Secret deal brokered by daughter of ‘Butcher of Tiananmen Square’ for insurance giant Zurich Insurance to break into the Chinese market could come under investigation

Daughter of ‘Butcher of Tiananmen Square’ brokered secret deal for insurance giant

EXCLUSIVE: A secret deal that helped Zurich Insurance break into the Chinese market could come under investigation

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Li Xiaolin, who brokered the multi-million pound deal Photo: GETTY IMAGES

By Malcolm Moore, in Beijing and Raf Sanchez in Fairfax County, Virginia

7:05PM BST 10 Oct 2013

A secret multi-million pound deal to carve up China’s insurance market, brokered by the daughter of the country’s former prime minister, has been sent to anti-corruption investigators. The deal guaranteed Zurich Insurance, one of the world’s largest financial institutions, a hugely lucrative stake in a major Chinese insurance company at a time when foreign firms were barred from investing in the sector. The deal, which came to light during a court case in the United States, was cut at the very highest level of the Communist party, by the daughter of the prime minister at the time, Li Peng.The documents and transcripts from the court, obtained by the Telegraph, give a fresh insight into the relationship between money and power in China, and the “hurdles” western businesses have had to leap to establish themselves in the world’s second-largest economy.

The revelations also come in the midst not only of one of the fiercest anti-corruption campaigns in years, but also at a time when foreign firms are under particular scrutiny, with Chinese investigators already lookinginto alleged malpractice at GlaxoSmithKline, the pharmaceutical giant, and Danone, the French food group.

In 1995, Li Xiaolin, now one of China’s most powerful women in her own right, introduced executives from Zurich to three Chinese businessmen who held a majority stake in New China Life, the country’s largest private insurance company.

In return for a $16.9 million (£10.4 million) payment into an offshore Credit Suisse account in the Bahamas, they agreed to sell Zurich almost a quarter of the company, four years before it was legal for foreign firms to make such investments.

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Court documents and transcripts obtained by the Telegraph show how the money from Zurich was then used to bribe several high-ranking Communist party officials, who allegedly received thousands of dollars of “pocket money” when they visited the United States.

There is no suggestion that Zurich was aware of how the money was subsequently spent.

A spokesman for the company said its shareholding in New China Life “is in compliance with the relevant laws in China and China Insurance Regulatory Commission regulations”. He added: “Beyond this, we do not have any further comments.”

Many of the officials who received payments were directly responsible for deciding whether to allow foreign companies to enter China’s financial sector.

In one case, a $600,000 house was bought for the use of the daughter of China’s then Finance minister while she was studying in the US.

Zurich has reaped enormous profits from its stake in New China Life. After its initial payment to the Bahamas, it paid a further 51 million yuan in 2000, the equivalent at the time of just £6.7 million, for a 10 per cent stake in the company.

According to reports in the Chinese media, it spent a further 437.6 million yuan in 2004 (£29 million) to build that stake to 20 per cent.

As the value of the company soared, Zurich amassed £485 million from share sales. Its remaining 9.4 per cent of the company is worth roughly £600 million.

The deal was revealed in a legal battle between two of the businessmen that Zurich dealt with: 59-year-old Zhang Hongwei, now one of China’s richest men, and his former employee, Bill Zhao.

In 2010, Mr Zhang accused Mr Zhao, a former Chinese government official who went on to work at the World Bank, of misappropriating some of the money that Zurich paid.

In the subsequent court battle, details of the fee and how it was spent, were aired in court.

Separately, another of Mr Zhang’s former associates has reported the deal to the Communist party’s anti-graft unit, the Commission for Discipline Inspection, as part of a raft of allegations against him.

In court, Bill Zhao explained how the deal with Zurich had first been raised at a state banquet for the Swiss president in October 1995.

Li Xiaolin had come to him, a former school friend, after the dinner and told him the chairman of Zurich was interested in breaking into the Chinese market.

“And she said, you know what, I think this could be a good opportunity for you guys trying to set up organising New China Life. And I said, it sounds pretty good. Let’s do something,” he said.

Mr Zhao put the idea to his boss, Zhang Hongwei, who ran a conglomerate called China Orient Group. After discussions in Beijing and Zurich, a contract was drawn up the following year.

“We did tell them that our role would be to assist Zurich to enter the Chinese market by helping them receive governmental approval,” said Mr Zhang in court. He described the payment from Zurich as a “good faith fee” to demonstrate its commitment.

A legal opinion from Beijing’s Tianyin law firm, submitted to the US court, said the deal was in breach of the law: “It was in violation of the relevant regulations whereby the transaction was not enforceable and the seller’s receipt of the payment for the stock purchase by the buyer was not legal”.

The law firm added that, by keeping the money from Zurich offshore and not sending it back to the mainland, China Orient Group had also broken China’s foreign exchange rules.

“This is an under-the-table deal. You can call it bribery,” said Hugh Mo, a lawyer for Mr Zhao, in his closing arguments, referring to the USD16.9 million payment.

“You can call it, you know, illicit funds. You can call it, let’s say, you know, to grease the wheel. You can even say that it’s to lobby or to facilitate the Zurich Insurance Company to enter China’s insurance market.”

In court, Mr Zhang’s lawyer said there had not been “any evidence to show that the transaction was illegal” but did not dispute that the money had been paid by Zurich.

The documents also reveal how the families of the leaders most closely associated with the Tiananmen Square massacre have gone on to reap enormous rewards for keeping the Communist party in power.

Li Xiaolin’s father, Li Peng, became known as the “Butcher of Tiananmen”.

He ordered the tanks to move in, albeit at the behest of the paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.

Li Xiaolin and her brother, Li Xiaopeng, came to control the power industry. Last year, the New York Times revealed that the family of Wen Jiabao, the former prime minister who was also closely involved in handling the student protests, had a fortune of $2.7 billion, also mainly from the insurance industry.

The US court heard that some of the money from Zurich was transferred to the United States where it was used to buy an apartment block, to fund the education and visas for Mr Zhang’s three children, and to “ingratiate, lobby and influence high-level Chinese officials”.

Cheques were produced in court to show payments to Chinese officials, including the purchase of a house for the use of the daughter of the then Finance minister, Xiang Huaicheng, while she studied at an American university.

Tian Fengshan, the former Land and Resources minister who was given a life sentence for corruption in 2005, was given $10,000 of “pocket money” when he visited the US in 1998.

Another payment allegedly went to Ma Mingjia, who ran the insurance department of the People’s Bank of China and another to Huang Mengfu, the vice chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee (CPPCC), a political advisory group which Mr Zhang sits on.

Mr Zhang denied that he had authorised any of the payments, but admitted that his company had a policy of entertaining senior officials. In his deposition, Mr Zhang said that he might have asked for some money to be given to Mr Huang. “Possible, but how much, I don’t remember,” he said.

A spokesman for Mr Zhang said: “China Orient Group did not sell any shares of New China Life to Zurich Insurance.”

The dispute between Mr Zhang and Mr Zhao is currently at an appeal stage at the Supreme Court in Virgina. Mr Zhao is disputing an earlier court judgment that found him in breach of fiduciary duty in relation to the management of the American branch of the Orient Group. He has been cleared of four other charges.

How Zurich Insurance’s secret deal was revealed

A spectacular fall out between two Chinese businessmen exposed a questionable payment by one of the world’s largest financial institutions

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Zhang Hongwei, left, and Bill Zhao Photo: REUTERS

By Malcolm Moore in Beijing

7:05PM BST 10 Oct 2013

To the three children of one of China’s richest tycoons, Bill Zhao, or “Uncle Bill”, was a father figure.

He took care of them in the small American town of Gaithersburg, Maryland, where they had been sent to study as teenagers. His wife threw their birthday parties and took them on holiday to Honolulu and Niagara Falls.

But there was more to Mr Zhao. He was a former high-ranking official in China’s finance ministry and then the World Bank who had been recruited by the children’s father, the billionaire Zhang Hongwei, to run his business, the Orient Group, in the United States.

“They wanted somebody like me to run their US operations and since I joined them I did make a facelift of the whole Orient Group,” Mr Zhao said in a deposition to a court in Virginia in 2011.

He claimed credit for setting up several business deals for Mr Zhang, and for getting his boss on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. The company’s success, he said, was helped by “the Zhao Factor”.

One of his greatest deals, however, was to sell a stake owned by the Orient Group in New China Life, an insurance company, to Zurich Insurance, the Swiss giant.

In court, Mr Zhao said the deal was kept secret.

“It was a great deal at that time, even though everybody was aware that it was under the table and there could be serious consequences if disclosed,” Mr Zhao said, in his deposition.

The relationship between the two men began to unravel in 2004, however, when another of Mr Zhang’s deputies, Guan Guoliang, was put under investigation in China for embezzlement.

According to Mr Zhao’s lawyers, his boss grew suspicious of what Mr Zhao knew about his activities.

They said that the tycoon “dispatched Bill Zhao back to America to get rid of him from China. Bill knows too much about the illicit deals involving all three gentlemen”.

Ever since, they later claimed, Mr Zhang has been trying “to silence, to neutralise, and to eliminate Bill Zhao”.

In 2010, Mr Zhao was arrested by FBI agents at Washington’s Dulles airport after an alleged tip off by Mr Zhang. He was sentenced to five months in jail for evading insurance payments.

The following year, Mr Zhang filed a civil suit in the circuit court in Fairfax County, Virginia against Mr Zhao for five charges including misappropriating millions of pounds from American Orient Group, the US arm of his business.

In that case, which concluded in November 2011, the details of how the company had received its funds from Zurich Insurance and how they had subsequently been spent, partly on bribes for Chinese government officials, were publicly aired for the first time. The transcripts from the court have never previously been released.

Mr Zhao, his lawyer said at the time, was determined to tell all. “It may not be pretty. It may not be good for him. It may implicate him in violating Chinese laws, various type of laws, money laundering, evading China’s foreign currency control laws, evading China’s laws regarding selling insurance company shares in 1996 and 1997 before he was allowed,” his lawyer told the jury.

“But Bill is going to tell you, ‘I have nothing to lose. I’m going to tell you what really happened.'”

In the end, Mr Zhao was found innocent of four out of the five charges but found guilty of breaching his fiduciary duty. He is currently appealing against a fine of $700,000.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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