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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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The enigma of CEFC’s Chairman Ye

The Son? CEFC & Huaxin Chairman Ye, presiding

CEFC & Huaxin Chairman Ye Jianming 叶简明

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…

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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.

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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”.

Kissinger - Ye inscription - Screen shot 2013-05-15 at 9.07.16 PM

Ye Jianming and Henry Kissinger

Ye Jianming and Henry Kissinger

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.”

Chairman Ye enters the room

Chairman Ye enters the room

Explaining Huaxin

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.

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CEFC (Huaxin) Energy Company

CEFC (Huaxin) Energy Company

China Energy Fund Committee logo

CEFC think tank logo

Cryptic symbolism

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.”

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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.

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Political warfare?

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.

China Energy Fund Committee logo

CEFC logo

CAIFC logo

CAIFC logo

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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.”

Father and son? Ye Xuanning 叶选宁 (undated picture - source), Ye Jianming 叶简明

Father and son? Ye Xuanning 叶选宁 (undated picture – source), and Ye Jianming 叶简明

The father? Long-time Director of the Liaison Department of the PLA General Political Department, and of Marshal Ye Jianying, Ye Xuanning 叶选宁

Long-time Director of the Liaison Department of the PLA General Political Department, and of Marshal Ye Jianying, Ye Xuanning 叶选宁

* Another credible alternative hypothesis is that Chairman Ye Jianming may be a grandson of Admiral Ye Fei, who commanded the PLA Navy from 1980 to 1982. Yet another fascinating character to add to the roll-call, Ye Fei was born in the Philippines to a family with deep roots in Fujian Province, the original home of CEFC. He was a close associate of Marshal Ye Jianying and apparently opposed the June 4, 1989 crackdown. 

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.


“A golden opportunity to use force”: mysterious China Energy Fund Committee attack-dog


UPDATE 6/10: Some interesting tidbits about Long Tao’s name 龙韬 here. Prof. June Dreyer points out that it refers to one of the Six Secret Teachings, which may make it a veiled call to cast aside officials who stand in the way of the suggested plan.

UPDATE 30/9: The Global Times has now posted an English version of Long Tao’s article. Possibly a response to the Japanese- Philippines “strategic partnership” and Japan’s further “wading” into the South China Sea dispute.

Tuesday’s Global Times carried an opinion piece titled ‘The present is a golden opportunity to use force in the South China Sea’. I thought the title would have just about said it all, and was therefore only going to offer some juicy excerpts, but as i read through it i found almost every sentence too good to leave out:

The internationalization of the South China Sea issue is perfectly clear, but it has not completely taken shape yet. The author believes now is a golden opportunity for China to coolly assess, grasp the opportunity, and take swift and definitive action.

At present every country is engaging in an arms race, procuring long-range maritime control weapons. Even Singapore, which is not part of the South China sea dispute, is preparing to introduce advanced stealth fighters. Australia and India’s military plans are in order to make world-class preparations, and Japan doesn’t want to be left behind either. America is energetically selling armaments with one hand and pouring petrol on the fire with the other, and at the same time is preparing to intervene militarily.

[. . .] One should not be afraid of small-scale wars, for they are a good way to release fighting potential. By fighting several small wars one can avoid a large war.

Speaking of war, we can look first at who should actually fear it. The South China Sea region has more than 1,000 oil and gas wells, but none of them belong to China. There are four airports in the Spratly Islands, but Mainland China does not have one. China has no other important economic installations. Leaving aside the issue of winning and losing, as soon as war commences the South China Sea will inevitably become a sea of fire. When those towering oil drilling platforms become flaming torches, who will be hurt the most? As soon as the fighting begins, all those Western oil and gas companies will inevitably withdraw, so who will lose the most? Read the rest of this entry »