SOME international observers have concluded that the Queensway syndicate is a front for the Chinese government. The argument goes that Sam Pa and his partners help China to purchase much-prized resources while keeping official hands clean. Indeed, there are some links. Mr Pa has military contacts in China from selling arms to Angola during the Cold War. The Chinese ambassador in Venezuela appeared alongside him on “Aló Presidente”. The China International Fund office in Angola is run by a former Chinese colonel. And in a company filling, a Beijing address for Wu Yang, one of the syndicate’s original members, matches an address associated with the ministry of state security.
Yet it would be wrong to assume that the syndicate is controlled from Beijing. The Chinese government has made at least three strongly worded statements denying any link with the Queensway syndicate. It has repeated them to Western diplomats in private. China was so wary of corruption surrounding oil deals that in 2004 its secret service supposedly gave the Angolan president a list of 20 top officials who were trying to skim off money.
China’s protestations appear to be mostly genuine. There are at least four pieces of evidence in its favour. First, the Angolans, including Mr Vicente, seem to have gained a significant hold on the syndicate. Recent company fillings in Singapore show that China Sonangol now owns China International Fund, the original vehicle.
Second, when two Chinese state oil firms had a chance three years ago to buy their first stakes in an Angolan oilfield, Sonangol intervened to scupper the $1.3 billion deal, making sure the field went to China Sonangol instead—a strategic loss to China, which is dependent on Angolan oil.
Third, when Mr Vicente and China Sonangol signed their vast deal with the junta in Guinea they shut out a range Chinese state-owned firms from future concessions, even though some of them were already entrenched. Why would China sponsor a private company to undermine its national champions?
Fourth, the syndicate’s founder Mr Wu, who may have had a link with the ministry of state security, no long has any influence in the syndicate—last year Mr Wu sued the other founders, saying they no longer allowed him access to company documents. This year he failed to appear in official records as a director. He was pushed out.
The syndicate looks as if it is a private enterprise. The Chinese state may see it as a necessary evil, letting it operate in Angola and thus insulating Chinese state companies from the corruption that sometimes surrounds large resource deals.