[UPDATE (Jan 31): It won’t happen. Through their ‘consultants’, the investors have informed they’re calling it off because of the public criticism the project attracted since it was leaked to the press. (InBeijing, Bohusläningen, Dagens Nyheter)]
Backed by state-owned China Communications and Construction (CCCC, 中交建), a well-known Hong Kong-based United Front figure is lobbying a small Swedish municipality to let him build a large deep-sea port. Using a tactic seen elsewhere, state-linked investors leveraged Sweden’s decentralisation, which leaves decisions on foreign investment to local administrations, to avoid the public scrutiny that comes with interactions at a national level.
The Michelin-spangled harbour
Last November, Lysekil municipality officials, overseeing the local affairs of a population of 14,000, were Powerpoint-presented with an investment plan that includes the new port, expanding the existing one, a logistic centre, a bridge, roads, a health resort “with Michelin Star restaurants” and other desirable items. They were reportedly given ten days to respond.
The presentation, authored by three Swedish consultants. The languages used (English and simplified Chinese, for a Swedish audience) and word choice (“中国香港” ‘China’s Hong Kong’) suggest it’s not entirely their own work. Indeed, its ‘appendix’ largely translates the prospective investor’s website. Source: Jojje Olsson on Scribd.
And respond they did:
Lysekil municipality’s answer. Source: Olsson via Scribd.
Quite on time (or close enough for government work), the municipality commissioned a feasibility study, deeming the proposal “interesting”. The study was requested from the same consultants who had brought the contact with the investors in the first place, and authored the impressive presentation (which, as seen above, borrows rather extensively from the investor’s website). It should be ready this or next month.
The tactic of lobbying local officials and trying to get a fait accompli before the feared “China threat theory” (中国威胁论) can kick in has been seen elsewhere; a remarkable example covered on this blog is the satellite ground station project in Greenland, “officially started” without the government’s knowledge after cultivating a local scientist. Unfortunately for the investors and consultants, the news leaked, leading to national-media coverage and increased opposition. Critics question the port’s environmental impact and the security implications of having Chinese state-linked entities build and operate a major piece of infrastructure. The project has become known as ‘Lysekina’, a pun on the name of the town and the Swedish word for China. Jojje Olsson, who has been covering the case on his website and Swedish media, wrote a summary in English for the Taiwan Sentinel. For another English-language account, here’s Ola Wong talking to Lene Winther on Danish radio station Radio24syv.
Evaluate a Frontling, dispatch him
The main investor is Sunbase (新恒基), owned by Gunter Gao (Gao Jingde 高敬德). Gao is a prominent figure in Hong Kong United Front organisations. (The CCP’s United Front Work Department is charged with handling and controlling various external groups at home and abroad, using tactics that go back to the Comintern in the 1920s. A renewed focus on them is a feature of Xi Jinping’s administration, recently leading to unusual international exposure and a growing backlash in some countries. Cf. my ‘United Frontlings always win‘.) He was, in particular, the founding chairman of the Hong Kong Association for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China (中国和平统一促进会). ‘Reunification of China’ is of course a euphemism for the annexation of Taiwan. The APPRC’s Australian chapter is perhaps its most famous, thanks to its leadership‘s donations to the country’s major political parties.
Chairman Gao, representing Hong Kong at the 8th meeting of the Reunifier association. Beijing, 2009. Source: 中国统促会.
His seniority within United Front structures is illustrated by his participation in meetings with high officials. For an old example, here‘s a Xinhua story describing a visit to Beijing in 2009, where Gao met, among others, Du Qinglin 杜青林, then head of the Central United Front Work Department. He has been a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC, 政协会) for five consecutive terms. In Hong Kong, besides his membership in multiple CCP-linked organisations, he openly supports the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB)— to the point of obsequiousness. At a DAB fundraiser in 2016, he offered HK$18.8m for a specimen of calligraphy by Zhang Xiaoming 张晓明, then the central government’s representative in Hong Kong.
The HK$18.8m specimen. Source: HK01.
Zhang’s calligraphy reads: 度德而处 ”measure one’s virtue and manage [the situation]’, a Zuozhuan 左传 quote (隐公十一年) which, together with the following phrase (‘estimate one’s forces and proceed’), is alluded to in the idiom 度德量力 (‘measure one’s virtue and estimate one’s force’). In the Zuo locus classicus, Duke Zhuang 庄 of Zheng 郑 pacifies the ‘lawless’ (无刑) state of Xu 许 but, instead of simply annexing it, rules it through envoys from his court. Despite ruling the conquered state as a sort of protectorate, Zhuang refrains from imposing his country’s rites on it: past turmoil in his own state of Zheng, that pitted him against his mother and brother, shows his merits don’t entitle him to a claim to the vanquished state (he ‘measures his virtue’); and making the defeated Xu a friendly neighbour can be convenient (he ‘assesses his forces’). All in all, quite like the PRC’s rule of Hong Kong through envoys like Zhang Xiaoming, while letting it maintain a semblance of autonomy (‘two systems’) if it behaves, and ruling it through an envoy in its “west” (使公孙获许西偏) just like Beijing’s Liaison Office in HK occupies a skyscraper called ‘The Westpoint’ (西港中心); but of course he didn’t mean the allegory to apply wholesale. At the pro-Beijing fundraiser, he provided his own interpretation of the Zuo quote, in which it means “to proceed according to moral standards”, “reforming others with one’s own virtue”, and added the ‘assess your force’ second half of the quote could be a gift for the losing candidate at the next HK chief executive ‘election’. (Said election is in fact a staged, non-competitive event involving CCP-selected individuals. As of press time, it’s unclear if the official who played the ‘loser’ at the latest instantiation, John Tsang (曾俊华), received any consolation calligraphy.)
Gao Jingde’s $18.8m investment and shoeshining prowess has proved clever in retrospect: the virtuous calligrapher has since been promoted to the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (港澳办) in Beijing. He surely remembers fondly the purchase, and might keep it in a prominent place, perhaps pondering if the 德 dé ‘virtue’ in the phrase couldn’t be read as the one in his given name 敬德 Jìngdé: 度德而处 ‘evaluate Jingde and deploy him’.
Also in 2016, his company was found to share an address with eight groups entitled to vote for ‘functional constituency’ representatives (the non-democratically elected part of Hong Kong’s legislature, whose function is to limit the possibility of an opposition majority).
Promoting a glorious, civilising, superior Army
Most striking are Gao’s links to the military. As his company’s website puts it, he has “generously supported the publication” of various “valuable books with the intent of promoting the glorious image of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as a civilizing and a powerful force and of spreading the superior tradition and revolutionary spirit of the PLA”. The volumes, seemingly published by the pro-Beijing paper Wen Wei Po 文汇报’s publishing house, aren’t widely available and, as of press time, I haven’t been able to secure a copy. One of them, however, did apparently reach former president Jiang Zemin.
Such adulation has been remunerated. One of Gao’s companies, a Sunbase subsidiary called Sunbase International Properties Management Ltd (新恆基國際物業管理有限公司), has been managing all 18 plots used in Hong Kong by the PLA since the 1997 handover. Its website lists the PLA garrison, Beijing’s Liaison Office and Xinhua news agency among its main customers. The company changed its name from ‘Sunbase International Hotel Management’ in late 1996, reflecting its new focus on servicing the Party’s Army and state.
If Gunter Gao’s political and economic links to the Army and state might not be universally known, little needs to be said about CCCC, a state-owned company with an important role in China’s global port building and acquisition activities, part of the drive to build a ‘maritime power’ (海洋大国). CCCC is indeed involved in projects in Chinese ports in Gwadar, Pakistan and Colombo, Sri Lanka.
In short, the consortium seeking to build Scandinavia’s top Michelin-star port-cum-resort, though superficially a private endeavour, has links to the state and Army deep enough for it to serve as a potential instrument of national policy.
The project’s very existence is indeed consistent with regional and global policy goals. The Lysekil plans should indeed be read in the context of China’s general interest in securing port assets worldwide. In the North, in particular, there has been talk for years about Chinese involvement in deep-sea ports, in Iceland and Norway. The international connection has being noticed in Sweden. In a recent article, journalist Ola Wong advises Sweden to “study” the controversial 99-year lease of the Australian port of Darwin to Chinese company Landbridge.
Before it can reach its Michelin-studded glory, the Lysekina project will need to navigate all this unexpected scrutiny. Most importantly, Chairman Gao or his attendant consultants would need to convince the port’s prospective landowner, the refinery owned by Preem, who now categorically deny any intention to sell or lease.
Sweden isn’t often discussed on this blog; a somewhat relevant post discussed another port purchase, this time by Lau Ming-wai 刘鸣炜, the HK ‘government adviser’ who prematurely inherited a business empire from his convicted father.