Chinese trade park opening in former US base – or is it?

Ásbrú, an enterprise park built on part of a former US Navy base in southwest Iceland, is being claimed to host a Chinese trade centre, called Iceland Free Trade Park (冰岛自由贸易园). A search for interested Chinese companies has been going on since last year and, according to a calendar on the Park’s own website, a series of gift product exhibitions should have already started last week, but a lack of announcements anywhere else suggests the project isn’t quite following that timetable. The company that manages Ásbrú signed an MOU in early 2014 on the construction of such a space for Chinese businesses, but it’s unclear if the project has gone any further than that, despite a self-description that presents the Chinese trade park as already ‘established’.

Ásbrú (also known in Old Norse as Bifrǫst or Bilrǫst) was a rainbow bridge between heaven and earth in Norse mythology. The Chinese trade park’s motto is ‘a springboard (跳板) into the EU market’. Although the metaphor seemingly hasn’t proved enticing enough for Chinese investors to come the way of the Æsir, the idea behind it is that Iceland can serve as a platform to export into the European market via its free-trade agreements with both China and the EU.

The most visible figure behind the Chinese trade park is Zheng Zaiwang 郑在望 (Frank Zheng). Zheng leads a group of companies offering high-end leisure and business travel services to Chinese customers, controlled through the HK-registered Luxe China Investment Ltd (至尊中国投资有限公司). One of these companies has been importing Iceland Spring mineral water to China for several years, and since 2013 owns a stake in the producer in Iceland itself.

Iceland Spring isn’t terribly popular in China; Zheng said in ’13 he hoped the FTA would allow for more competitive prices. The liquid’s marketability is surely helped by a very lucky pH of 8.88. Icelandic Glacial, a competitor with a pH of just 8.4, has managed to make inroads in Taiwan.

Zheng first came to Iceland in the 90’s to work as a coach at sports club Gerpla in Kópavogur and later signed up to study Icelandic at the University of Iceland. Later, he turned to organising business trips to China for Icelandic businesspeople, an activity a 1994 article in (now defunct) magazine Eintak portrayed as a tad murky: he didn’t appear to have a business permit, and a former client accused Zheng of essentially cheating him out of his Chinese business deals.

Colourful though those early days might have been, Zheng seemed to be in good standing with the Icelandic authorities in 2009, when Zheng’s luxury travel and mineral water companies ‘co-organised‘ the opening ceremony of the Icelandic Consulate in Shanghai. Zheng got to talk at the event and took the opportunity to promote Icelandic water and invite everyone to travel there.

Zheng’s business was again an official sponsor of the Icelandic pavilion at the Shanghai Expo in 2010. He was also at the official banquet when premier Wen Jiabao visited Iceland in 2012. He interacted with both Wen and Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir and was photographed with both.

A hat tip to Hjálmar Friðriksson of Stundin, who pointed me to the existence of the trade park project and kindly shared other information.