The following article featured in BusinessLive (eEdition) on 25 July 2019. It is authored by John Grobler. The article was compiled with the financial support of Journalismfund.eu’s Money Trail grant programme.
Chinese ‘lying money’, or fei qian, is an ancient form of value exchange. But its modern incarnation is blamed for stripping Africa of its resources.
The secret of Chinese commercial success in Africa, as suggested by an 18-month investigation into the drugs-for-abalone and rosewood trade and a major Namibian tax fraud case, is an ancient system that not only allows African countries to be robbed of taxes, but also plays a part in financing the global $270bn-a-year wildlife contraband trade.
Fei qian, or “flying money”, dates back about 1,200 years, to the Tang Dynasty in China. In its simplest modern incarnation, it is a low-cost and trusted method of remitting money, much like the Islamic hawala system. For example, a person who wants to send funds to a recipient in Africa will pay a fei qian broker in China. For a commission, the broker will arrange that a counterpart in Africa pays the recipient, again for a commission. The two fei qian brokers later settle their account through, for example, the transfer of commodities of equivalent value — but also sometimes through less salubrious methods such as transfer mispricing or invoice manipulation.
In practice, the system relies on the systematic underinvoicing of Chinese imports into Africa and a seamless chain of payments system in which accounts are settled through the transfer of high-end — and often illicit — goods such as abalone, rosewood, rhino horn and ivory. In brief: goods are undervalued on their import documentation; they are then sold for cash; and that undeclared cash is subsequently channelled into high-end commodities that are remitted to China to balance the fei qian books.
“The trick behind fei qian is that the money never actually leaves China,” says a former Singaporean finance expert, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It’s just the commodities that get moved around” as part of a longer payment chain among the Chinese diaspora.
Unlike barter trade, fei qian is not a straight swap; it is an exchange in stored value that leaves no paper trail, except in the books of the fei qian operators themselves. What makes the system even more impenetrable, the investigation has found, is that these operators mostly seem to be older, well-established women working in a closed network of mutually trusted contacts.
This nexus, and lack of paper trail, means fei qian is largely invisible. But it occasionally appears as a gaping hole in a country’s balance of payments account with China – as Namibia has discovered in an ongoing import-tax fraud investigation.
Jack Huang, a business associate of President Hage Geingob, and Laurentius Julius, a former Walvis Bay customs official and now a customs clearing agent, are among eight suspects facing 3,215 charges of fraud and money laundering in the Windhoek high court. Continue reading →