China and the World

In the thick of it

Trouble in New York over alleged bribery in the African oil sector


Diplomat in danger: Patrick Ho

Known as an action star, Sibelle Hu featured in Hong Kong’s kung fu movies of the 1980s. In 1997 she took on a more challenging role in a film about a CIA plot to assassinate Mao Zedong during his 1949 visit to Moscow (in The Rising Sun and the Sudden Clap of Thunder Chinese agents foil the attempt).

Casting a Taiwanese star in a film with such a politically sensitive script was a bold decision, although Hu boosted her guanxi with the Chinese government when she married Patrick Ho, an ophthalmologist who had performed surgery on senior Chinese politicians.

Ho would himself enter politics, becoming the home affairs secretary of the Hong Kong government in 2002.

More recently, he has been working on what he has termed “civil diplomacy” on behalf of Chinese energy firms. The role has seen the 69 year-old become an active figure in countries where China is building its energy ties.

That is until late last month when Ho was arrested in New York on allegations of violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and transgressing rules on money laundering.

The former Hong Kong minister was detained together with a top Senegalese diplomat. The duo have been charged with organising bribes for senior officials in Chad and Uganda to secure business interests for “a Chinese energy firm”.

According to a complaint filed at a federal court, Ho’s crimes include offering $500,000 in bribes to a Ugandan official to curry favour for the Chinese firm. The company was not identified but US media has reported that the details point to CEFC China Energy, a mysterious but fast-growing company we first profiled in January (see WiC350).

After Ho left the Hong Kong government in 2007, he joined the China Energy Fund Committee, a think tank supported by CEFC, before taking on his self-styled role as a “civil diplomat”.

In an interview with China News Services last year, Ho said his work in Africa and elsewhere around the world fitted seamlessly with the Belt and Road Initiative, the Chinese government’s policy commitment to investing in transport and trade infrastructure in more than 50 countries.

Beijing, however, seems to have adopted a measured stance to Ho’s current predicament. “We are aware of the reports,” a foreign ministry spokesman told reporters. “We do not understand the situation now. We always encourage Chinese companies to operate legally.”

CEFC and some of the African countries it has been dealing with have come forward to deny that any corruption was involved.

An official statement from CEFC said it was “highly concerned” about the arrest, but said it had no “commercial relations of authorisation” with the China Energy Fund Committee, the body for which Ho was the secretary general, and which CEFC funds.

The Chad government is also furious, saying that it “rebels against the attitude of the US government and certain agencies that would tarnish the image of Chad and its president”.

Hu’s wife has avoided direct comment on her husband’s situation.

Indeed, when challenged by Hong Kong reporters, the former actress stayed silent but then later sent members of the media mainland newspaper clippings implying that the accusations about her husband’s wrongdoing could be politically motivated.

One report by the Global Times, for example, quoted an unnamed CEFC executive, who suggested that Ho’s arrest was an American plot that was designed to damage “Sino-Russian strategic relations and energy cooperation”. (A reference to CEFC’s recent Rosneft investment.)

Other Chinese newspaper articles disputed the allegations too, sensing a ploy to disrupt China’s Belt and Road plans in Africa.

Ho is facing up to 20 years in prison if convicted on the charges.

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