Philanthropist, big spender, warlord: Chinese tycoon's Australian faces

Fri May 23, 2014 12:34am EDT
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By David Lague and Charlie Zhu

PERTH/HONG KONG (Reuters) - Former managers and staff at Liu Han’s Australian operations were dumbfounded when the Chinese tycoon went on trial last month for leading a murderous, mafia-style gang.

In 2009 when Liu, 48, launched a bid to take control of Moly Mines, executives then running the Perth-based company ordered background checks. Their findings could not have been more different: Liu was best known in China as a philanthropist in his native Sichuan province.

One story stood out. Amid the devastation near the epicenter of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, a school Liu had helped build remained standing and all of its students had escaped unharmed. In contrast, many other shoddily built classrooms, so-called “tofu schools”, had collapsed, killing thousands of children. Liu also donated generously to reconstruction and relief efforts.

For Moly Mines, Liu's philanthropy enhanced his credibility as an investor in Australia. "No one said he was a criminal”, says Collis Thorp, then chief operating officer of Moly Mines and a veteran of Western Australia’s booming mineral sector.

After opening negotiations with Liu, the Australian executives also learned he had global ambitions. Liu wanted Moly Mines to become the platform for an international commodity trading house. The company was sitting on a massive molybdenum deposit, thought to be the second biggest in the world, in Western Australia’s mineral rich Pilbara region.

Molybdenum provides strength, heat tolerance and corrosion resistance in a range of specialized steel alloys for industrial and military use and is seen as a strategic commodity. Liu said he could arrange financing from Chinese banks to build and operate mines on the deposit.

Neither Moly Mines nor Australian regulators say they turned up any findings about Liu that would threaten the deal. In late 2009, Liu’s privately-held Sichuan Hanlong Group won approval from the Australian government, paying $140 million for 52 per cent of Moly Mines and providing the company with a $60 million loan. Hanlong also pledged to secure $500 million in funding to develop the deposit.

For Moly executives, one unnerving fact did emerge from Liu’s past: someone had tried to kill him. In 1997, Liu narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in his hometown of Guanghan when a gunman fired two shots at him but missed, according to reports in the official media of court cases in China. Liu’s Australian managers and advisors say they assumed the failed hit explained why the Chinese tycoon always traveled with a bodyguard.   Continued...

Liu Han, former chairman of Hanlong Mining, smokes a cigarette during a conference in Mianyang, Sichuan province, in this picture taken March 21, 2008. REUTERS/Stringer