Chinese State Company Denies Whistleblower Claims as Shares Tumble

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Song Lin (L) is interviewed in Beijing, March 4, 2013.
Song Lin (L) is interviewed in Beijing, March 4, 2013.

Top state-owned conglomerate China Resources Holdings has denied allegations of fraud leveled by a reporter with China's official Xinhua news agency, as the company's shares came under heavy selling on the stock market Thursday.

Shares of state-owned China Resources' Hong Kong-listed subsidiary China Resources Power (CRP) lost 10 percent of their value on the Hong Kong market, following the claims that its chairman was involved in corrupt deals costing the company billions of yuan (hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars).

Writing on his verified account on the popular microblogging platform Sina Weibo on Wednesday, Wang, a principal reporter at Xinhua's Economic Information Daily newspaper, accused China Resources Holdings chairman Song Lin and other senior managers of intentionally overpaying for a coal mine in Shanxi in 2010 through the subsidiary.

"As a citizen, I wish to report with my real name that China Resources Holdings' chairman, who holds the rank of deputy ministerial official, deliberately overpaid for the multibillion yuan acquisition of Shanxi Jinye Coal, leading to losses of billions of yuan for the company," Wang wrote in a tweet which garnered thousands of comments and which was retweeted more than 15,000 times on Wednesday.

"The actions of Song Lin and the others amounts to dereliction of duty and large sums in corrupt gains," Wang wrote in a post addressed to "Respected members of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection," the anti-corruption arm of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

Company response

The company responded by calling Wang's tweet and linked news reports libelous, as they had negatively affected the company and the image of its management. It said it reserved the right to sue and claim damages.

However, Wang said he had plenty of evidence to support his claims.

"I received the relevant material from someone and decided to take it into my own hands," he told Hong Kong's English-language South China Morning Post newspaper.

"I spent about half a year investigating it, including several visits to Shanxi."

Wang's tweet said that CRP was part of a joint venture that paid 7.9 billion yuan (U.S. $1.3 billion) for an 80 percent stake in the Shanxi Jinye Coal coking group that another party had valued at half that price months before the deal.

"I have some more evidence on hand and I'll make it public later," Wang told the Post.

Shareholder allegations

Wang's tweet isn't the first sign of public suspicions surrounding the coal-mine purchase.

A lawsuit filed with the Hong Kong High Court on July 5 alleged that CRP "suffered serious loss and damage" from its acquisition of coal mining assets in the northern province of Shanxi in 2010, according to a copy of the suit obtained by Reuters.

Six minority shareholders of the company filed the lawsuit against former and existing executives of China Resources Power for what they said was "faulty approval" of the acquisition.

Analysts said they were unsure of whether Wang's whistleblowing was all that it seemed, however.

"The journalist based his investigation on [the shareholders' allegations]," said Cai Yongmei, editor of the Hong Kong-based magazine Kaifang. "They have been saying this since May."

"I think that this affair was leaked by [someone high up] inside the Party, and that there is a lot of evidence to support it," she said.

Individual act?

Hong Kong current affairs commentator Lawrence Ho said it was still unclear whether Wang Wenzhi was acting as an individual, on on behalf of a powerful figure in Chinese politics.

"Is there some kind of power struggle involved in the background?" Ho said. "The order to delete Wang Wangzhi's post is sure to have come from very high up."

"Now that this issue around Song Lin has come out, will someone protect him? We will have to see how Party disciplinary chief Wang Qishan handles this matter."

He said public opinion in China, including the general public, private enterprises and high-profile economists and intellectuals, is becoming increasingly critical of the Party's stranglehold on the Chinese economy through monopoly industries.

"But I can't see any likelihood of major change occurring," Ho said.

"China's state-owned enterprises are a strange beast, and every single one of their top executives is appointed by the organization department of the Chinese Communist Party."

"What's certain is that the Party isn't about to give up its power and control over the human resources and financial power of the big state-owned corporations.

Power struggle

Mao Taolong, who directs a public policy think-tank at Beijing's Renmin University, agreed that the allegations could reflect a behind-the-scenes power struggle.

"There is a certain correlation between the political backing behind state-owned enterprises and their mode of operation," Mao said.

He said it would be a mistake to regard state-owned enterprises as a purely economic force, and that they should always act in the public interest.

"What is or is not in the public interest should be decided on the basis of [the taxpayers' interest], not on the basis of how much wealth can be amassed by a particular department," Mao said.

"Otherwise, it will be very hard to make sense of the public interest in the midst of relationships between various interest groups."

Calls to the Party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection's whistleblowing hotline resulted in a busy signal on Thursday.

But the official Party newspaper, the People's Daily, said the Commission had confirmed it had already received material related to the allegations, and was currently dealing with it "according to due process."

Reaction mixed

Reaction to the claims was mixed in China's state-run media, with the English-language tabloid Global Times, which has close ties to the Communist Party, dedicating a whole page of its website to the story.

"Combining anti-corruption efforts with the Internet is a new thing in China, which has many uncertainties," the paper said in an editorial, warning that those who had such power should also bear responsibility for their claims.

The paper quoted an editorial in the cutting-edge China Youth Daily as saying that online whistleblowers were a good thing, because they shook up complacent prosecution services.

"Whistleblowers harness the power of the Internet and media to force procuratorates to investigate cases," the China Youth Daily said.

And the newspaper of the government's prosecution service, the Procuratorate Daily, appeared to agree.

"The current media environment in China is not yet open enough for [journalists] to release all the results of their investigations," it said in a translation posted to the Global Times' website.

"They are often left with two choices: give up or resort to real-name reporting online."

Meanwhile, the Changsha Evening News' editorial lauded online whistleblowing as the result of the government's recently launched anti-graft campaign.

China Resources Holdings is a Fortune Global 500 conglomerate involved in the retail, property, finance and power sectors.

Targeting graft

President Xi Jinping has warned that the Communist Party must beat graft or lose power, sparking a nationwide clampdown on corruption.

However, political analysts say that officials with friends in the right places are unlikely to be touched by the crackdown, and reports suggest many are liquidating their assets and making moves overseas.

The authorities have detained and questioned dozens of activists who have called publicly on Party leaders to disclose their assets, and those of their relatives, in recent months.

Reported by Ho Ping and Fang Yuan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.





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