO based in China which aims to gather talents both at home and abroad, and integrate essential information from all over the world, to conduct research concerning energy development strategy, international energy cooperation, and global energy security, and to contribute substantially to China’s sustainable development of energy.

I emailed three of its 38 consultants, asking who set it up and who funds it, and none of the three were willing or able to answer, referring my inquiry to the Head of Communications, who noted that it was “privately funded” and that “we conduct strategic research and public diplomacy focusing on achieving energy security for China and the world at large.”

However, after some more searching this evening, i found the CEFC listed as a “social responsibility” project on the website of one China Huaxin Energy Co. Ltd. (中国华信能源有限公司) , which calls itself “China CEFC Energy Company Limited” in English. In addition to the “CEFC” in Huaxin’s English name, the logos are exactly the same, so i think we can fairly safely conclude that the CEFC is set up and funded by Huaxin.

China Energy Fund Committee logo

Privately-run, and headquartered in Xujiahui, a suburb of Shanghai, Huaxin claims in English to have an annual turnover of more than RMB 30 billion (about US$5 billion) and a workforce of 12,000. In the Chinese version only, it claims that the RMB 30 billion is actually just its domestic turnover, and that it also has an overseas turnover of more than ten times that amount — a staggering US$50 billion, which is just under 1/4 PetroChina’s revenue (and with a workforce only 1/40 the size of PetroChina’s). I’m not saying it can’t be true, but….can it?

So where does this megalith get these billions? The website (in both Chinese and English) says:

CEFC specializes in oil, petrochemical and energy industries, with its mission of safeguarding national energy security, supporting the development of national strategic industries, and assisting national expansion and protection of overseas economic interests.

[. . .]

At present, it has established comprehensive commercial and industrial systems that involve both the upstream and downstream of the domestic oil and petrochemical industries, and cover the geological areas of Southeast Asia, Middle East, Africa and North America.

If it’s an oilfield services company, focusing on security, then perhaps that could explain its pro-war stance?

Or could it be driven by the 34-year-old Chairman of the Board, Ye Jianming 叶简明, who is listed as the founder of a “Fujian Huaxin Holdings”? (Don’t worry about his recent appointment to the board of another company either — he was definitely still in charge at Huaxin as of April 28.)

Chairman of the Board, Ye Jianming

He seems rather young to be in charge of a multi-billion dollar company, and if he’s a self-made billionaire, then he’s done extremely well to maintain such a low profile. Could Ye be a relation of the PLA immortal, and reform-era powerbroker, Marshal Ye Jianying 叶剑英?

The young chairman certainly seems to be somebody, judging by the copious references in the company periodical to “studying Chairman Ye’s” speeches and articles.

According to John Garnaut, one of the most clued-up foreign journalists when it comes to China’s princelings: “Marshal Ye engineered Xi Zhongxun’s appointment as party boss of Guangdong province and probably helped secure a career-building military post for his son Xi Jinping.” As such, Garnaut writes, Xi Jinping “owes a great deal to the families of both Marshal Ye and Hu Yaobang”.

Let me stress: I have scoured the internet for the past 2 hours and found no evidence that Ye Jianming is a member of Ye Jianying’s family. Nevertheless, it really does seem quite plausible. If the company is anywhere near as big as it claims to be, then being part of the Ye clan is probably the most likely explanation for why such a young guy is in charge of such a huge company. If he is, then we are talking about a very powerful guy. As in, really, really powerful — super-rich, with super-strong connections in both party and military.

If this is true, then attaching the CEFC label to a media commentary would put the weight of the Ye clan behind it, at least as far as intra-Party and PLA readers are concerned. And Dai Xu has chosen, probably on numerous occasions, to use his “CEFC strategic analyst” title, rather than his National Defense University position.