Regina Ip, a Hong Kong politician known locally as the “Iron Lady”, is campaigning to become the territory’s top official in March. But what does she have in common with Czech President Milos Zeman?
Well, both have appointed Ye Jiangming, CEFC China Energy’s founder, as a special advisor.
For much of his career Ye has stayed low-profile (none of our Chinese photo agencies has his photo). But that changed last March when Xi Jinping visited the Czech Republic. Ye, it turned out, was the only foreign advisor to the Czech president and the media also realised that the 39 year-old was the largest Chinese investor in the central European state. He then made it onto the cover of Fortune’s Chinese-language edition, while Securities Daily described him as “a private sector oil baron on the rise”. In turn Economic Daily News paid tribute to “China’s most mysterious tycoon”.
Press interest further grew as CEFC signed oil production deals in Kazakhstan and Romania, adding to its oil rights agreements in Russia, Chad and Angola. Reuters also reported in December that Ye’s firm was in talks to secure a 10% stake in oilfields in the United Arab Emirates for about $2.2 billion.
CEFC says on its website that it is a “private collective enterprise” with energy and financial services as its core businesses. It employs 30,000 staff and its revenues in 2015 exceeded Rmb263 billion, putting it at the 229th spot on the Fortune Global 500 (a ranking that gets rapt attention from Chinese business executives).
After sending reporters to interview Ye’s relatives in Fujian, his home province, Beijing News revealed that he was born in 1977 and served in the People’s Liberation Army before starting his own businesses.
Speculation about Ye’s current links with the military persist and he is closely involved with a number of well-connected think tanks that promote Chinese interests.
His initial entrepreneurial successes in Fujian came at a time when Xi Jinping was serving as a senior official in the southern coastal province. Of that period: after brief stints in companies that traded firefighting equipment and sold real estate, he took over a state-owned piston factory.
According to the Hong Kong media outlet HK01, Ye also holds a identity card in the territory, where he was formerly known as “Ye Jianming”. His big break came in 2006 when he won an auction for a crude oil trading firm previously owned by Lai Changxing (China’s most wanted fugitive for many years – he fled to Vancouver in 1999 when his infamous smuggling ring was busted; see WiC117). That gave CEFC a much-prized chance to try its luck in an industry dominated by state giants such as CNPC and Sinopec.
Competition for oil deals is tough, and smaller firms like CEFC have tried to work the policy angles by picking up on Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road strategy (see our Focus Issue on this theme, downloadable form our website) in their push into overseas markets. “We closely follow the national strategies. So we‘ll map out our corporate strategy according to the national ones,” Ye told Fortune magazine last year. Of course, it also helps politically if some of the acquirers of these overseas assets aren’t seen as state-owned enterprises.
In particular CEFC seems to have set its sights on the Czech Republic, investing more than Rmb10 billion there. The trophy buys include top soccer club Slavia Prague, a publishing house, landmark buildings and a brewery, plus a controlling interest in Prague’s J&T, a bank.
Ye , of course, also serves as political advisor to Regina Ip, Hong Kong’s former security chief and would be leader. She tells HK01 that she was introduced to him via “friends”, although she claims not to know much about his businesses. “He is familiar with the politics in mainland China, as well as central Europe. He can also advise on the development of the One Belt, One Road plan,” Ip says.
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