China Seeks Influence in Europe, One Business Deal at a Time

It was led by Ye Jianming, who was born in a small village in the southern Chinese province of Fujian. He grabbed hold of assets once controlled by a notorious smuggler and in a few years parlayed them into a sprawling business empire with 30,000 employees. Mr. Ye traveled the world on his twin-engine Airbus 319 private jet, meeting heads of state, Russian oligarchs and the crown prince of Abu Dhabi.

CEFC was modeled on Mr. Xi’s vision of a stronger China — and it went where Mr. Xi wanted China to go. It struck deals in the United Arab Emirates and Kazakhstan. It courted top leaders in places like Albania, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Sudan and Uganda. Last year, it agreed to buy a $9 billion stake in Rosneft, the Russian oil giant, which put it firmly in the middle of the complicated but important relationship between Beijing and Moscow.

Its fast rise fueled rumors in China that Mr. Ye had ties to Mr. Xi, who once worked in Fujian, or other Chinese leaders. CEFC did little to discourage them. Mr. Ye was part of a group tied to the Chinese military, according to documents and experts. On its website, CEFC cited the military and Communist Party experience of its top executives.

The Czech Republic made a tempting target for CEFC’s international push. The country was a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, was disillusioned with the West and ready to do business.

CEFC bought a stake in Florentinum, one of Prague’s biggest office complexes. It invested in the Czech national airline, two hotels and a pair of Renaissance-era buildings. It bought a brewery that traces its roots back more than 700 years.

Mr. Zeman’s staff trumpeted the deals as proof that courting China made economic sense.

“People believed the rhetoric,” said Olga Lomova, the head of the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation International Sinological Center of Charles University in Prague. “We have the Chinese. We will be happy again.”

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