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Billions in Hidden Riches for Family of Chinese Leader

Posted by Ram Kumar Shrestha on October 26, 2012


By 

BEIJING — The mother of China’s prime minister was a schoolteacher in northern China. His father was ordered to tend pigs in one of Mao’s political campaigns. And during childhood, “my family was extremely poor,” the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, said in a speech last year.

But now 90, the prime minister’s mother, Yang Zhiyun, not only left poverty behind — she became outright rich, at least on paper, according to corporate and regulatory records. Just one investment in her name, in a large Chinese financial services company, had a value of $120 million five years ago, the records show.

The details of how Ms. Yang, a widow, accumulated such wealth are not known, or even if she was aware of the holdings in her name. But it happened after her son was elevated to China’s ruling elite, first in 1998 as vice prime minister and then five years later as prime minister.

Many relatives of Wen Jiabao, including his son, daughter, younger brother and brother-in-law, have become extraordinarily wealthy during his leadership, an investigation by The New York Times shows. A review of corporate and regulatory records indicates that the prime minister’s relatives, some of whom have a knack for aggressive deal-making, including his wife, have controlled assets worth at least $2.7 billion.

In many cases, the names of the relatives have been hidden behind layers of partnerships and investment vehicles involving friends, work colleagues and business partners. Untangling their financial holdings provides an unusually detailed look at how politically connected people have profited from being at the intersection of government and business as state influence and private wealth converge in China’s fast-growing economy.

Unlike most new businesses in China, the family’s ventures sometimes received financial backing from state-owned companies, including China Mobile, one of the country’s biggest phone operators, the documents show. At other times, the ventures won support from some of Asia’s richest tycoons. The Times found that Mr. Wen’s relatives accumulated shares in banks, jewelers, tourist resorts, telecommunications companies and infrastructure projects, sometimes by using offshore entities.

The holdings include a villa development project in Beijing; a tire factory in northern China; a company that helped build some of Beijing’s Olympic stadiums, including the well-known “Bird’s Nest”; and Ping An Insurance, one of the world’s biggest financial services companies.

As prime minister in an economy that remains heavily state-driven, Mr. Wen, who is best known for his simple ways and common touch, more importantly has broad authority over the major industries where his relatives have made their fortunes. Chinese companies cannot list their shares on a stock exchange without approval from agencies overseen by Mr. Wen, for example. He also has the power to influence investments in strategic sectors like energy and telecommunications.

Because the Chinese government rarely makes its deliberations public, it is not known what role — if any — Mr. Wen, who is 70, has played in most policy or regulatory decisions. But in some cases, his relatives have sought to profit from opportunities made possible by those decisions.

The prime minister’s younger brother, for example, has a company that was awarded more than $30 million in government contracts and subsidies to handle wastewater treatment and medical waste disposal for some of China’s biggest cities, according to estimates based on government records. The contracts were announced after Mr. Wen ordered tougher regulations on medical waste disposal in 2003 after the SARS outbreak.

In 2004, after the State Council, a government body Mr. Wen presides over, exempted Ping An Insurance and other companies from rules that limited their scope, Ping An went on to raise $1.8 billion in an initial public offering of stock. Partnerships controlled by Mr. Wen’s relatives — along with their friends and colleagues — made a fortune by investing in the company before the public offering.

In 2007, the last year the stock holdings were disclosed in public documents, those partnerships held as much as $2.2 billion worth of Ping An stock, according to an accounting of the investments by The Times that was verified by outside auditors. Ping An’s overall market value is now nearly $60 billion.

Ping An said in a statement that the company did “not know the background of the entities behind our shareholders.” The statement said, “Ping An has no means to know the intentions behind shareholders when they buy and sell our shares.”

While Communist Party regulations call for top officials to disclose their wealth and that of their immediate family members, no law or regulation prohibits relatives of even the most senior officials from becoming deal-makers or major investors — a loophole that effectively allows them to trade on their family name. Some Chinese argue that permitting the families of Communist Party leaders to profit from the country’s long economic boom has been important to ensuring elite support for market-oriented reforms.

Even so, the business dealings of Mr. Wen’s relatives have sometimes been hidden in ways that suggest the relatives are eager to avoid public scrutiny, the records filed with Chinese regulatory authorities show. Their ownership stakes are often veiled by an intricate web of holdings as many as five steps removed from the operating companies, according to the review.

In the case of Mr. Wen’s mother, The Times calculated her stake in Ping An — valued at $120 million in 2007 — by examining public records and government-issued identity cards, and by following the ownership trail to three Chinese investment entities. The name recorded on his mother’s shares was Taihong, a holding company registered in Tianjin, the prime minister’s hometown.

The apparent efforts to conceal the wealth reflect the highly charged politics surrounding the country’s ruling elite, many of whom are also enormously wealthy but reluctant to draw attention to their riches. When Bloomberg News reported in June that the extended family of Vice President Xi Jinping, set to become China’s next president, had amassed hundreds of millions of dollars in assets, the Chinese government blocked access inside the country to the Bloomberg Web site.

“In the senior leadership, there’s no family that doesn’t have these problems,” said a former government colleague of Wen Jiabao who has known him for more than 20 years and who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “His enemies are intentionally trying to smear him by letting this leak out.”

The Times presented its findings to the Chinese government for comment. The Foreign Ministry declined to respond to questions about the investments, the prime minister or his relatives. Members of Mr. Wen’s family also declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment.

Duan Weihong, a wealthy businesswoman whose company, Taihong, was the investment vehicle for the Ping An shares held by the prime minister’s mother and other relatives, said the investments were actually her own. Ms. Duan, who comes from the prime minister’s hometown and is a close friend of his wife, said ownership of the shares was listed in the names of Mr. Wen’s relatives in an effort to conceal the size of Ms. Duan’s own holdings.

“When I invested in Ping An I didn’t want to be written about,” Ms. Duan said, “so I had my relatives find some other people to hold these shares for me.”

But it was an “accident,” she said, that her company chose the relatives of the prime minister as the listed shareholders — a process that required registering their official ID numbers and obtaining their signatures. Until presented with the names of the investors by The Times, she said, she had no idea that they had selected the relatives of Wen Jiabao.

The review of the corporate and regulatory records, which covers 1992 to 2012, found no holdings in Mr. Wen’s name. And it was not possible to determine from the documents whether he recused himself from any decisions that might have affected his relatives’ holdings, or whether they received preferential treatment on investments.

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@NYTIMES

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