How to Track Chinese Businesses in Africa, Europe and Southeast Asia: Tips and Tools from Top Investigative Reporters

The full house packed into the panel Tracking Chinese Business at the Uncovering Asia conference said it all. As Chinese investments reach the furthest corners of the globe, journalists around the world are taking serious notice.

Reporters from The Guardian, The New York Times and the South China Morning Post shared their tips with journalists on how to investigate Chinese businesses in Africa, Europe and Southeast Asia, and shared forensic tools and resources to help reporters follow the money.

Know Your Subject

Graphics from the New York Times’ report by Maria Abi-Habib. Screenshot.

Maria Abi-Habib of the New York Times uncovered the story behind the transfer of a Sri Lankan port to China under heavy pressure of debt. Before assigned to the story, Abi-Habib had never been to Sri Lanka and didn’t have any experience reporting on it. To investigate the deal between China and Sri Lanka, she “built a human database” of her own, beginning with studying thousands of pages of articles related to the issue, taking particular advantage of Sri Lanka’s local media. While reading, Adi-Habib took down the names of those who may have been involved and asked for meetings with almost everyone of them, leading to key sources and documentary evidence. Here are her top tips to journalists:

Read extensively and exhaustively: scour every single page of every single document to find little red flags; make good use of local media’s reporting.

Meet as many people as possible: you will be surprised by how many people know about one other in a small country like Sri Lanka.

Cultivate “small fish” sources: mid-level officials and retired foreign officials are often good sources who have inside details and may lead you to even more valuable sources.

Avoid Generalisation

Lily Kuo of the The Guardian, who specializes in China’s Belt and Road Projects (including overland corridors and maritime shipping lanes) in Africa, noted the importance of understanding the issues from the ground, in order to rid the subject of of bias and generalizations.

Lily Kuo’s report on Chinese businesses’ influence in South Africa. Screenshot.

Using her own experiences as examples, she summed up three approaches to covering the topic of China and Africa, which are also helpful when examining Chinese businesses abroad in general:

Look at the range of Chinese engagement. It’s not all about big companies but many small and private entrepreneurs as well.

Realise that there’s other levels of globalization as opposed to an entirely a top-down approach of the Chinese state as widely perceived by public.

Make sure to look at the ground level impact on the locals. This is how you can find the most interesting stories which will help explain what Chinese investments or expansion mean to the countries involved.

Report Globally

The Swiss-based journalist and media consultant Patrick Boehler gave an overview of the heated topic of Chinese investment and influence in Europe, and reminded the audience that journalists need to take their reporting global. For journalists who often find it difficult to trace or ask questions about Chinese investment projects, Boehler listed some of the frequent red flags to look out for.

The increasing amount of research by European Union think tanks and newsrooms on China have also made covering Chinese investments an easier task for journalists, and Boehler included a list of sources where journalists can find some of that research.

Use Open Sources

Karen Zhang from the South China Morning Post shared comprehensive public sources where journalists can find and trace Chinese businesses in mainland China and Hong Kong. Her tips include everything from the official databases of governments or public institutions and commercial websites as well as a wide range of Chinese social media and other sources, such as the Panama Papers.

Going to the Source: A comprehensive resource to trace Chinese businesses from Karen Zhang’s presentation.

When tracing the money and people behind a dubious business, one of the most frequent issues for foreign journalists may likely be deciphering Chinese names. Check out Zhang’s useful tips for verifying identities as well as the example of her discovery of the fugitive Malaysian businessman Jho Low’s companies in Hong Kong.

Happy digging!

Siran Liang is GIJN’s Chinese editor. She has a master’s in journalism and media studies from the University of Hong Kong. Before joining GIJN, she interned for the Nepali Times, where she covered the country’s reconstruction after the 2015 earthquake, as well as the blockade by India during that time.

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