Seven years before his detention at a Beijing hotel earlier this month, Sam Pa took his place at a stately boardroom table in Sinopec’s Beijing headquarters opposite a row of dark-suited officials from the vast Chinese state-owned oil group.
Sporting his usual spectacles and goatee beard, Mr Pa wore a loud pink sweater. It was just before Christmas 2008 and he was riding high. It was four years since he first brought oil men from China and Angola together. This latest meeting offered another demonstration of the guanxi, or well connectedness, that had allowed the middleman with seven names to cut multibillion-dollar deals that had spurred China’s advance into Africa.
He boasted ties to China’s intelligence services and could open doors both in Beijing and African capitals. He had proven his ability to win access to the continent’s resources for Chinese state-owned groups.
Mr Pa’s apparent fall this month will reverberate through those African states and the governments — often among the continent’s most repressive and corrupt — with which he has struck pacts.
Some in Beijing had long been vexed by the insistence from some African rulers that Chinese groups use Mr Pa as a middleman, according to people familiar with the relationship.
In Angola, one experienced mining executive predicts that Beijing might seek to cut out Mr Pa’s network and could renegotiate deals with the government using the bargaining power that comes from the African petro-state’s fiscal crisis.
Yet the Angolan who sat beside Mr Pa at that 2008 Sinopec meeting remains influential. Manuel Vicente, who along with Mr Pa was an architect of the so-called Queensway group of Hong Kong-based companies, was then the head of the state oil company Sonangol and is now vice-president in the authoritarian government.
Mr Pa’s status now is unclear. He could yet be released and resume his globe-trotting and dealmaking. A lawyer for the Singapore arm of China Sonangol, the Queensway group’s partnership with the Angolan state oil company, told the Financial Times that that company’s business interests were not dependent on any individual. He emphasised that Mr Pa was formally only an adviser to the group, even though foreign governments that have dealings with him have described him as a senior executive in Queensway companies.
According to local media and a person familiar with the matter, Mr Pa was led away from a Beijing hotel on October 8 on the orders of China’s ruling Communist party. The previous day, state media had announced that Su Shulin, a former Sinopec boss who had sat across from Mr Pa at that 2008 meeting, had been placed under investigation for “suspected serious disciplinary offences”. The investigation came after Sinopec ordered a wide-ranging audit of its overseas assets acquired in a spending spree.
If Mr Pa has joined the ever-lengthening list of influential Chinese felled by President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, the eclectic conglomerate he fronts looks in peril. “A relationship cannot be bought nor transferred,” says a former associate. “[It] takes years of voyage together to built trust.”
Beyond his Angolan base, Mr Pa cultivated African strongmen including Robert Mugabe and, further afield, built business connections in Dubai, Moscow and, according to an Asian official, North Korea.
Beijing had already been moving to shift the basis of its African relationships away from personal ties such as those Mr Pa has amassed, seeking to operate instead through more formal institutions such as multilateral development banks.
In December, South Africa will host the latest summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, the body that has given formal shape to perhaps the continent’s most dynamic relationship. Mr Xi is due to attend.
From the start of his rise in 2003, it was Chinese demand for African commodities and African demand for Chinese-financed infrastructure that created Mr Pa’s opportunity. That was the play from which the Queensway group profited and which let it expand outwards into other sectors, including real estate from Singapore to Manhattan.
Slowing growth has damped China’s demand for African oil and minerals. Falling commodity prices have forced resource-dependent African governments to cut their budgets. The economic winds appear to have been turning against Mr Pa, regardless of his apparent troubles with Communist party bosses at home.
Additional reporting by Lucy Hornby in Beijing
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