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French police seize 10 Chinese-owned vineyards in fraud inquiry

Haichang Group, based in the northeastern Chinese port city of Dalian, is the biggest of numerous Chinese investors which have bought into one of France's most famous wine-growing regions in recent years
AFP

Bordeaux (AFP) – French financial police have seized 10 wineries in the Bordeaux area which are owned by Chinese conglomerate Haichang over suspicions of tax fraud, a police source told AFP on Friday. 

Haichang Group, based in the northeastern Chinese port city of Dalian, is the biggest of numerous Chinese investors which have bought into one of France’s most famous wine-growing regions in recent years.

It spent an estimated 55 million euros ($64 million) to acquire 24 estates producing an array of brand-name wines.

But the group’s purchases have been under investigation by financial prosecutors for several years.

“For 10 chateaux, we discovered a certain number of tax crimes: laundering of the proceeds of tax fraud, forgery, use of forgery, etc,” a police source told AFP, confirming a report by France 2 television. 

“In the second quarter of the year, we seized those that were acquired fraudulently,” the source said.

Investigators found evidence of transactions between French and offshore companies with no business links, and a 30-million-euro loan by the Chinese bank ICBC in Paris based on falsified notary statements.

“We have filed an appeal against the seizure order, which only aims to prevent any sale and does not imply any guilt,” a lawyer for Haichang in Paris, Maxime Delhomme, told AFP.

– ‘Increased vigilance’ –

Chinese buyers have purchased about 160 estates in the greater Bordeaux area in the past several years, accounting for some three percent of the region’s vineyard acreage.

Most of them, including the 10 seized from Haichang, are not among the region’s most prestigious brands, but that hasn’t dented the enthusiasm of the new owners.

In 2016, Jack Ma, the billionaire founder of the e-commerce giant Alibaba, bought the Chateau de Sours, a little-known estate that nonetheless boasts an 18th-century castle and produces 500,000 bottles a year.

The investments reflect a surge in demand from China’s emerging middle class which has been a boon for French vineyards.

But already in 2013 Paris’s anti-money laundering agency Tracfin had raised the alarm about Chinese investments in the French wine industry, calling for “increased vigilance.” 

Investigators began looking into Haichang after reports in the French press that the group had been named in a report by a Chinese state auditor in 2014.

China’s National Audit Office (NAO) said in its annual report that Haichang had been granted public money by state authorities to buy foreign technology, but had instead purchased vineyards in France.

Controlled by 56-year-old businessman Naijie Qu, Haichang is a trading and shipping company which also has interests in property, tourism and agriculture. 

In 2012 he organised a wine fair in Dalian in partnership with the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce.

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