The company initially tried to refute this as “irresponsible” reporting, but investors opted to believe China’s leading investigative journalism outlet, and the company’s bonds dropped by 33% in a day.
But the party-state authorities’ ban on reporting about Chairman Ye and his empire of enterprise (documented here in 2017) remains in place, so Caixin‘s scoop was expunged from the PRC internet within hours.
The news was officially confirmed more than two weeks later, on March 19, when the Czech Republic sent a delegation to find out what was going on with its major source of foreign investment. The delegation was told that Chairman Ye, an advisor to Czech President Milos Zeman, was indeed “being investigated for a suspicion of breaking the law.”
CEFC was ranked 222nd in the Fortune 500 in 2017, and last year stunned the international energy industry by securing agreement to buy a $9 billion, 15% stake in Rosneft, Russia’s state oil giant.
Now the company’s future is as murky as its past.
Caixin reporter Ji Tianqin 季天琴 spent the most of 2017 interviewing CEFC executives, tracking down former associates of Ye, and tracing CEFC’s constellation of satellite companies through the financial records. And the crowning glory: she interviewed Ye himself twice, finding all manner of holes in the stories he told her.
Ji Tianqin is famous in Chinese journalism circles for her award-winning deep-dives addressing, among other things, Wang Lijun’s reign of terror in Chongqing. Considering the difficulty of being an investigative reporter in China today, she really ought to be famous outside China too.
This epic investigation into CEFC reveals how, through party and military connections, turnover figures massively inflated by fake trading, and relentless pursuit of international photo-ops and status symbols, Ye Jianming was able to sell domestic and foreign audiences a mostly vacuous narrative about his rising global energy and finance colossus.
Suffice to say, these revelations extend my record of getting some things right about CEFC, but not very many. I’ll leave that discussion for another post, as my purpose here is to urge China-watchers to invest the time in dipping into the 16,000-word translation below — and to please share thoughts on what it all means. I’d also welcome any translation corrections from people more familiar with financial and business terminology.
This is a spectacular work of Chinese investigative journalism that may contain some profound implications for understanding the PRC’s economy, politics and international relations.
Ye Jianming under investigation, what fate will befall CEFC?
By Ji Tianqin
UPDATE JANUARY 2017: Lots more information about Chairman Ye has come to light, including confirmation that he is not Ye Jianying’s grandson (but he is in business with Marshal Ye’s granddaughter). Read the latest update here first.
UPDATE APRIL 2016: The following odyssey through the business and ideological world of CEFC, an apparent platform of the Liaison Department of the PLA General Political Department (GPD-LD), was co-written with John Garnaut. Based on new information received, I now believe it’s unlikely that Chairman Ye Jianming is a grandson of Marshal Ye Jianying. Interestingly, there may be a connection with Marshal Ye’s family by marriage, which could be confirmed in coming months or years. The evidence of the young Chairman’s connection with the GPD-LD, however, remains strong, and has been anecdotally supported by people in a position to know. Thus, the new information doesn’t substantially alter the story below, just our theory on who exactly the Chairman’s father may be.*
Read on if you dare…
The enigma of CEFC’s Chairman Ye
By Andrew Chubb & John Garnaut
Senior Colonel Dai Xu, of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, apologised profusely for running late as he lowered his tiny frame into a plastic chair.
The display of manners and humility, in the mosquito-ridden lobby of his three-star Sanya hotel, seemed an unlikely departure point for an exploration of the evolving nature of Chinese power and how it is projected into the world.
Nevertheless, he was about to open a door into the labyrinthine universe of China’s ruling families, big oil and the most secretive and least understood corner of its military intelligence complex.
“I used to use Long Tao as pen name,” Colonel Dai said, confirming for the first time that he was indeed the “China Energy Fund Committee strategic analyst” whose incendiary writings have provoked fear and anxiety across the resource-rich South China Sea.
The most memorable article, published in the state-owned Global Times in September 2011, is now seen as emblematic of China’s “peaceful rise” entering a more belligerent phase.
“When those towering oil drilling platforms become flaming torches, who will be hurt the most?,” said Long Tao, presenting a case for waging war against the Filipino and Vietnamese “chickens” in order to scare the hegemonic American “monkey”.
The identity of Long Tao as Colonel Dai – a media pundit who holds a senior military rank yet has never commanded any troops – proved to be straightforward, however, compared with the organisation he purported to represent.
The cult of Chairman Ye
The China Energy Fund Committee (CEFC) describes itself as a “non-profit, non-governmental think tank” that strives for “a better future for mankind”.
At its apex sits a mysterious 36-year-old chairman named Ye Jianming, about whom so little is known that the Chinese-language internet has numerous bulletin board posts asking, “Who is Ye Jianming?
Chairman Ye, it turns out, heads an energy logistics megalith that came from nowhere in 2010 to claim revenues of more than US$30 billion last year.
China Huaxin Energy Company is the centre of a constellation of Hong Kong, Singapore and mainland Chinese companies that link as far as Zhuhai Zhenrong, a company that is subject to US sanctions for oil trading with Iran.
News on the company’s website details Chairman Ye leading delegations on visits to dignitaries around the world.
Despite his tender years, he has won the admiration of global statesmen from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to Henry Kissinger, who apparently addresses him as “Chairman”.
The young chairman’s “thought” (in the sense of Mao Zedong Thought) and “important speeches” are lauded in the pages of company publications.
His slogans adorn the company’s website: “Starting with power, finishing with virtue”, “Faith, Unity, Rigor, Devotion” and – rather strikingly for a self-proclaimed private enterprise – “Repay the country through industry”.
“We must continue to deeply study Chairman Ye’s speeches and articles,” says a piece in the 120-page internal study journal, “to thoroughly understand the development path the Chairman has pointed out for us.
“As an enterprise, Chairman Ye has assigned Huaxin the mission of ‘repaying the country through industry’, and this is Huaxin’s fundamental pursuit and final destination.”
Rapturous scenes ensued when the chairman made an appearance at Huaxin’s Chinese New Year function in February – according to the company’s in-house publicity (propaganda) centre.
“At 11 o’clock the entire room erupted into enthusiastic applause as Chairman Ye entered the venue, cordially shaking hands with everyone . . . the children jumped up one after another to wish Chairman Ye a happy new year.”
Yet, despite his flourishing cult of personality, the chairman is far from satisfied with the work of his propaganda department.
In April last year he told them they had “fallen behind”, “not grasped the main themes”, and “not explained what it is that Huaxin does”.
Indeed, how does Huaxin make its billions – aside from sponsoring belligerent think tanks?
The answer, according to the man himself: “In business it is a global trading company, in industry it is centred on energy storage and new energy projects.”
According to Singapore corporate filings, Ye Jianming was previously chairman of the board at Shanghai Zhenrong, part of the Zhuhai Zhenrong family that was hit with US sanctions for oil trading with Iran.
One of Huaxin’s current projects is to build a mammoth oil storage facility on Hainan Island, with capacity of 12 million cubic metres, to absorb a large share of China’s strategic oil reserve.
“Oh yes, Huaxin – the princeling company . . . they are into everything around here,” ventured a Hainan taxi driver late last year.
“No-one dares to mess with them.”
Aside from energy logistics, Huaxin’s subsidiaries are involved in rubber, chemicals, and metals.
At a meeting last month with Mexican state oil giant Pemex, Huaxin CEO Chen Qiutu (representing Chairman Ye Jianming of couse) boasted of his company’s “great financial system made up of many domestic and foreign listed companies and equity banks, trusts and securities companies”.
Its interests even extend as far as Australia, where last year it spent about $2 million for control of an iron ore hopeful, Buxton Resources, under the name National Business Holdings.
Huaxin’s website specifies its mission as, “Expanding the country’s overseas energy economic interests, being a national enterprise.”
But some assets closely related to the Huaxin family appear to be the personal property of the chairman.
In November 2011, Singapore Petrol Development Pte Ltd (SPD) purchased a beauty products trader called Sun East, with the intention of “exploring” a move into the petrochemical trading business.
SPD promptly renamed its acquisition CEFC International.
Corporate filings indicate that Ye Jianming is the sole shareholder of SPD, as well as the controlling shareholder of Daiwah Group, a Shanghai-based company established in January 2012 with capital of RMB 100 million. Daiwah deals in rubber, palm oil, non-ferrous metals, chemicals and shipping.
Huaxin’s English name, China CEFC Energy Co, is almost identical to that of the CEFC think tank and until recently it listed the think tank as one of its charitable ventures.
Their logos are also almost identical except that the corporate entity’s is tinted Communist Party red, with golden stars like the Chinese flag, while the think tank has bronze stars on a background of United Nations blue.
At the centre of its logo is a big star which represents “civil rights”, according the CEFC’s English-language version of its website.
But the Chinese-language explanation makes no mention of civil rights and, in contrast, says the star represents how “this organization will play a strong and powerful role for the interests of the Chinese state and nation”.
Three smaller stars represent its participant “organizations and individuals”. A CEFC spokesperson declined repeated inquiries as to their identity or nature.
Months of questions to CEFC headquarters have provided no answers on the question of who or what is really behind its activities.
“Sometimes you just know it’s better not to know, so I don’t even ask,” was one typical response, from an employee.
“Let’s not talk about money, let’s eat lunch.”
Friends all over the world
The fact that CEFC might be set up and owned by an opaque oil company has not deterred global statesmen from participating in its high-level events.
Last month it quietly co-hosted an “energy conference” in Beijing attended by Kissinger and former German Chancellor Gerhardt Schroeder.
And while Huaxin’s internal structure uses Chinese government nomenclature and refers to its executives by the Communist Party appellation “comrade”, the United Nations has nonetheless vouched for CEFC’s non-government-status.
The “NGO” was granted Special Consultative Status with the UN Economic and Social Council which, in turn, enabled it to segue away from oil and war in order to co-host a “dialogue between Confucianism and Christianity” at United Nations headquarters in New York, in November 2012.
CEFC’s partner in that venture, the Nishan Forum on World Civilizations, is another new and mysterious Chinese organisation that describes itself as an NGO.
Its personnel and aspirations overlap with those of CEFC.
The interests of the Nishan vice chairman, Xing Yunming, reach far beyond Confucius and religion and might provide a clue to what lies behind the CEFC think tank.
Mr Xing is in fact a lieutenant-general in the People’s Liberation Army and, according to isolated, and perhaps inadvertent, reports in provincial media, he is director of the military’s secretive political warfare agency – the Liaison Department of the PLA General Political Department (GPD).
The PLA GPD Liaison Department emerged in 1955 out of an entity with a more descriptive moniker: The Enemy Work Department.
Almost unknown to civilian researchers, it behaves like an intelligence agency but with broader scope and greater power, targeting foreign political and economic elites.
In recent years it appears to have broadened the focus of its “enemy work” – a term its operatives still use – from Taiwan and overseas Chinese communities to Western countries and their allies.
“Liaison work operates at a nexus of politics, finance, military operations, and intelligence,” said Mark Stokes, executive director of a Washington think tank, the Project 2049 Institution.
“It is responsible for active measures taken to influence foreign defence policies,” said Mr Stokes, who is sifting through reams of internet material to map the department’s personnel and networks across various front organisations.
The central strategy of enemy work is to create two simultaneously contradictory perceptions in the adversary’s mind: one, that China is friendly and benign, the other (invoked at the crucial moment) that China is powerful, ruthless and inevitable.
Perhaps this might explain why CEFC, the think tank, goes to great lengths to organize friendly cultural exchanges, yet also associates itself with warmongering articles by PLA officers.
CEFC, the think tank, repeatedly declined requests to clarify the nature of its links to the PLA GPD Liaison Department.
But publicly available records say from 2003 to 2005 chairman Ye Jianming was deputy secretary general of the China Association for International Friendly Contacts (CAIFC) – one of the GPD Liaison Department’s best-known public platforms.
CAIFC has mediated many of Kissinger’s contacts with the Chinese regime.
And there is a certain similarity at the center of CEFC and CAIFC’s logos, too.
More questions than answers
Which, in turn, hints at an answer to the ultimate mystery: who is Ye Jianming, the 36-year-old who sits atop both the CEFC think tank and its sponsor, the start-up oil megalith Huaxin?
Close observers in Hong Kong and southern China note that his features bear a striking resemblance to Lt-Gen Ye Xuanning — Director of the PLA GPD Liaison Department until 1998, and long-time President the Carrie (Kaili) Group, of one the original PLA business empires.
Ye Xuanning is the son of one of China’s great marshals, Ye Jianying, and has been described by peers as “the spiritual leader” of the princelings – the children of China’s original communist revolutionary heroes, who now dominate the top echelons of the party leadership.
The close observers say the PLA GPD Liaison Department continues to be his power base, 15 years after his official retirement.
Could the young chairman be – as many suspect – the youngest and previously unidentified son of Ye Xuanning?
Are his businesses and the CEFC think tank an instrument of Chinese state power, a family fiefdom, or merely private initiatives?
Dai Xu, the Air Force colonel, who has been pictured with Chairman Ye, knows the answers but is not forthcoming.
Is Ye Jianming the grandson of Ye Jianying? “It’s not convenient to say.”