The New York Times on Wednesday chronicled the meteoric rise and equally precipitous downfall of Chinese oil tycoon Ye Jianming. The “People’s Liberation Army princeling” rolled into Washington as a shining example of a booming economy but now sits in an unknown Chinese prison cell while his empire collapses and his underlings face charges in U.S. federal court.
The Times was particularly interested in Ye’s courtship of former Vice President Joe Biden and his family. Biden’s Chinese relationships were first discussed in Breitbart News Senior Editor-at-Large Peter Schweizer’s bestselling book Secret Empires: How the American Political Class Hides Corruption and Enriches Family and Friends. The Ye saga could prove troubling to Biden if he makes a run at the White House in 2020 and will likely play a role in the endgame of current President Donald Trump’s trade war with China.
As the New York Times described at length, Ye was a high-flying oilman who “ventured to places only the most politically connected Chinese companies dared to go,” meaning hotspots like North Korea and African conflict zones. He assiduously cultivated American political influence during the Obama administration, having launched his CEFC China Energy conglomerate in 2006.
Ye had the good fortune to hail from Fujian province, which also happens to be the home turf of Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping and a famed “clique” of politically connected businessmen. The Chinese government extended him a gigantic line of credit. He spent a few years working for a People’s Liberation Army front, forging ties with the Chinese intelligence community and recruiting man former military officers to his CEFC endeavor.
He used these connections, and his willingness to fish for business beneath the thinnest of geopolitical ice, to become extremely rich and internationally popular:
By last year, when he turned 40, Mr. Ye had joined the ranks of China’s superrich. He owned a four-bedroom villa in Hong Kong, a $35 million Gulfstream G550 corporate jet and luxury apartments in Manhattan. From 2009 to 2017, CEFC’s revenue jumped from $48 million to $37 billion.
Abroad, Mr. Ye’s public profile exploded. He bought a $9 billion stake in Rosneft, Russia’s state oil giant, putting his company at the center of the complicated relationship between Beijing and Moscow. He struck deals in Eastern Europe and Africa, places where China hoped to increase its influence. He met with world leaders like President Milos Zeman of the Czech Republic and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. In Israel, the former defense minister Avigdor Lieberman presented him with the Yakir — meaning “beloved” — of the Jewish People Award.
Ye began cultivated U.S. political ties by approaching corporations with a heavy presence in Washington and former U.S. government officials on their payrolls. Many of Ye’s meetings were sensibly tied to the oil industry, where his company was becoming an increasingly big player, but he also knocked on doors in the American tech industry. One of his contacts, former software tycoon Edward W. Scott Jr., told the Times he found Ye’s agenda to be “very murky” and said his ultimate objective “wasn’t very clear.”
Ye threw a lot of money around in Washington, including “donating as much as $100,000 to the Clinton Foundation,” the storied charitable organization that donated only a tiny fraction of its vast income to charity and mysteriously shriveled into nothing when there was no further chance of Hillary Clinton occupying the White House.
Ye’s company cultivated ties with Republicans as well, especially once the roller coaster of the 2016 presidential election began climbing the tracks, but the Times noted Ye’s prize quarry was the family of then-Vice President Joe Biden:
An aide to Mr. Ye met the vice president’s second son, Hunter Biden, in Washington. Mr. Ye then met privately with Hunter Biden at a hotel in Miami in May 2017, according to people with direct knowledge of the meetings who were not authorized to speak publicly because the meetings were private. Mr. Ye proposed a partnership to invest in American infrastructure and energy deals, the people said.
During this period, the vice president’s son was managing Rosemont Seneca Partners, an investment firm he formed with Chris Heinz, the stepson of John Kerry, the former secretary of state. Mr. Heinz said he has no knowledge of CEFC and ended his relationship with Rosemont Seneca in 2015.
It is unclear whether Hunter Biden struck any business deals with CEFC or Mr. Ye. Through his attorney, Hunter Biden declined to comment.
The most dramatic chapter in the Ye-Biden story came in November 2017, when Ye’s lieutenant Patrick Ho called Joe Biden’s financier brother James looking for help with U.S. federal allegations about bribery in Chad and Uganda, plus an apparent CEFC attempt to help Iran evade oil sanctions. James Biden later said he thought Ho called him by mistake and was actually looking for his nephew Hunter, with whom Ye had those nebulous dealings six months earlier in Miami.
CNN, which became equally fascinated by Ye this week but did not delve into the Biden connection, notes Ho has been charged in the United States with money laundering and violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. He was arrested in November 2017 after American law enforcement found him using New York banks to make suspicious wire transfers, and was convicted on seven bribery counts last week.
Many observers see the Ho case as the U.S. government’s opportunity to explore the way China’s government uses ostensibly private corporations to implement its policy agenda. CNN described Ye Jianming as a “Belt and Road billionaire,” referring to Beijing’s trillion-dollar plan to build infrastructure and political connections across the Third World, and noted that Ye’s CEFC China Energy company is aligned so closely with the Chinese government that it can be hard to tell where one begins and the other ends. Beijing likes to leave the riskiest financial adventures to “private businessmen” who can be disavowed and disappeared if things do not work out.
As for Ye, the fall of Patrick Ho appears to have kicked over some dominoes that swiftly crushed him. Ye flew a private jet to the Chinese city of Hangzhou in February and disappeared off the face of the earth. Chinese media has lately been buzzing with allegations that Ye bribed Chinese officials, the kind of stories that can reliably be taken as a metaphorical and sometimes literal epitaph in Communist China. Chinese officials are suddenly having a hard time remembering exactly who Ye Jianming was and none of them know where he is.
What the New York Times found most astonishing is that no one in the American political or politically-connected business scenes appeared interested in performing due diligence on Ye and spotting the rather obvious clues he was connected to the Communist Party and People’s Liberation Army. His vast wealth also appears to have been somewhat illusory, as his empire swiftly collapsed into a cloud of debt after Ye stepped off that plane in Hangzhou and entered oblivion. He also had a habit of telling heroic tales about his youth and family history that did not hold up under scrutiny.
“It’s been clear for some time that this is not just a Chinese commercial company, that they had some intelligence ties. People from the U.S. intelligence agencies should have known something was going on,” Prague-based academic Martin Hala remarked to the New York Times after completing his own investigation of CEFC’s network-building exercises in the Czech Republic.
“The fall of Ye Jianming shows that China’s lack of openness can make it difficult to know who, exactly, is sitting on the Chinese side of the table. On the American side, some don’t ask enough questions — or never asked any at all,” the Times concluded.
Secret Empires author Peter Schweizer, who has extensively researched Chinese business dealings with the Biden family and other American political powerhouses, said in a March appearance on Sirius XM’s Breitbart News Tonight that China is effectively exporting its own model of cultivating influence with government figures by striking big-money business deals with their families, especially the children derisively referred to as “princelings.”
“The Chinese government has figured out that the way to get favorable treatment from policymakers in Washington, DC, is by, basically, signing sweetheart deals with the children of politicians because they think by doing so, they’ll get better policy positions from our government, and the history indicates in the Obama administration that that’s exactly what happens,” said Schweizer, pointing to Joe Biden’s son Hunter as an example of an American princeling.
CNN noted that Ye himself has been described as a “People’s Liberation Army princeling” whose grandfather appears to have been a high-ranking Communist Party official, a family history Ye occasionally denied but which his business associates were happy to milk for influence in China.
The Ye name means considerably less these days. When CNN tried to visit the Shanghai subsidiaries of CEFC China Energy, they found its business addresses led to two empty office buildings, one bank owned by the Chinese government, and a nearly empty structure boasting a sign with a quote from Xi: “China’s door to the world will never close, but only open wider.”