Greenland: China discreetly launches satellite ground station project

China has ‘officially’ launched a project to set up a satellite ground station in Nuuk, although Greenland’s public and elected representatives were kept in the dark about it for months, in an attempt to avoid concerns about its likely dual-use capabilities. Last May, a ‘launching ceremony’ was held in Greenland, where speakers included the well-known polar scientist in charge of the project and a military pioneer of the Beidou system, China’s alternative to GPS. The event was attended by a public of a hundred ‘élite’ businesspeople, including, in all likelihood, a senior Navy officer, as part of a group holiday; only two Greenlandic representatives were present. While reports were immediately available in Chinese media, the project’s launch went unnoticed in Greenland until I first ‘revealed‘ it last October. A subsequent investigation by journalist Andreas Lindqvist for Greenland’s main newspaper AG, to which I provided help with Chinese-language materials, found the Greenlandic authorities knew nothing about the ‘officially’ launched project, even though it requires government permission. Based on Lindqvist’s research in Greenland and new information from Chinese sources, I am now able to present a fuller picture of the project, its participants and possible dual-use goals.

The atypical embedding of such an event in a tourist trip is, in fact, understandable in the context of the Chinese Party-state’s information management practices, and in particular the way its polar strategy is presented to foreign and domestic audiences. This analysis is backed by the project leader’s own statements, as well as the partial success of what a source in Greenland called a ‘camouflaging’ tactic, at least until my blog and the local press found out. Calls are now emerging for Greenland and Denmark to have full access to data received by the planned station, something the Chinese side has clearly not yet agreed to, and a possible complication for some of the project’s purposes.

Cruising for the Motherland

I mentioned the receiving-station-to-be in October, towards the end of a post about plans to build a Chinese research base in (possibly very northern) Greenland. While the base plans have been covered by Danish journalist Martin Breum for Greenlandic and Danish media, the satellite-station announcement, available from Chinese sources since early June, remained unreported in Western languages other than my blog until a recent article by Andreas Lindqvist came out in last week’s AG (Atuagagdliutit/Grønlandsposten; paywalled). I provided Lindqvist with information about the project from Chinese sources and background on its leader. As we will see, a rather surprising picture emerged after comparing them with what BJU’s Greenlandic counterparts were aware of.

In June, Sciencenet (科学网), a web portal maintained by the China Science Daily Publishing House (中国科学报社), under the Chinese Academy of Sciences and other state scientific organisations, reported on a somewhat ambiguously named ‘launching ceremony’ (启动仪式) for a satellite ground station, held in May in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland’s airport hub. The ceremony had the trappings of an official event: BNU’s representative, Cheng Xiao 程晓, delivered a speech on his university’s Arctic activities, and the importance of the project for “serving the people of Greenland, improving climate change research and serving [China’s] national strategy”. Together with its local partners, state-owned telecom Tele-Post and the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources (Pinngortitaleriffik/Grønlands Naturinstitut), BNU “officially announced the launch” of the Nuuk ground station project. The ceremony was attended by Karl Zinglersen, GIS manager and database expert at the Institute, Flemming Enemark of Tele-Post, and “more than 100 domestic [i.e. Chinese] representatives”, surely a visible crowd among Kangerlussuaq’s population of 493.

kangerlussuaq
As per the banner: [格陵]兰遥[感]卫星[地]面站启动[仪]式 “Greenland remote-sensing satellite ground station project launching ceremony”. Kangerlussuaq, May 30, 2017. Source: Sciencenet.

Despite its conspicuousness, and its significance for China’s engagement with Greenland, the event wasn’t reported in local media until last week’s AG piece. In it, Tele-Post confirmed the project existence, although the company “has no more details on the character of the research data that the ground station is to receive.” Zinglersen, the GIS expert at the Natural Resources Institute, gave a less spectacular account of the Kangerlussuaq ‘launching ceremony’. It was held at Roklubben, a local restaurant. In Zinglersen’s recollection, Cheng Xiao’s group included “a couple of researchers” (on which ‘researchers’, see below), but most of the Chinese visitors were tourists on a trip organised by Souluniq (心友汇), a Guangzhou-based ‘travellers’ club’ catering to a high-end base. Zinglersen received no explanation as to why Cheng’s delegation chose to come with a tourist group, rather than in his academic capacity as he’d done on other occasions. According to the AG article, the actual station will essentially consist of a seven-metre antenna to be installed along Tele-Post’s existing Nuuk equipment. Cheng won Zinglersen’s support for the project by offering him access to images from Chinese satellites ‘for free or at a low price’. A relationship with him and the Institute had been cultivated for some time, as we’ll see below. Both Zinglersen and Tele-Post sources quoted by AG confirmed the project will require the approval of the Greenlandic government before it starts. There might be a difference of opinion with the Chinese partners on whether the project has ‘started’, since Zinglersen hadn’t yet considered applying for the Greenlandic or Danish government’s permission, almost half a year after its ‘official’ launch. Both Greenland’s Foreign Affairs Office (Nunanut Allanut Pisortaqarfik/Udenrigsdirektoratet) and the foreign affairs and security committee at the Greenland parliament told AG they were unaware of Chinese plans to build a satellite station.

Thanks to AG‘s coverage and more recent information from Chinese sources, I’ve now been able to put together a fuller picture of what happened in Kangerlussuaq on May the 30th.
The event was indeed officially called a ‘launching ceremony’ in both Chinese and English. The hundred-odd travellers arrived from Copenhagen in the morning, attended the Kangerlussuaq ceremony, and left by helicopter in the evening to board a cruise ship (the Sea Spririt). The launching ceremony was described in promotional materials for the trip. It was clearly timed to allow the visitors to attend before embarking on the cruise. It was the only event they attended in Greenland besides the actual week-long boat expedition. Its combination with a cruise tour served a double purpose: it provided a Chinese public able to appreciate its significance and communicate it after returning to China, while its embedding in a tourist trip evaded the exposure a pure official arrangement could have attracted from the Greenlandic press. Souluniq regularly offer trips to the Arctic (including Greenland) and Antarctica.)isn’t your average tourist operator: it prides itself on organising polar journeys and events for members of the business élite, emphasising the strategic importance of China’s activities in the polar regions. Its chairman, He Zhijun 贺志军, is a well-connected businessman (e.g., he has worked with Tencent 腾讯, and a company led by He designed its famous penguin logo). He organised the first Chinese chartered-boat trip to Antarctica in 2010. He is conversant with China’s strategic goals in the polar regions, in whose pursuit and communication tour organisers and promoters like him do play a role. In a recent interview, he explained international interest in Antarctic exploration by stressing the continent’s abundant natural resources, notably fresh water, oil, coal and iron. Souluniq’s polar trips for the élite have featured prominent members of academia, officialdom, the diplomatic profession (including Sha Zukang 沙祖康) and the military. Rear Admiral (少将) Chen Yan 陈俨, former political commissar of the South China Sea fleet, well known for his Lady Gaga exercise routine and current Paracel spirit proselytising, has been to Antarctica with Souluniq. R Adm Chen was also part of this Greenland voyage, and, in all likelihood, attended the Kangerlussuaq station launching ceremony. Although he didn’t speak at the ceremony, his presence at the trip had an educational role in communicating the importance of the Arctic to China’s national interest.

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Travellers on China’s first chartered boat trip to Antarctica, organised by He Zhijun’s Souluniq for over a hundred “élite entrepreneurs”. Great Wall Station (长城战), King George Island, 2010. Source: Souluniq.

The military component was also present at the Kangerlussuaq event. Speakers included, besides Cheng Xiao and a BNU colleague, a prominent figure in the Beidou 北斗 system, China’s alternative to GPS: Zhao Yaosheng 赵耀升, an engineer with a military background who is a Party member and former CEO of BDStar Navigation (北斗星通). BDStar was the first company allowed to use Beidou for civilian purposes. The company was originally a military enterprise established by the ministry overseeing defence procurement, and later became private, though still led by individuals (such as Zhao) with military backgrounds. (A 2008 article from Science and Technology Daily (科技日报) even credited Zhao with coming up with the name ‘Beidou’ for the system in 1994. Regardless of the truth of the claim, its occurrence in a state-media account illustrates Zhao’s involvement with the Beidou project already in the ’90s.) Although Cheng Xiao’s speech at the Kangerlussuaq event, as reported by Chinese media, highlighted the Nuuk station’s value for climate change research, the presence of such a Beidou veteran is a strong indication that China’s first ground station in North America is meant to a role in the satellite navigation system. Besides its civilian applications, Beidou is used by the PLA. Zinglersen and Enemark, the local representatives at the half-hour event, might have only been informed about the strictly scientific aspects of the project, and are likely unacquainted with the background of the Chinese participants. Its other goals, however, were clearly discussed during the Greenland tour, as confirmed by a businessperson on the trip who recalled the Nuuk ground station’s “strategic significance for gathering military data”.

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Speakers at the Kangerlussuaq event, including BNU scientist Cheng Xiao 程晓, Beidou pioneer Zhao Yaosheng 赵耀升 and Souluniq CEO He Zhijun 贺志军.

Even during their cruise on board the Sea Spirit, our heroes didn’t limit themselves to leisure activities. On June 4, Cheng, together with Zhang Baogang 张宝钢, a BNU engineer who has been on two Antarctic expeditions, conducted what state media reported as China’s “first UAV flight in Greenland”. The fixed-wing remote-sensing drone Ji Ying 极鹰 (‘polar eagle’) 3 was flown for about an hour, seemingly around Nassuttooq.

The cruise-ceremony-expedition thus allowed the start of the ground-station project and other activities to be communicated to a selected Chinese audience and presented through Chinese media as an official bilateral event, while the Greenlandic public and their elected representatives remained unaware of the project existence. The senior figures in attendance, some of whom, like R Adm Chen, could have attracted undesirable media attention, simply came and left as tourists.

This rather peculiar behaviour, perhaps surprising to those familiar with (at most) only one side of China’s polar PR, is in fact consistent with Cheng Xiao’s own statements, as well as with the history of China’s activities in Greenland and the polar regions.

 

Strategies

The man behind the satellite-station project is Cheng Xiao 程晓, director of the Global Change and Earth System Science Research Institute (全球变化与地球系统科学研究院) at BNU. Cheng, a geographer by training, is a well-known specialist in remote sensing and an important figure in the polar science community. His experience in the polar regions spans almost two decades. His work on mapping Antarctica reportedly attracted the attention of state councilor Liu Yandong 刘延东 (now vice premier). He has taken part in several Antarctic expeditions, including the 16th (1999-2000), the 22th (2005-2006), reaching Grove Mountains, and the 24th (2007-2008), where his surveying work at Dome Argus (‘Dome A’) was crucial for the subsequent establishment of Kunlun Station. His work on satellite data processing and analysis is credited with an important role in polar navigation, in particular for China’s polar vessel Xue Long 雪龙 in several polar voyages.

In perhaps the most eventful such voyage, the Xue Long took part in an Australian-led endeavour to rescue the Russian ship Akademik Shokalsky, trapped in Antarctic ice on Christmas Eve, 2013. The Xue Long, whose icebreaking capabilites are limited, got itself stuck while trying to reach the Russian vessel, but helped evacuate its crew by helicopter. An American icebreaker was dispatched on January 4 to rescue the Chinese and Russian ships, but a weather change allowed them to set free of their own accord before it could reach the area. Not a day after breaking free, the 30th Expedition crew sent a message from the Xue Long thanking Cheng Xiao and his BNU team for supplying satellite data during the operation, that established “China’s positive image as a responsible polar exploration power”. The Expedition thanked Cheng’s institute again in a second letter in March 2014.

letter

The 30th Antarctic Expedition’s letter to Beijing Normal University thanking Cheng Xiao and his team for helping the Xue Long during the rescue operation. Sent from the ship the day after it broke free. Source: State Key Laboratory of Remote Sensing Science (遥感科学国家重点实验室). Full letter here.

Cheng has often referred to his work and scientific activity in the polar regions as serving China’s national interests. In a recent interview to Communist Youth-affiliated website youth.cn, he echoed Xi Jinping’s call to “accelerate the construction of a maritime power”. “What I do myself is polar research, and building a polar power is an important component of building a maritime power.” “The General Secretary has formulated very high expectations and demands” towards scientists. Talking to state tabloid Global Times, he stressed that the Arctic is of “great strategic interest” to China, and called for “every government department” to look at Arctic issues bearing the national interest in mind. “Our country’s future development opportunities are in the Arctic, just like the major military threats come from the Arctic.” At the Kangerlussuaq ceremony, he explained that BNU’s global network of satellite ground stations is a “strategic plan” the university has established as part of the nation’s Belt and Road and Arctic strategies.

Cheng’s recommendations on China’s engagement with the Arctic merit are especially relevant. In the Global Times interview, he talked of a “geopolitical” need for China, “as a responsible power”, to participate in Arctic affairs. Since, unlike in Antarctica, sovereign nations control Arctic lands, China must use its advanced technologies “to benefit indigenous inhabitants”. “For example, as a result of global warming, Greenland’s population is extremely concerned about the drastic changes brought on their living environment by large-scale receding of the ice sheet, caused by climate change. But the Greenland government has only two staff conducting satellite remote sensing, and doesn’t have its own ability to develop satellites. Therefore, BNU produced a high-resolution satellite map for the Greenland government and gave it to them as a gift through our Ministry of Science and Technology.” The map was given last year by Cheng Xiao, and the gift idea came from Zinglersen, his main contact in Greenland, who, as he told AG, had spent “decades” waiting for such a map from the Danish authorities. The map was actually made with American, open-source satellite images. Cheng’s team simply put them together; this year’s crucial success is likely at least partly due to the goodwill earned with that gift. Cheng calls for an increased role of higher education and research institutions in China’s Arctic strategy, since as “unofficial” entities they are able to “effectively counter the ‘China Arctic threat theory’.” In this regard, the peculiar arrangement for the May event has been successful so far: voices in Greenland and Denmark that could have been expected to raise concerns about the project simply didn’t know about it.

And indeed such concerns have now been raised. This week’s AG quotes Nils Wang, head of Denmark’s Defence College (Forsvarsakademiet), a well-known expert on Arctic security and the second rear admiral to be featured in this story, after R Adm Chen. Wang says that the Danish Realm (the state comprising Denmark, Greenland and the Faroes) should have “full access” to the unprocessed data received at the Chinese station. “Such a ground station is not necessarily a problem in itself, says Wang, if the data it gathers are only used for scientific research and are shared openly between the partners in the agreement.” Even though he might not have been aware of the event’s military angle at the time he talked to AG, Wang warned that, absent a clear agreement on data access by the host country, such a station “can obviously also be used for intelligence gathering and military goals.”  Zinglersen, BNU’s main contact, appears to agree with that proposition in a new interview, although it’s clear data sharing is not part of any formal agreement (he had earlier hoped for access to the data for free or at a preferential price). Aaja Chemnitz Larsen, chair of the foreign affairs and security committee of Greenland’s parliament, who also learnt about May’s event through the press, thinks that the administration should be informed about such projects, and in turn inform parliament. She warns against getting “scared every time there is a Chinese project.” She finds it “a bit worrying” that the Greenlandic government hadn’t been informed about the deal, as it should have knowledge about all its conditions, including what kind of data will be transmitted and whether Greenland and Denmark will be given access.

Needless to say, these worries would have been promptly assuaged if the agreement had been discussed openly back in the summer.

 

An excursus into exoprop

This contrast between China’s messaging to domestic and foreign audiences, emphasising, respectively, national (including natural-resource and military) strategies, and scientific engagement and trade, has been illustrated on several occasions in Greenland. In the case of mining projects, state involvement tends to be downplayed for foreign audiences. The first Chinese exploration project in Greenland, near Carlsberg Fjord, involved state-owned major Jiangxi Copper, since it began in 2009; Chinese investment in the project had been a matter of high-level discussions in China, with the China Institute of Strategy and Management (中国战略与管理研究会), a government think tank, touting it to SOEs. However, Jiangxi Copper’s participation, deemed a “sensitive” matter, was only publicly described in a Western language in 2013, in my first blog post on Greenland. In another example, Shenghe Resources, the rare-earth giant that has invested in the Kvanefjeld/Kuannersuit project, tends to be described as a ‘private’ company, a description that obscures its state affiliation; Shenghe’s intent to eventually acquire a controlling stake in the project was also presented rather differently in China and Greenland.

This differentiated approach is not limited to Greenland. Anne-Marie Brady, the world’s leading expert on China’s polar policy, and also known for her earlier work on the propaganda apparatus, discusses it extensively in her latest book, China as a Polar Great Power. “The Chinese media tends to talk up China’s polar activities and achievements in Chinese-language materials, where as it downplays the same activities and achievements in materials aimed at foreigners.” In particular, China’s interest in the exploitation of Arctic and Antarctic resources, a key goal of its polar research activities, is made clear to Chinese audiences, but ‘downplayed or denied’ abroad.

This duplicitous approach needs to be understood as coming from an authoritarian Party-state that attaches great importance to information management, and has the capabilities to force its propaganda policies on media, business and academia to an extent Western spin doctors would never dream of. While this strategy often succeeds in convincing foreign interlocutors, such as scholars or officials without China expertise, it can also generate mistrust. The ‘other’ side of Chinese polar strategies does reach foreign observers sooner or later, installing the idea that China has something to hide. In fact, there’s nothing unspeakably sinister about such aspects of China’s polar interests as the exploration of natural resources (including the eventual opening of Antarctica to mineral exploitation) or its dual-use satellite navigation system. It is rather worrying, however, that Greenland’s government might feel inclined to humour China’s Party-state and follow its nontransparent practices, with potential long-term consequences for Greenland’s open society.

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China wants Greenland station ‘ASAP’; one candidate site near planned China Nonferrous investment

China wants to establish a permanent ground research station in Greenland ‘as soon as possible’, Yu Yong 俞勇, a researcher at the beautifully named PRIC (Polar Research Institute of China, 中国极地研究中心), said at the yearly Reykjavik ‘assembly’ of the Arctic Circle, an organisation chaired by former Icelandic president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson. This was first reported by Danish journalist Martin Breum for Sermitsiaq and on his Twitter account. Breum has long been covering Greenland, where he lived as a teenager, and has written a must-read book whose English version is free to download.

Breum tweeted a picture showing two candidate locations for the base:

 

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Via Martin Breum’s twitter.

The map shows two possible locations. One is in the southwest, near Kangaamiut or Maniitsoq. (Readers with better visual acuity and knowledge of Greenlandic geography may come to a more precise conclusion.) The northern one is of particular interest, and will be discussed below. The third red mark in the northeast, labelled 丹麦站 Dānmài zhàn ‘Danish station’ is indeed a Danish station, the military and scientific outpost Station Nord.

The Chinese delegation at the Reykjavik event includes several officials: State Oceanic Administration deputy director Lin Shanqing 林山青, MFA special Arctic representative Gao Feng 高风, and of course PRIC head Yang Huigen 杨惠根 (who sits at the board of the entity behind the event). Skimming through the programme, I see three sessions organised by Chinese entities (the PRIC (whose session is plenary), Beijing Normal University (北师大) and the China-Nordic Arctic Research Centre (CNARC, 中国—北欧北极研究中心)). In terms of quantity, that makes the Chinese presence comparatively strong among non-Arctic states, larger than e.g. South Korea’s. However, the Chinese delegation is unremarkable in terms of seniority next to, e.g., the UAE and, of course, some of the Arctic states.

It is remarkable that the event was chosen for the first official discussion of the Greenland station plans. On the other hand, it was left to a relatively junior figure, Yu Yong, a marine microbiologist with an ‘associate research fellow’ (副研究员) position. (Breum’s article misidentifies him as ‘vicedirector of PRIC’; the confusion might have been due to Yu’s status as ‘deputy head’ of a division within the PRIC.) Chinese plans for a base in Greenland had been under discussion for some time, in particular during a SOA visit to Greenland last year. What the announcement shows, besides the public disclosure of the potential locations, is that China can already count on the agreement of the Greenland government. As Breum notes, scientific research falls under the devolved purview of the Greenland government, and Copenhagen’s approval isn’t necessary in principle.

As quoted by Breum, Yu said China wants to build the station “as soon as possible”, while adding there’s no clear schedule yet.

The more impressive of the two proposed locations would of course be the northernmost one. The area will be familiar to regular readers: it’s near the Citronen Fjord zinc project, where minor miner Ironbark from Australia holds a mining permit. An arm of state-owned China Nonferrous (中色) has long had a series of non-binding agreements with Ironbark, showing an interest in financing and building the project. Zinc prices have been rising, which is good news for Ironbark, but the site’s remote location and lack of infrastructure make costs unusually high (indeed prohibitive, according to some). Ironbark shares don’t show signs of generalised enthusiasm for the mine.

There is, however, one entity that remains interested in the project: China Nonferrous, specifically its listed arm NFC (中色股份). One of its deputy general managers (副总经理), Qin Junman 秦军满, visited the Citronen site last August, accompanied by the crème of Greenland’s resources ministry: the minister (naalakkersuisoq) Múte Bourup Egede and the top career official, deputy minister (departmentschef) Jørgen Hammeken-Holm. The display of support is understandable: Citronen Fjord is one of two important, viable projects for Greenland’s economic development; the other one, the Kvanefjeld (Kuannersuit in Greenlandic) uranium and rare-earth project, also with Chinese involvement, is controversial, and indeed less to the minister’s liking. Ironbark is now working with NFC towards obtaining financing from Chinese banks.

If the project goes ahead, the Citronen mine would be, by a long stretch, the world’s northernmost (at 83°N), and indeed the northernmost settlement of any kind on dry land. During the initial phases of the project, most workers will be foreign, indeed most likely Chinese, so that nationality, and the state behind the entity doing the building, would hold the record. A competitor for that record could be the planned Chinese research station, assuming the northern site is finally chosen. It’s hard not to see the connection between these two planned locations; as is well known, neither Chinese scientific projects of this kind nor those of state-owned companies are disjoint from broader state policies. An obvious example is the Kvanefjeld uranium+REE project, where the Chinese investor is under the PRC Ministry of Land and Resources, and “implements a vision” reached at a meeting between the minister and Greenlandic officials.

(For those wondering: Citronen (‘the lemon’) Fjord isn’t so named because any citrics grow there. It honours Jørgen Haagen Schmith, who used the pseudonym as a resistance fighter during the Nazi occupation of Denmark. Walter Turnowsky has written about this for Sermitsiaq. I try to provide Greenlandic names for any Greenland locations I mention on this blog, but I’ve looked and asked around and apparently Citronen Fjord doesn’t have another name, possibly due to its remote location even by Greenlandic standards.)

As Yu’s map helpfully shows, the northern candidate site is located northwest of Station Nord, a rather strategic point. It’s only to be expected that the Danes are paying close attention at Chinese plans for the area. Indeed, some minor friction already occurred late last year, when Ironbark was applying for the exploitation licence; the Danish foreign ministry wrote to Greenland enquiring about the project, something the local authorities didn’t appreciate. The fact that no such enquiries had been sent concerning other mining projects without Chinese involvement makes the People’s Republic the elephant in the room.

Even though it hasn’t generated the mining boom that, as some might have imagined at some point, would suddenly make Greenland economically independent of Denmark, Chinese interests in the island are slowly increasing. Besides the mines and research stations, another interesting development is the last few month has been the start of the construction of a satellite ground station in cooperation between Beijing Normal University (北师大), Tele-Post and the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources (Pinngortitaleriffik/Grønlands Naturinstitut), announced last May.

update on General Nice: assets ordered seized

In another blow to the licence holder for the (inactive) Isua project in Greenland, a court in Zhejiang province has ordered the seizure of shares in several General Nice (俊安集团) companies. This includes the entire share capital of Tianjin General Nice Coke and Chemicals Co., Ltd (天津俊安煤焦化工有限公司) , whose legal representative is the chairman of General Nice Group, Cai Suixin 蔡穗新.

This adds to the legal troubles that haunt various General Nice companies, as well as the family in charge of it (including chairman Cai, his sister Cai Suirong 蔡穗榕 and their father Cai Mingzhi 蔡明志). I have given a sample of these cases in earlier posts.

The latest court order doesn’t directly target the owner of the Greenland project, but a Hong Kong case does. All cases against General Nice I’m aware of, in at least three jurisdictions, are related to unpaid debts. As detailed in my previous post on the topic, companies in the group, as well as Cai senior personally, have made it to the Supreme People’s Court “List of Dishonest Persons Subject to Enforcement” (失信被执行人名单) after dodging court-mandated payments. Besides public humiliation, List members can be subjected to other forms of government punishment, such as not being allowed to buy plane tickets.

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[.]

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.

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.

did a Greenland minister plan to visit Taiwan? [UPDATE: yes he did]

In a mystifying exchange at the regular Chinese foreign affairs ministry press conference, someone asked spokesman Geng Shuang 耿爽 if China had forced Greenland’s trade minister to cancel a visit to Taiwan last November. Here’s Geng’s answer, as published by the English-language MFA website (it matches the Chinese version just fine):

We stand firmly against any forms of official contact and interaction between Taiwan and countries that have diplomatic ties with us. The Chinese side appreciates Denmark’s adherence to the one China principle. As Denmark’s autonomous constituent country, Greenland should follow the foreign policy upheld by Denmark.

So, was a visit to Taiwan planned and then cancelled? A delegation including Vittus Qujaukitsoq, the Greenland minister (naalakkersuisoq) whose portfolio includes trade, certainly was all around China in late October and early November last year, as I reported at the time. They were in places as distant as Qingdao and Chongqing promoting different Greenlandic products, so it would have made perfect sense to go to Taiwan as well. Only without the minister, since taking an official to Taiwan would obviously generate a crisis with China.

As it happens, a Greenlandic trade delegation did visit Taiwan, only without the minister and while he was in China. In written comments to Sermitsiaq, the relevant Greenland government department denies there were any plans for the minister to go to Taiwan, a decision they took of their own accord rather than under Chinese pressure, even while they are “acquainted” with the One-China policy (i.e. the contention that Taiwan is a Chinese province).

It’s hard to imagine anyone in Greenland would have considered sending a minister to Taiwan, which makes Geng’s answer, without denying Chinese pressure to prevent a visit, only more mysterious.

[UPDATE, Jan 7: The mystery has been solved. Berlingske now says it was them who asked the question at the MFA press conference. Invitations had been sent for a ‘Greenland Day’ event in Taipei the minister would attend, but the he didn’t go, after China showed unease. The event proceeded without him.

And indeed, after reading the Berlingske story I went to the Facebook page of the Danish Trade Council in Taipei, where as late as October 19 a post linked to invitations to the event at the Taipei Regent, in English and Chinese, “on behalf of the Greenlandic delegation headed by the Ministry of Industry, Labour and Trade, and Foreign Affairs, Vittus Qujaukitsoq.” The minister was scheduled to open the event with a “welcome” at 9AM.

It’s quite remarkable the visit was organised thinking the Chinese wouldn’t notice or care, considering how much the Greenland gov’t care about cultivating relations with China. This has probably been Greenland’s first lesson on China’s ‘core interests’.]