China president Xi Jinping's government has fired another warning shot at global dealmakers doing business with Chinese billionaires: not even the most well-connected tycoons are safe.
Ye Jianming, a globe-trotting Chinese tycoon who runs the conglomerate CEFC China Energy company, has been investigated by authorities, according to people with knowledge of the situation. The news, first reported by local media outlet Caixin, comes shortly after Xi's government seized Anbang Insurance Group, a global empire whose once-influential founder, Wu Xiaohui, is detained while facing fraud charges.
The scrutiny Ye is now drawing shows how little protection wealth and international connections provide elites in Xi's China. While many billionaires continue to thrive - including Alibaba Chairman Jack Ma and Pony Ma, the founder of Tencent Holdings - others have seen a swift downfall as Xi uses his increased powers to crack down on financial risks.
The reported investigation "shows that Chinese politics is not just opaque to outsiders, but to insiders as well," said Trey McArver, co-founder of Trivium/China, which advises companies that work in the country. "Both Ye and Wu convinced a lot of people within China, including powerful businessmen, regulators, etc., that they were well connected."
A Shanghai-based spokesman for CEFC declined to comment.
Since coming to power, Xi has moved to halt the debt-fueled expansion of China's biggest businesses, and pushed an anti-corruption campaign that has already nabbed more than 1.5 million Communist Party cadres. Other high-profile figures - including several billionaires - have found themselves in Beijing's crosshairs, including financier Xiao Jianhua, whose Tomorrow Holding Co. was ordered to divest from many of its financial assets.
Xi is set to strengthen his grip on power this month when China's rubber-stamp parliament meets to pass laws that would allow Xi to rule indefinitely and give him greater control over the levers of money and power. Some of China's biggest tycoons, including Pony Ma and Li Shufu, the billionaire founder of automaker Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, are also lawmakers.
Ye's obscure energy company vaulted onto the international scene last year after it agreed to buy a 14 percent stake in the Russian oil behemoth Rosneft for $9 billion, a deal that is yet to close. The Chinese firm also has other holdings around the world.
Czech President Milos Zeman appointed Ye as an adviser on economic policies in 2015, and company press releases list him meeting with everyone from European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to the senior officials from Georgia.
Still, CEFC has been under a spotlight since the head of a research organization funded by the company was arrested in the U.S. in November.
The executive is alleged to have been part of a bribery scheme, offering $2 million to the president of Chad to try to secure drilling rights for a Chinese energy company that matches the description of CEFC, and separately offering $500,000 to a Ugandan official. At a bail hearing this month, U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest said the evidence against the executive was "very strong."
The company has countered that it didn't have any investments in Uganda and that its Chad project didn't involve a relationship with the government.
Shares of companies related to Ye plunged in China, Hong Kong and Singapore after Caixin's report Thursday.
Wu's Anbang came under increased scrutiny following an overseas acquisition spree. It also drew attention with its aborted investment discussions in the proposed redevelopment of 666 Fifth Ave. in New York, a holding of Kushner Cos., the family company of President Donald Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner.
China's government doesn't attach importance to political connections established through private business channels, according to Hu Xingdou, an economics professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology.
"So for many multinational corporations and foreign dignitaries, it may not be a smart move to find such a private trader as a channel," he said.
Caixin reported the probe in a lengthy profile on Ye without saying where it got the information or specifying whether the probe has been concluded. A Shanghai-based spokesman for CEFC declined to comment. The company in a statement last year described itself as China's largest private oil and gas company, with 50,000 employees and revenue of more than $40 billion.
With the probes into the billionaires, "Xi is saying: 'Don't use the Party to get rich,'" said McArver from Trivium/China. "What Xi wants is: 'Get rich for the Party.'"