[The following story initially ran in the April 06 edition of Investigate magazine, but is directly relevant to the purchase announced April 28, 2008 of Vector Energy’s Wellington grid by the same businessman]
The Hong Kong business conglomerate trying to purchase a stake in some of New Zealand’s biggest port companies [and now the purchaser of energy company Vector] has been named as a front for the People’s Liberation Army of China, and some of its associates have been caught shipping weapons and alleged WMD technology. IAN WISHART has more
His name is Li Ka-shing, and if his name sounds like a cash register there’s a very good reason: this 77 year old Chinese businessman has just been ranked by Forbes magazine as the tenth wealthiest person in the world, with a fortune estimated at nearly US$20 billion. His companies, including Hutchison Whampoa, account for 10% of the value of the Hong Kong stock exchange and have tentacles that reach across the globe – more than forty countries according to one estimate – and in industries as varied as mobile telephone networks, electricity grids, retailing, shipping and real estate.
Many New Zealanders may have become familiar with Li’s work in the sixties and seventies, when his main business was making plastic toys with the infamous “Made in Hong Kong” imprimatur.
But there are two sides to the Li Ka-shing story. One is the traditional fodder of business magazines, lauding the rags to riches story of a billionaire whose father died after the Japanese invasion of China before World War 2, leaving a 12 year old boy with the task of earning enough money to feed his mother and siblings. It’s a story of a man making wily business decisions, building an empire and showing aspiring MBA graduates how it’s done.
And here’s how one of those gushing business stories reads:
“The move by the richest man in Asia and one of the richest in the world to take a stake in the operation of the Port of Lyttelton is one that has potentially great benefits for Christchurch and Canterbury and ultimately the rest of the country,” said the Christchurch Press in an editorial mid February.
“There is no need to be starry-eyed about the proposed venture. Li Ka-shing has risen from complete destitution as a refugee who fled the raping and pillaging of China by the Japanese in the 1930s to become a multi-billionaire.
“He did it by being an astute and hard-nosed businessman. He also did it, according to one account in a business journal, by ‘remaining true to his internal moral compass’ and operating with integrity.”
Like we said, that’s one side of the Li Ka-shing story.
The other side of Li Ka-shing is much darker, and less likely to be taught in graduate classes. It’s the story of a man whose companies are regarded by Western intelligence agencies as nothing more than a money-making front for Chinese military intelligence as China prepares for what it sees as an “inevitable” conflict with the US.
As this 1996 diplomatic cable release by the US Government under a Freedom of Information request shows, Li Ka-shing’s businesses didn’t make money the hard way.
“”Embassy Panama has received information to the effect that HIT (Hutchison International Terminals) is controlled by mainland Chinese, perhaps through a Macao front which allegedly recently invested $400 million in HIT,” states the cable. “Such control would have security implications and might affect the Panamanian government’s views on awarding the port concessions.”
The “mainland Chinese” referred to in 1996 have turned out to be the Chinese Government itself, and more specifically its People’s Liberation Army – more of which in a moment, but first some background.
Intelligence agencies have used what they call “arms length” front companies – genuine commercial operations whose owners are sympathetic to a particular cause. Back in the 1970s and 80s, for example, America’s CIA set up a global freight airline, Air America, and a merchant banking operation, Nugan Hand Bank of Australia, to help launder money and assist with so-called “black operations” that the US government could not directly be involved in. Discretion, and plausible deniability, required “cut-outs” who could take the heat if discovered. One CIA front company, US accounting firm Bishop Baldwin Rewald Dillingham & Wong, even went so far as to open an office in Auckland in 1983.
But there’s one difference between CIA front companies and Chinese ones. Ultimately, the US government takes a major PR-hit when dirty covert operations are uncovered. The Chinese government suffers no embarrassment when caught spying, because of its tight control of Chinese citizens and the lack of democratic accountability.
Investigate enjoyed a world exclusive in March 2000 when it reported that Chinese businessman James Riady, wanted for spying and illegal payments to the US president, Bill Clinton, had been in New Zealand as a guest of the National Government and introduced to Clinton at APEC.
Ever since Clinton was elected to the Whitehouse in 1992, China has bought influence in American politics by using businessmen like Riady and Li to donate to Presidential campaign funds, or the election campaigns of key senators and congress representatives. As a result, when America’s lease fell due on the Panama canal in 1999, the Clinton administration let it slide, and Li Ka-shing’s Hutchison Whampoa picked up control of the crucial ports at either end of the Panama canal. According to US reports, Hutchison also paid substantial bribes to Panamanian officials to secure the deal.
Amazingly, the deal also allows Hutchison to transfer its control of the Panama facilities to any other organization or country of its choosing, meaning it could – in the lead up to a conflict – effectively place the canal directly and officially in the control of China, allowing Chinese military and naval forces to legally occupy and defend their beachhead in the Americas. Because of the immense strategic importance of the Panama canal, any military attack on it could cause damage making the canal impassable regardless of who controls it, thus limiting US options.
Newssite WorldNetDaily reported a 1995 diplomatic cable from the US Embassy in the Bahamas revealing Hutchison had just been given the go ahead to build a US$88 million container port there. The embassy copied its cable to the Drug Enforcement Agency and US Customs, noting the possibility of a major increase in smuggling through the Hutchison facility.
They were right to be concerned. There are growing reports of a strong Chinese organized crime presence in Panama.
Some analysts fear the US is becoming more vulnerable to “Trojan horses”, in the form of cargo or container ships that dock containing weapons of mass destruction and/or short to medium range ballistic missiles, leaving America vulnerable to a surprise attack with no possibility of missile intercept because of the short ranges involved. Indeed, this has been one of the security fears over the past month because of a bid by a Dubai-based company to take control of major US ports – the possibility that weapons of mass destruction could be smuggled in through civilian ports controlled by foreign interests.
Al Qa’ida has already been implicated in smuggling Islamic extremists into the US across the Mexican border, but China is equally active in shipping the ingredients of terror through commercial operators. Li Ka-shing, for example, sits on the board of CITIC, the China International Trust Investment Company, which has also been active in New Zealand business circles and still has a presence here. But US investigations have determined CITIC is also a People’s Liberation Army front company, and during the Operation Sidewinder investigations in Canada recently authorities discovered quantities of weapons had been supplied by a CITIC company and stored on Mohawk Indian reservations.
CITIC was also in the news at Christmas after signing a US$900 million contract to build an aluminium smelter in Iran. Aluminium tubing is used in the production of missile technology and nuclear weapons.
China’s state owned national shipping company COSCO, again a 50% joint venture partner in some of Li Ka-shing’s operations, has been implicated in the sort of activities that would make the CIA blush.
“Both U.S. Senate and Canadian intelligence sources have described COSCO as “the merchant marine for China’s military”,” reported Canada Free Press last year.
“According to U.S. intelligence reports, COSCO vessels do not just transport Oriental bric-a-brac. COSCO vessels have been caught carrying [two thousand AK-47] assault rifles into California and biological-chemical weapons components into North Korea, Pakistan, Iraq and Iran. Add to these disturbing events that Canadian law enforcement agencies have kicked in with hard-line information that Chinese Triad criminal elements are active in and around Canadian ports.”
But it isn’t just smuggling items in, there is also the question of Chinese spies operating through front companies to smuggle information and technology out of countries like Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand – all of which have been named internationally as prime targets for Chinese intelligence.
According to the Canada Free Press report:
“Conspiracy theories were tossed out the window when U.S. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher revealed that the U.S. Bureau of Export Affairs, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and the Rand Corporation had identified Li Ka-Shing and Hutchison Whampoa (Li’s primary business) as financing or serving as a conduit for Communist China’s military in order for them to acquire sensitive technologies and other equipment.”
But again, Chinese intelligence is one step ahead of the West. Just as Bill Clinton had been paid off in the US in order for China to gain access at the highest levels, so too was the-then Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien:
“Former Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s connections to the burgeoning CITIC conglomerate served as his entrée into the private sector,” says Canada Free Press. “While John Turner was leader of the federal Liberals, Chretien was working for Gordon Securities, one of the many Li-controlled companies on Canadian soil.”
According to Canada Free Press, Operation Sidewinder was “sideswiped” after political pressure from Chretien.
With the Chinese military currently embarking on the most rapid rearmament in world history, the involvement of Chinese commercial entities should come as no surprise.
An American Defense Council report published two years ago paints an extremely disturbing picture for the West.
“Li Ka-Shing, the leader of Hutchison Port Holdings (China’s primary shipping line), has close ties to the Chinese Communist Party and to the CITIC. The CITIC is believed to serve as a funding umbrella for the Chinese military, supporting the acquisition of military-related technologies. Hutchison Port Holdings manages, operates and is in possession of significant portions of three of the world’s top five ports as measured by both the number of containers shipped and total tonnage shipped.
“China’s other two huge shipping lines are directly controlled by the Communist Party. One, the China Ocean Shipping Co (COSCO) was described in the Cox Report issued by the US Congress as follows: ‘Although presented as a commercial entity, COSCO is actually an arm of the Chinese military establishment’.”
According to the Defense Council report, there are 10 strategic global shipping “choke points” that are crucial to US oil and trade lifelines.
“In the last decade, China has succeeded in building, managing or operating strategic ports adjacent to, or, as in the case of the Panama canal, at the entrance and exit of seven of these 10 global shipping choke points.”
What has not been widely reported is another paragraph in the Congressional investigation into Chinese spying:
“The Clinton administration has determined that additional information concerning COSCO that appears in the Select Committee’s classified final report cannot be made public,” concluded the watered down version released by the House Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare.
COSCO already has a strong presence in New Zealand, with offices in Auckland and Christchurch and a container line service that runs into Auckland, Tauranga, Napier, Wellington, Nelson, Lyttelton and Port Chalmers. Four of its vessels here, including the Aotea, are Panamanian registered.
While there is no doubt that COSCO routinely ships ordinary freight, every day, as any other commercial business does, there are also days when it ships the extraordinary, as this American news report notes.
“At least three arms shipments were traced from China to the Cuban port of Mariel during the past several months, according to an article Tuesday in the Washington Times. All the arms were aboard vessels belonging to the state-owned China Ocean Shipping Co., or Cosco, U.S. intelligence officials told the newspaper. The explosives were said to be “military-grade” material, the newspaper said.
“U.S. officials said Tuesday that the subject of arms trafficking between China and Cuba is a worrisome one, though they stopped short of confirming the Washington Times account. “We are very much concerned with this PLA [People’s Liberation Army] cooperation and movement of military equipment in Cuba,” said James Kelly, assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, when questioned during a hearing of the House International Relations subcommittee.”
Questioning of Li Ka-shing is something Canadian government security advisor Scott Newark would like to do. He told the respected online journal NewsMax.com that a request by Li’s Hutchison group to purchase ports in the US be given full congressional scrutiny.
“I’d like to suggest that the appropriate congressional committee hold hearings and that they call Li Ka-shing as the first witness. I volunteer to be second, but frankly there are people far more knowledgeable than me in this regard, including for example the International Association of Airport and Seaport Police, which just held their conference in NYC. As a speaker at that conference I urged ridding ports of such crime and rogue government-connected companies, not making them the local constabulary.”
According to NewsMax, Newark identified five critical port security issues: “preventing smuggling of drugs, guns and people; preventing export of stolen products; providing site security as a result of 9/11; preventing terrorism related smuggling; and preventing attacks on ships leaving ports.”
To that end, Newark sounds a warning that is relevant for New Zealand authorities as they consider whether to approve a buy-in by Hutchison into Lyttelton and possibly the Auckland or Tauranga ports.
“We need full scrutiny of the principals of Hutchison Whampoa and all of their business or government-related associations, and any history of any activity of them or their associates – including links to organized crime and terrorist groups, activities or states supporting the same – that would raise concerns to any of the above.
“We should give full scrutiny to any relationship of Hutchison Whampoa, its partners, directors or officers with any foreign government that would raise concerns to any or all of the above issues.”
If that isn’t ringing warning bells at the Christchurch City Council and in the Beehive, it should be, especially as the Li’s business partner – the Chinese military’s “merchant marine arm” COSCO – is already a big player in New Zealand ports.
Both COSCO and Hutchison have faced this negative publicity overseas. In COSCO’s case, it hired one of America’s leading public relations companies to spin the strong business and economic benefits of trade with China to the news media and key politicians, while playing down the “unfounded and negative” stories we’ve just highlighted. According to commentators the PR ploy has worked, with coverage of the company in the US largely restricted to positive business and trade stories in the media.
Nor is Li Ka-shing a stranger to New Zealand business. In Australia, he’s the majority owner of Hutchison 3G Mobile, but you might be surprised to learn Theresa Gattung’s Telecom New Zealand holds the remaining 19.9% in a joint venture.
Ironically, it was only a decision by US telecommunications regulators to threaten a veto that stopped Li Ka-shing’s Hutchison from buying the giant international phone network Global Crossing three years ago. The purchase would have given Hutchison the possible option of eavesdropping on phone and data calls being made on Global Crossing’s planet-wide network of undersea phone cables linking all the continents. Global was also bidding for US Defence contracts at the time.
Li’s business ventures with the Chinese military include the Guangzhou Aircraft Maintenance Engineering Company, a Chinese air force company 25% owned by Li; and a one-third stake in AsiaSat, also part owned by the People’s Liberation Army.
The move by Hutchison Port Holdings Ltd (HPHL) to purchase the Lyttelton Port Company in Christchurch raises some more questions for Helen Clark’s Labour Government to answer. HPHL is registered in the British Virgin Islands, the same Caribbean tax haven at the centre of our February story about the New Zealand Labour Party’s biggest campaign donor, Owen Glenn. Coincidentally, Glenn is also a shipping handler who’s managed to get a rare Class A business licence in China and is said to have influence in Beijing, but whose operations don’t appear to stack up based on what Investigate was able to discover. Glenn funneled $500,000 into Labour’s election coffers last year.
Is the New Zealand Labour Party receiving money from the Chinese Government through a complex web of shady business figures and front companies? At this point Investigate doesn’t have enough information to answer one way or the other, but the magazine’s investigations are continuing.
In the meantime, we have discovered Li Ka-shing has reserved the name Hutchison Ports New Zealand Ltd with the Companies Office. The deal relies at this stage on Christchurch City Holdings Ltd acquiring the 31% of Lyttelton port shares that it doesn’t already own, and that purchase offer closes on April 8. If CCHL gets the shares it needs, it plans to sell down 49.9% of the port to Hutchison. But Hutchison would get majority control of the company actually running the port on a daily basis, effectively putting the Chinese Government in command of imports and exports out of Christchurch.
The Christchurch Press reports the deal was driven initially by Lyttelton Port Company management, but picked up by Hutchison Port Holdings executive directors Mark Jack and Richard Pearson – both apparently ex-pat kiwis. A search of Companies Office records lists a Mark David Jack, resident in Hong Kong, as sole director of Ardmore Hangars Ltd – set up last year – and Ardmore Aviation Services Ltd, set up in 2003.
We have been unable to confirm any New Zealand directorships for Richard Pearson.
Christchurch mayor Gary Moore has dismissed reported links between Hutchison and the Chinese military as the work of “conspiracy theorists” who’d been listening to a sole US congressman, and Mark Jack has told critics to ignore the bad media and concentrate on the company’s economic performance – a carbon copy of the PR stance Hutchison has taken in the US.
But Gary Moore – as provincial local body mayors often are – suffers from not being privy to intelligence. If it was only “conspiracy theory”, why was Hutchison forced to back away from Global Crossing? And if Moore is correct about only one congressman raising concerns about Hutchison, why did the South China Morning Post report that Hutchison’s paid lobbyists in the US were targeting three, including the then Senate Majority leader Trent Lott and former US Defence Secretary Caspar Weinberger who testified Hutchison’s takeover of the Panama canal would pose a security threat to the US?
And if Gary Moore is correct, how does he explain the now-released 1999 intelligence briefing from the US military Southern Command which states: “”Hutchison’s containerized shipping facilities in the Panama Canal, as well as the Bahamas, could provide a conduit for illegal shipments of technology or prohibited items from the west to the PRC, or facilitate the movement of arms and other prohibited items into the Americas.”?
We put similar questions to a spokesman for Christchurch City Holdings Ltd, the current majority owner of Lyttelton Port Company, and ended up in a slanging match where the response to the allegations was “so what if he is?”. The spokesman pointed out that national security issues were something for the Prime Minister to sort out, and Christchurch was only interested in the commercial deal.
The spokesman referred to a statement by a US Clinton administration official in 1999 to the senate hearing that Hutchison Whampoa’s operation of the Panama ports would have no impact on shipping movements, and that the company had no known ties to the Chinese government.
However, those claims have already been tackled by the Washington Times’ Insight magazine:
“Western policymakers and business leaders have little or no idea of China’s grand strategy and how Beijing’s leaders want to situate their country for the next century. When, in 1999, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) sent Insight’s report, “China’s Beachhead at Panama Canal,” to then defense secretary William Cohen, he called for a full national-security appraisal of the problem. Lott told Cohen, “U.S. naval ships will be at the mercy of Chinese-controlled pilots and could even be denied passage. It appears we have given away the farm.”
“At Lott’s request, the Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing in which four Clinton-administration witnesses testified that Hutchison Whampoa posed no security challenges to the United States [see “PC Answers on Panama Canal,” Nov. 22, 1999]. But not one of the witnesses could answer the fundamental question, posed by Sen. Robert Smith (R-N.H.): “Do you believe the People’s Republic of China uses commercial enterprises to advance their military interests?”
“Bill Clinton’s assistant secretary of defense, Brian E. Sheridan, who had issued a defense of Hutchison Whampoa, confessed, “I don’t know.” Alberto Aleman Zubieta, whom Clinton had appointed to run the Panama Canal until 2005, didn’t answer either. Neither did Joseph W. Cornelison, the deputy administrator of the Panama Canal Commission, nor Lino Gutierrez [the official referred to by Christchurch City Holdings Ltd’s PR man], then principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs. All had contradicted their testimony. Only Marine Gen. Charles E. Wilhelm, then chief of the U.S. Southern Command, answered affirmatively to whether Beijing uses commercial enterprises to advance its military interests, saying only: “I think so.”
“That was it. And apparently the government has learned little since. “Many of those who are engaged in China policy or who invest there remain blithely ignorant of Chinese goals to replace the United States as the reigning world power,” says Thomas Woodrow, a former senior China analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency.”
Lino Gutierrez is the Clinton official whose testimony was used to rubbish suggestions of Chinese government investment. He told the senate hearing:
“Through publicly available information, we have been able to ascertain that neither
Hutchison-Whampoa, nor its subsidiaries Hutchison Port Holdings (HPH) and the Panama Ports Company (PPC), have any significant investment from mainland China.”
What isn’t clear is how Gutierrez determined that, when many key companies in the group including Hutchison Port Holdings are registered in tax havens so their true ownership cannot be searched.
Investigate did finally get to put a series of questions to CCHL Chief Executive Bob Lineham. The questions, and his answers, are as follows:
- How is CCHL satisfied that, even if Hutchison is a front company for the People’s Liberation Army of China, that its majority stake in the operating company for the Port of Lyttelton remains a good idea?
Answer from Bob Lineham:
“In the event that Christchurch City Holdings Limited’s (CCHL) Takeover Offer for Lyttelton Port Company Ltd (LPC) succeeded, and Hutchison Port Holdings Ltd was introduced into the Port of Lyttelton, the Christchurch City Council would retain control of the Lyttelton Port Company with a 50.1% voting majority (through CCHL) of the shares in LPC.
“The purpose of the new port operating company in which HPH would have a 50.1% share is to operate the Port of Lyttelton. It does not and cannot control the Lyttelton Port Company. With HPH as a port partner, the Port of Lyttelton would be controlled, as it is today, by the people of Christchurch through CCHL and the Christchurch City Council.
- How is CCHL satisfied that Li Ka-shing is a legitimate businessman, in the face not only of his vast personal fortune in a socialist country, but also his well-documented ties to communist China and its ruling politburo long before the 1997 handover of Hong Kong? No answer received.
- Why is it not strange that a communist state can be home to the world’s tenth richest man, without corruption being a factor? No answer received.
- In what way has CCHL consulted with the New Zealand government or its officials over the proposed buy in?
Answer from Bob Lineham:
“The introduction of Hutchison Port Holdings to the Port of Lyttelton would be subject to the usual regulatory consents that are required when an overseas company is involved.”
- Li Ka Shing or companies and individuals associated with him have been implicated in smuggling 2,000 AK 47 fully automatic military rifles into California, and shipping componentry for nuclear weapons to Iran. CITIC, a Chinese Government company that Li helped found and sits on the board of directors of, is building an aluminium smelter in Iran the product of which can be used in missile technology and the production of nuclear weapons. Why are the reputational issues surrounding Li Ka Shing not a concern to CCHL? No answer received.
- Why is CCHL not concerned about the fact that Hutchison was prevented from purchasing telecommunications provider Global Crossing in 2003 because of concerns that he was a security threat to the US? No answer received.
And if the Christchurch port administrators are relying on assurances by Clinton administration officials that Li Ka-shing is not a security threat, they could be backing the wrong horse. Sadly, Investigate has reported before on how badly briefed New Zealand officials are on international intrigue. Former National Government Prime Minister Jenny Shipley was given a briefing by Foreign Affairs and Trade on visiting businessman James Riady in 1999 that read like this:
“The Lippo Group is one of Indonesia’s largest conglomerates in terms of market capitalisation with estimates of value putting it at having US$11 billion in assets.
“The vision of its founder Mochtar Riady is to transcend the institutional limitations placed upon organisations run in the traditional overseas Chinese pattern and adopt a modern publicly owned and professionally managed pattern of business.
“Mochtar has formed alliances and joint venture partnerships with world class multinational corporations and has high calibre professional management staff working for him.
“The Lippo empire rose out of the success of the Lippo Bank. Unlike just about all other banks in Indonesia its founder Mochtar Riady tended to shun the Suharto connections that for other conglomerates in Indonesia were the keys to success.
“He avoided lending to politically connected groups or to state enterprises and instead built his business on legitimate retail and trade finance.”
Yes, well. That’s the New Zealand intelligence briefing, but while our diplomats were talking about how politically-neutral and non-crony like the Riadys were, the businessmen themselves were on the run from US justice for illegally laundering $4 million of illegal Chinese government donations to President Clinton’s re-election fund.
The saddest part of that story was the information about the Riadys was in the public domain, just as the information on Li Ka-shing is, but New Zealand trade officials chose to ignore it or write it off as “conspiracy theory”.
Interestingly, one report from a US Congressional team that visited Panama says “Li Ka-Shing is an investor in the Riady family’s Hong Kong China Bank.” It is this international game of join the dots that seems too hard for New Zealand officials to understand.
The Riadys were heavily involved with a company called China Resources Ltd, which is also a joint venture partner with Hutchison in the Panama canal. China Resources has long been known as a front for Chinese intelligence, but this too was completely missing from the intelligence briefing given to Shipley. Indeed, judging from their innocuous contents one would have to suspect the briefing was in fact prepared by Chinese intelligence!
“The Lippo Group has a strategic position in China and Hong Kong with substantial investments and relationships with powerful business and government people and organisations.
“It owns 49% of the Hong Kong Chinese Bank with the remaining 51% held by China Resources (Holdings) which is a wholly-owned enterprise of China’s Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation.”
So despite Christchurch’s insistence that New Zealand authorities have it all in hand and that citizens can rest easy in their beds, Investigate is reminded of this news release about the previous Asian-investor golden boy James Riady, issued by the US Department of Justice in 2001:
WASHINGTON, D.C. – James Tjahaja Riady will pay a record $8.6 million in criminal fines and plead guilty to a felony charge of conspiring to defraud the United States by unlawfully reimbursing campaign donors with foreign corporate funds in violation of federal election law, the Justice Department’s Campaign Financing Task Force and the United States Attorney in Los Angeles announced today.
In addition, LippoBank California, a California state-chartered bank affiliated with Lippo Group, will plead guilty to 86 misdemeanor counts charging its agents, Riady and John Huang, with making illegal foreign campaign contributions from 1988 through 1994.
As the world’s largest port operator, there are sound economic reasons for Hutchison to operate New Zealand ports. But there appear to be equally sound political and strategic reasons as to why they should not. If the deals proceed, it could turn into yet another political bombshell for the Labour Government to work through, a government that is, itself, close to China.