update on General Nice: attack of the Dishonest Persons

After failing to comply with Chinese court orders, companies part of General Nice (俊安) group, the owner of the Isua iron-ore project in Greenland, as well as two members of the family in control of it, have been added to the “List of Dishonest Persons Subject to Enforcement,” as the name (失信被执行人名单) of a Supreme People’s Court-issued list of judgement defaulters is often translated in PRC sources. The companies directly affected by the judgements behind the listing are not the direct owners of the Greenland project, so the only relevance for Greenland is what it can suggest about the Group’s practices and financial health. However, a more direct Greenland connection comes from a separate source. According to a long-time Hong Kong publisher and financial analyst, the Hong Kong parent of the Greenland entity has been directly targeted by a lawsuit in that city.

Both individuals involved are related to the company’s chairman, Cai Suixin 蔡穗新. They are his father, Cai Mingzhi 蔡明志, and his sister, Cai Suirong 蔡穗榕. Both have long had a number of positions in multiple Group companies. Cai senior is, or at least used to be, one of the main ultimate owners of the company, together with his son. Cai Mingzhi’s political contacts in Guangzhou province reportedly opened many doors for General Nice, a (mostly) private player in a state-dominated sector. For more on the history of General Nice, see my General Nice backgrounder.

The List lists people and companies that have failed to comply with court judgements. Its purpose is to induce compliance by public shaming. For example, a sample of it was once displayed for two weeks on an enormous screen at Changsha railway station. It’s searchable online. An evolving (and quite Orwellian) ‘social credit’ system is expected to impose a range of penalties on those on the wrong side of it, and that includes denizens of the List like the Cais. If they don’t remove themselves from it on time, they could be prevented from buying plane tickets, to mention just one possible consequence. I’ve written about the List of Dishonest Persons before: one noted member of it is Huang Nubo 黄怒波, everyone’s favourite poet-tycoon-mountaineer, known for his attempts to buy land in Iceland and Norway. Since I wrote that almost three years ago, old Huang Nubo List entries have been removed, suggesting he has perhaps paid up, but he has been honoured with a new one, over a new dispute that need not concern us here.

The judgements that landed the Cais on the list concern, among other companies, General Nice (Tianjin) Industry Co., Ltd (俊安(天津)实业有限公司). One of the creditors is an Agricultural Bank of China branch. The sums General Nice (and General Nice-linked) companies have failed to disburse as ordered by the courts total more than 70m yuan. Of course, it is possible that all those outstanding amounts have just been paid, but the online version of the List hasn’t been updated yet.

In a separate development, Target, a Hong Kong publication by venerable Hong Kong financial analyst, journalist, editor, restaurant reviewer and poet Raymonde Sacklyn, reported in late April on a lawsuit brought against General Nice Development Ltd (俊安发展有限公司) and all three Cais by ICBC, over a mortgage and a guarantee. General Nice Development, another Group company, is the ultimate owner of the Jersey entity that owns the Greenland company that owns the Isua mine.

I’ve mentioned worrying developments about General Nice (while still omitting a few) in several posts, starting with that ‘backgrounder‘ in 2015, months after the company entered the Greenland game. The Cais’ group has kept afloat despite all these. In a surprising move, last year they attempted to purchase a derelict naval base in Greenland, only to be blocked by the Danish intervention, as leaked to Defence Watch and (months later) Reuters. In my previous long-ish read on China and Greenland, I speculated that the attempt to buy the base, despite hardly making any obvious business sense, catered to a Chinese state interest in it, perceived or explicit. The Isua mine purchase can also be read in that context: if questionable as a commercial investment, sitting on the licence can make General Nice useful in the eyes of state entities that would like to see the Greenland mine stay in Chinese hands.

This blog has featured poetry in the past, namely that of Huang Nubo, a celebrated poet under the pen name Luo Ying 骆英. I have quoted his verses about Château Lafite, about stockpiling condoms. I have mentioned how he flies first-class because that helps him write, and hope he’ll make it out of the List of Dishonest Persons before the Social Credit System can prevent him from flying. With such precedent, I feel obliged to quote from Sacklyn’sserendipitously-titled poem The Loan:

The body dies and, then, putrefies:
Nature decides the timeframe of this glorious fate.
Man bemoans his ultimate demise,
Fearing the unknown; the darkness; and, the empty plate[.]

State-managed Buddhism and Chinese-Mongolian relations

“No matter what the 14th Dalai Lama says or does, he cannot deny the Central Government’s right to recognise reincarnations,” says Norbu Döndrup ནོར་བུ་དོན་གྲུབ 罗布顿珠, one of the highest-ranking Tibetan officials in the Autonomous Region’s government. Zhu Weiqun 朱维群, former deputy head of the United Front Work Department who now chairs the ethnic and religious affairs committee of the People’s Political Consultative Conference, famously stated that Dalai Lama reincarnations “have never been a purely religious matter;” historical precedent makes the state’s prerogative to manage reincarnations “an important manifestation of the Central Government’s sovereignty over Tibet.” The state clearly cares about reincarnations, and not only when the Dalai Lama is involved. The PRC has now spent decades regulating, codifying and “standardising” the identification and training of increasing numbers of reincarnating lamas, who often are given positions in state administration. The respect they command among many Tibetans makes gaining the “initiative, leadership and control” over reincarnation management a tool for maintaining social stability in Tibetan areas. Extensive research has been devoted to the design of reincarnation policies. The TAR and central governments take reincarnate lamas on trips and training sessions around the country, including visits to Maoist sites. Interviewed during one such educational trip, the Jedrung རྗེ་དྲུང 吉仲 Rinpoche of Dzodzi མཛོ་རྫི 佐孜 monastery in Chamdo, himself installed as such a ‘living Buddha’ by the relevant local authorities in 2000, talks of his and other religious figures’ duty to “develop the good Tibetan Buddhist tradition of love of country and religion (爱国爱教),” contributing to the “mutual adaptation of religion and socialism.” The training seems to be working: the Rinpoche was repeating, verbatim, Party slogans that go back to the Jiang Zemin era.

For Buddha and country

Marxism, Buddhism and nationalism may come across as an incongruous mix, but a sizable body of literature has accrued in order to glue it together. Although religions, and Tibetan Buddhism in particular, were on the wrong end of Party theory (and practice) for a good half of the PRC’s history, now parallels are made between the ways Buddhism and Marxism changed after being imported into China, converging into a nationalist, in-one-country amalgam. Invoking Jiang’s ‘mutual adaptation’ motto in a speech last year, Xi Jinping advocated “supporting our country’s religions to maintain their Sinification course.” Ye Xiaowen 叶小文, former head of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, explained Xi’s statement: after coming to China, Buddhism underwent a Sinification, while Christianism became “independent and autonomous”; “our country’s religions take special pride in patriotism.” Cai Shuangquan 蔡双全, a historian of Chinese Communism, has even argued that Mao Zedong’s “sacred mission” against the oppression of the masses made him a model of Buddhist life.

The PRC’s embrace of reincarnation management began with the restoration of the Qing dynasty ‘Golden Urn’ lottery, used to select the Panchen Lama in 1995. The early aughts saw increased efforts devoted to establishing a reincarnation management system for as many Tibetan lineages as possible, but work remains to be done: a 2015 white paper talked of 358 incarnate lamas in the TAR, “of which more than 60 newly reincarnated living Buddhas have obtained recognition according to historical conventions and religious rituals,” likely meaning ‘according to recent legislation and state oversight.’ Other Tibetan Buddhist areas of the PRC include hundreds of other lineages at different stages of standardisation. Overall, however, the Party-state is already in charge of the reincarnation business. Lineage holders ‘trained’ under its tutelage, and the will and wherewithal to maintain Tibetological research, are giving it an ability to shape Buddhist orthodoxy.

From the centre to the periphery

The PRC’s emphasis on the Urn system, and its criticism on the Dalai Lama’s unwillingness to reincarnate through it, make rebirth policy an international issue. The lottery covered not only Tibetan, but also Mongolian lineages. In a recent piece for CPI Analysis, I described the tensions surrounding the Dalai Lama’s visit to Mongolia last November and his announcement that the next incarnation of the Jebtsundamba Khutugtu, the country’s highest lama, had been identified. China protested the visit, but limited its demands on the reincarnation to “hoping” Mongolia would deal with it “autonomously,” i.e., without Dharamsala involvement in his enthronement and education. While refraining from imposing reincarnations abroad, such an approach stops short of relinquishing influence over Mongolian Buddhism. In fact, religious interactions with Mongolia illustrate the emergent use of ‘Sinified’ Tibetan Buddhism as a foreign policy tool.

A set of policy recommendations on exchanges with Buddhism in Mongolia (and ethnic Mongolian areas of Russia) emerged in 2011 as a mysterious article published by a Hong Kong-based think-tank with known government links. I summarised those recommendations in my previous piece, but some bear repeating: fostering religious exchanges with Mongolian (and Russian) Buddhism, in particular by sending “virtuous and respected high monks;” the use of “social and economic methods,” based on “China’s advantageous trade position,” to restrict the influence of the “Dalai clique.” An exampe of this would be “monopolising” the religious-artifact market through state-supported Chinese companies, perhaps modelled on the Gang gyan Development Company (བོད་གངས་རྒྱན་དར་སྤེལ་ཀུང་སི་ 西藏刚坚发展总公司) established by the 10th Panchen Lama. As the examples below will illustrate, state-mediated exchanges between Chinese monasteries and companies and selected Mongolian clergy are consistent with these recommendations, lending credibility to the further, still unimplemented advice to negotiate a transnational “system for the search, recognition and final announcement” of reincarnate lamas.

A description of the role of Tibetan Buddhism within the Belt and Road Initiative, elaborating on Xi Jinping’s statements at the Beijing forum, was delivered at a recent meeting by Wang Changyu 王长鱼, Party secretary at the High-level Tibetan Academy of Buddhism (中国藏语系高级佛学院). The Academy’s experience training Tibetan Buddhist monks and its well-developed system of scholarly degrees, says Wang, creates an advantageous position allowing to “help countries and territories along the ‘Belt and Road’ satisfy their demand for religious specialists and scriptures.” Such exchanges can serve two goals: to showcase “the results of our Party and country’s ethnic and religious policies, displaying the healthy heritage and development of Tibetan Buddhism” in China, while reducing “the Dalai clique’s space of activity, upholding national sovereignty.”

The case of Mongolia

Chinese policies towards Mongolian Buddhism focus on fostering exchanges with part of the Buddhist clergy, to some extent exploiting divisions within it to empower those opposed to the Dalai Lama. The exchanges described below, all mediated by Chinese state organs, involve Chinese monasteries and a producer of religious artifacts.

The Amarbayasgalant Амарбаясгалант monastery in the north of the country enjoys particularly good relations with Chinese clergy and officials. Visits occur in both directions, and have involved meetings with high-placed members of the China Buddhist Association (中国佛教协会), including the Panchen Lama, one of its vice-presidents. One such encounter left the Mongolian visitors with “a deep understanding of [China’s] policy of religious freedom.” The Amarbayasgalant is an important place of worship for the Dorje Shugden movement, whose dispute with the Dalai Lama often results in an alignment with PRC policies.

The last Dalai Lama visit was strongly condemned by Sanjdorj Санждорж, the abbot of Ikh Khüree Их хүрээ monastery in Ulaanbaatar. He regretted the Dalai Lama had been invited “without the approval of the two neighbours” (Russia and China, although only the latter seems relevant). Some of his views were quoted in Chinese state media. In one of many exchanges with China, last August Sanjdorj visited the Yonghegong 雍和宫, the Beijing monastery where most Mongolian reincarnations were selected under the Qing Urn system. He was accompanied by officials from the central United Front Department.

The Yonghegong temple has decided to donate a 21-metre statue of boddhisattva Maitreya to another Ulaanbaatar monastery, the Dashchoilin Дашчойлин. Its abbot, Dambajav Дамбажав, is not against the Dalai Lama, whom he has repeatedly met, including during the last Mongolia trip, but a good reason for cultivating him could be his role as vice-president of the World Fellowship of Buddhists, an organisation where Beijing has been steadily trying to gain more influence. The Maitreya was ordered from Karma Bisha ཀརྨ་བི་ཤྭ0 噶玛博秀, a famous Sichuan-based producer of religious statues owned by a Tibetan artist and entrepreneur. The project has been advancing slowly: a ceremony was held in 2014 for the delivery of the statue’s feet, but the foundations for the structure that will house only began to be built a month ago.

Three days after the end of the last Dalai Lama visit, with Chinese punitive sanctions in force and all official contacts suspended, the Chinese embassy sent a representative to the opening of a Tibetan art exhibition it helped organise at the Manba Datsan Манба дацан monastery. Its abbot, Natsagdorj Нацагдорж, has also been frequently involved in exchanges with China, on one occasion praising Tibet’s “transformation under the CCP’s leadership.” In a 2015 interview where he took umbrage at accusations of receiving Chinese money, he alleged that “the Dalai Lama’s people’s problems with the people of China aren’t that interesting to us Mongolians” and blamed “foreign” actors for inciting discord on the Panchen dispute (he has met China’s Panchen Lama).

Beijing’s approach to Mongolian Buddhism thus largely follows recent recommendations, although a whiff of Qing continuity lingers. While renouncing the ‘Outer Mongolian’ part of the Golden Urn system, the government has given the Yonghegong a central, historically conscious role in interactions with Mongolian monasteries and even, through the Maitreya donation, in shaping the religious geography of Ulaanbaatar. Aid and exchanges empower Beijing’s preferred section of Mongolia’s clergy, while the credible threat of economic sanctions attempts to dissuade the rest from interacting with Dharamsala. Thus far, the approach can hardly be called successful: PRC links are controversial, and allegations of Chinese financing often put abbots such as the ones discussed above on the wrong end of nationalistic commentary; opposition to the Dalai Lama remains a minority view; despite the asymmetry of the relationship, the full rage of PRC economic sanctions over his November visit was appeased with an ambiguous, non-apologetic statement that promised little beyond the status quo. Gifts and bullying haven’t restored the Qing’s sway over Mongolian Buddhism, or even the primary expected result, severed links with the exiled Tibetan religious hierarchy.

Soft opium

Although the credit for the idea of embedding Tibetan Buddhist ritual into statecraft goes to early Qing emperors, rather than Party-school dialecticians, the PRC has now caught up and, after letting it ‘mutually adapt’ with socialism, managed to Sinify the ‘opium of the people’ into a soft-power commodity. Strategies similar to those implemented in Mongolia, involving the sale or donation of religious artifacts, monuments and scripture, influence building within Buddhist organisations and alliances with anyone Dalai-unfriendly, are seen elsewhere in the Tibetan Buddhist world, often in clear competition with India. Tibetan Buddhist soft power will likely continue to evolve as a tool of Chinese policy towards Mongolia, Russia, the Himalayas, the Tibetan diaspora, Western Buddhists and international Buddhist organisations.

Thanks to Paweł Szczap.


0 The name of the company, Kar.ma bi shwa, could be an inversion of Bi shwa kar.ma, the Tibetan name of the mythical sculptor (or architect deity) Viśvakarman.

Greenland gov’t allowed to review uranium project agreement; confirms Shenghe “intent” to buy controlling stake

Greenland’s department of natural resources has had a third-party legal firm go over the contract giving Shenghe 盛和 a stake in the Kuannersuit (Kvanefjeld) uranium and rare-earth project in the island’s south. The review was meant to establish whether the agreement gave a Shenghe a right to increase its stake to a controlling one, a possibility I first mentioned almost eight months ago. According to a Greenland government press release, the review has concluded that “the contract does not give [Shenghe subsidiary] Leshan [乐山] Shenghe the right to overtake a controlling share” of GME, the Australian firm that owns the licence. Although the press release doesn’t mention it, the department’s head also confirmed to Sermitsiaq that the agreement includes “non-binding statements of intent” regarding Shenghe eventually increasing that stake. This is consistent with those earlier reports, according to which Shenghe would like to have up to a 60% stake in the project if things go well once it enters production.

This ‘60% saga’ began when I noticed that a Shanghai stock exchange press release by Shenghe said the agreement, that involved the sale of one eighth of GME, contemplated eventually increasing the stake to 60% once the project enters the production phase. (I gave the exact phrasing in Chinese, with translation, in a later post.) The news subsequently spread to Danish and Greenlandic media, generating a little brouhaha in which GME denied, then admitted the reports, and Greenlandic officials promised to “investigate” the matter, since an eventual takeover of the project would need their approval. Such an investigation was complicated by GME’s refusal to show the Greenlanders the contract, plainly stating that they didn’t trust “the government’s ability to maintain and protect the confidentiality of documents which, under Australian law, must remain private and confidential between GME and Shenghe” (my back-translation). The government then reportedly said they wouldn’t let the project go ahead if they didn’t know the text of the agreement.

This raises the question of why anyone felt a need to have a third party review the agreement. It has already been reviewed by Australia’s Foreign Investment Review Board, which approved it in November. Shenghe is, in practice, controlled by the Chinese ministry of land and resources, which has circulated information praising the Greenland operation as partially “implementing a vision on mining cooperation” reached by Jiang Daming 姜大明 and Greenland officials in 2015; this makes it clear that relevant Chinese state organs are well acquainted with the details of the agreement. As a non-expert in Greenlandic law, I found the fact that the Greenlandic government could be left out of this knowledge rather counter-intuitive. The purchase would have been blocked if GME had refused to ‘trust’ the ability of Chinese and Australian authorities not to leak the document.

I reached out to Jørgen Hammeken-Holm, the deputy minister (departementschef) enquiries are directed to in the government’s press release, to confirm that his department was given access to the agreement, as opposed to GME just showing it to the (unnamed) third-party legal firm. If he replies, I will update this post in the space below:

[UPDATE: Hammeken-Holm replied, confirming that a member of the legal staff at Greenland’s department of natural resources was given access to and read the agreement.]

The entire 60%-saga is little more than a PR hiccup. As I’ve noted before, most people involved (GME management and shareholders, Chinese and Greenlandic officials) would likely see the eventual controlling stake as good news. The only explanation I can muster for the early refusal to disclose the news to the non-Chinese public is a fear talk of a ‘Chinese takeover’ would generate negative comments from the Danish and global geopolitical commentariat. (Such comments did indeed arise.)

Unlike other mining projects, the Kvanefjeld uranium mine is highly divisive in Greenland. Chinese involvement isn’t generally unwelcome, but environmental issues are a concern for many. These divisions are visible at the highest level of Greenlandic politics: the very minister for natural resources, Múte Bourup Egede, is openly “against uranium mining”. For a recent survey of views on Kvanefjeld among (a small sample of) local community members, see this ‘briefing note‘ by Rachael Lorna Johnstone and Anne Merrild Hansen.

I reviewed the current state of Chinese involvement in Greenland in a post for CPI Analysis a few months ago.

China and Norway: brobdingnagian, ‘intelligent’ offshore salmon farms sold; salmon embargo might be lifted

State-owned shipbuilder CSIC (中船重工) are delivering the first of several semi-automated offshore fish farms ordered by Norwegian salmon farmers SalMar. Conceptually similar to semi-sumbersible rigs, the contraption measures 68~69 metres in height and 110 in diameter, can host more than a million specimens, and is endowed with intelligence. Last April, around the time of a visit to China by Norway’s fisheries minister, SalMar and CSIC agreed to make more of the things. Experts quoted in Chinese reports praise the breakthrough for Chinese industry, with references to the all-encompassing Belt and Road initiative, while SalMar themselves prefer to emphasise the thing was “developed in Norway” by over a dozen companies including Global Maritime. Whoever deserves more praise, everyone is happy with the development, presumably including the intelligent platform itself, should it be also capable of happiness.

The only party left out of this win-win situation is, allegedly, the salmon louse (Lepeophtheirus salmonis), the bane of Norway’s salmon industry. According to someone from Global Maritime, it is believed that salmon can delouse themselves if they swim deep enough, and more depth is available in offshore farms than in the fjords.

The first offshore farm began being built more than a year ago, when Sino-Norwegian relations had not yet been ‘normalised’. Norway was under (undeclared) Chinese sanctions as retaliation for tolerating the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo 刘晓波 in 2010. The most visible manifestation of the sanctions was an (undeclared) embargo on Norwegian salmon that began within weeks of the Nobel brouhaha. The embargo, and the sanctions against Norway in general, were meant pour la galerie: as I discussed here, trade statistics and research by Xianwen Chen (陈贤文) and Roberto J. Garcia makes it clear that the overall economic impact of the sanctions was negligible in economic terms, and even the salmon industry was much less affected than media coverage suggested. The fact that Norwegian salmon farmers and Chinese state shipbuilders were signing contracts on these huge robot farms provides further illustration that economic relations between the two countries were going perfectly well despite the kill-the-salmon-to-scare-the-‘Wegians theatre.

The theatre was effective. After years of trying, the Norwegian government was finally bestowed with a ‘normalisation’ of relations late last year, stating its respect for China’s “development path and social system” as well as its “core interests and major concerns”. Since then, official contacts have resumed, Norwegian officials have been travelling to China, and a free trade agreement seems to be on the way. Remarkably, what would seem like a key aspect of this ‘normalisation’, lifting the salmon embargo, has had to wait. Weeks ago, half a year into normalisation, salmon industry voices admitted the ‘quarantine‘ over the Nobel was still on. In what could be a calculated way of showing the Norwegians who’s in charge, China let months pass before a salmon ‘protocol’ that took “weeks” of “intense” work to negotiate was signed on May 23. Fisheries minister Sandberg “hopes that the agreement will reopen salmon exports to China.”

The intelligent salmon fortress is called a ‘platform’ (平台) in Chinese, while the Norwegians call it a merd. The word seems to refer more generally to a number of less hi-tech devices that look like fishing nets; a cognate (mjärde) is used in Swedish, while a Danish one (mjærd) seems to have fallen out of use. The Norwegian dictionaries maintained by Bergen Uni/Språkrådet claim the word comes from Old Norse merðr, which has apparently not left a descendant in Modern Icelandic. And no, it has nothing to do with Ubu roi.

H/T Geoff Wade.

first Chinese workers arrive in Greenland

The first Chinese workers are coming to Greenland, to work at state-owned Royal Greenland’s fish processing plants on the island (Sermitsiaq). Of the 38 workers the company has employed, seven came to Maniitsoq two weeks ago, and the rest should be coming during June.

China is a big market for Royal Greenland, and the company has worked with Chinese partners for quite some time. A representative office they opened in Qingdao as early as ’98, was upgraded to a foreign-owned limited company two years ago under the name Royal Greenland Seafood (Qingdao) Co., Ltd (皇家格陵兰水产(青岛)有限公司).

The company struggles to recruit enough staff locally for the summer season, and had been trying to bring in Chinese workers for years. Three years ago, I wrote about how local authorities were blocking the company from bringing just 15 employees. The relevant municipalities have now finally got over this immigration conundrum, and everyone is reportedly happy.

According to a Royal Greenland factory head quoted on a company website quoted in the Sermitsiaq article, the Chinese workers are getting along perfectly well with their new colleagues, who “also speak Greenlandic to them, so they may learn the language faster”. Some “can already say a few short words in Greenlandic”, which is a remarkable feat, even if the longer words ccould pose more of a challenge. Greenlandic is massively polysynthetic, featuring (arguably) noun incorporation, a vast array of derivational affixes, and a jillion other interesting aspects.

More significant numbers of Chinese workers can be expected to come to Greenland in the medium term, once a few major mining projects enter production. The most important (and most controversial) such project, the Kuannersuit (Kvanefjeld in Danish) uranium and rare-earth deposit, is one-eighth owned by the state-controlled Shenghe 盛和, through an agreement that contemplates increasing that ownership to a majority stake. Another important project approaching production is the Citronen Fjord (no known Greenlandic name) zinc and lead deposit in the extreme north of the island. China Nonferrous (中色) is expected to help finance and build the mine, and during the construction stage most of the workers would be foreign, most likely Chinese. At 83°N, they would be come the inhabitants of the Earth’s northernmost mine, or settlement of any kind for that matter. An inflow of Chinese workers was once extremely controversial in Greenland, but things have calmed down since.