Few people have had a meteoric ascent such as Ye Jianming enjoyed. The Chinese tycoon rose from working in a forest in the 1990s to headed a company worth US $44 million. But Ye has seemingly disappeared into thin air, and the “empire” he built is falling apart. At the zenith of his wealth and influence the energy company that Ye built, CEFC China Energy, had extremely close ties to a government that is now investigating the company.
CNN tells the story of Ye Jianming, who became well known not only in China but across the world, garnering the number 2 spot on Fortune’s 40 Under 40 list just two short years ago, as well as becoming an advisor to the Czech government.
However, Ye’s fortunes seemed to come crashing down last month, when prosecutors from the United States accused Ye’s NGO of bribing leaders in Africa, to the tune of millions of dollars.
Ye first became known three years ago, when he suddenly started buying businesses in the Czech Republic, such as a stake in the investment bank J&T Finance Group, a Prague building, a brewery, Slavia Praha—the country’s oldest football club, a publishing house, among others.
Since the Czech Republic had historically been known to be unwelcoming toward the Chinese, this came as a surprise. When Milos Zeman became the Czech president in 2013, he opened up more avenues for trade between Prague and Berlin, and the following year a company from the Czech Republic began to provide loans across China, being the first completely foreign-owned firm to do so.
Ye took advantage of this opportunity, and became a special economic adviser to Zeman, though this was kept a secret until half a year after he was appointed. An opposition Member of Parliament, Miroslav Kalousek, called this appointment “scandalous and a security risk.”
Ye’s appointment, as well as the acquisition of Czech businesses, signaled that the two nations were now allies, giving China a foothold in Europe. Since the President of China, Xi Jinping, wanted to bring Chinese goods all over the world via the Belt and Road initiative, this gave China a partner within the European Union, with whom China has the biggest trade.
China is known to send businessmen to advance Chinese interests, according to Stephen Platt, an American historian and professor of Chinese history. He says, “It takes the risk and financial burden off the Chinese government. “f the companies go bankrupt that’s their problem and (in the meantime) the government can take advantage of (them) spreading a positive view of China and increasing China’s influence.”
To others, it seemed that Ye and CEFC China Energy emerged from thin air. The head of China research at the Jefferies Group investment bank, Laban Yu, said, “Journalists would be calling me up asking: ‘What do you know about this?’”
This year, CEFC China Energy was reportedly $3.2 billion, and owned properties in Manhattan and Hong Kong, employing almost 50,000 people, and ranking 222nd on the 2017 Fortune 500 list.
It was widely rumored that Ye was the son of one of the founding fathers of the People’s Republic of China, colloquially known as People’s Liberation Army (PLA) princelings, who became both wealthy and powerful. Many ‘princelings’ are in powerful positions today, including Xi Jinping, whose father had been a vice premier of the State Council.
It was believed that Ye’s grandfather had once been a high official, and that Ye himself had been the deputy secretary general of the China Association for International Friendly Contact (CAIFC), allegedly the political arm of the military of China.
The logos of CEFC China Energy and CAIFC are startlingly similar, and yet, when asked about his connections to the military in an interview with Fortune magazine in 2016, Ye denied this.
Several years ago, CEFC China Energy established an NGO in the United Nations, which was recognized officially in 2011. That same year the NGO, the China Energy Fund Committee, became UN consultants. Supposedly “a high-end strategic think tank,” the NGO held conferences on the Belt and Road initiative which were very “pro-China,” according to Bonnie Glaser, the director of the China Power Project in Washington. However, many of the conference attendees knew nothing of Ye and believed that the China Energy Fund Committee was under the Chinese government.
CEFC China Energy grew by 25 percent every year from the time that the NGO started in the UN, and the NGO’s employees met the world’s VIPs. Ye found himself bringing world leaders on his own Airbus, people such as Alan Greenspan, the former head of the US Federal Reserve. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, and Henry Kissinger, former US Secretary of State.
CEFC’s trade deals only got bigger, such as a $900 million on a stake in a big oil field, a $680 million agreement for a Kazakh state oil and gas firm, which they deemed as part of the Belt and Road initiative.
An associate professor at the Fulbright University Vietnam, Christopher Balding, said, “There is no type of project that doesn’t qualify as Belt and Road, and no continent on the planet that doesn’t have Belt and Road.” Counting these deals as under the Belt and Road Initiative meant more support from the Chinese government.
Last year, CEFC China Energy announced that it would buy a 14% stake in Russian oil giant Rosneft for $9 billion. Deals of this size and cost are usually only undertaken by the government.
But trouble also began quickly afterward, when Patrick Ho Chi-ping, the head of Ye’s NGO, was arrested by FBI agents, and charged with violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act as well as money laundering.
Ho stands accused of offering US $3 million bribes to officials in Chad and Uganda.
Chad has denied this, saying in a statement, “Faced with this umpteenth false allegation, the government of Chad formally refutes this shameful fabrication.”
Uganda’s government called the allegation of its involvement “erroneous,” and Ho has pleaded not guilty to the allegations.
CEFC China Energy also issued a statement saying that the NGO was “not involved in any of the commercial activities of CEFC China Energy,” and insisting that it had acted “in strict accordance with the law.”
The arrest of Ho was the beginning of the end. By March 1, 2018, Chinese media outfit Caixin reported that CEFC China Energy had been borrowing more money to repay previous loans, charges that the company denied.
However, Ye was said to be detained a few days after the report was released, and he has not been seen ever since then.
Apparently, rumors of CEFC China Energy’s instability had long been circulating.
A China expert at the Economist Intelligence Unit, Tom Rafferty, said, “Accounting standards and corporate oversight is still pretty weak in China and there isn’t a lot of transparency. There are lots of issues in China around opaque corporate structures.”
A spokesperson for the Foreign Affairs Ministry of China was asked by CNN concerning the link between the Chinese government and CEFC China Energy. In a written response a spokesman said, “I have no knowledge about the incident you mentioned. What I can tell you is, China is a country ruled by law, and the Chinese government has consistently asked Chinese enterprises to abide by local law and regulations when they operate overseas.”
The company subsidiaries’ Shanghai’s offices have been found to be empty, with some never occupied at all, and the government of China has taken over its properties and assets.
Ye was still an adviser to the president of the Czech Republic upon his disappearance. A team from President Zeman was sent to Beijing in March to determine Ye’s whereabouts, and a spokesman for Zeman said that if Ye “is found guilty he will cease to be an adviser to Zeman.”
Beijing has gone after other companies with large debts, including Anbang Insurance Group, which purchased the Waldorf Hotel in New York for $1.95 billion. Wu Xiaohui, the company’s chairman was found guilty of fraud and received an eighteen-year jail sentence in May.
“The government isn’t happy about how they’ve been conducting their affairs, particularly if they’ve been using it to move their capital out of the country,” said Rafferty.
As for Ye, his whereabouts are still unknown. What charges he will face, and whether he will face them at all, are also unknown.