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CHINA

Spain under pressure from China over ICBC bank raid

China on Thursday urged Spain to "safeguard the legal rights and interests" of employees of Chinese megabank ICBC, following their arrest by Spanish authorities on suspicion of laundering tens of millions euros.

Spain under pressure from China over ICBC bank raid
Police raided the ICBC bank and arrested its director. Photo: AFP

Spanish police searched the Madrid branch of ICBC on Wednesday, arresting five of its directors as part of a probe into the suspected laundering of at least €40 million ($44.5 million).

“We hope that the Spanish side would deal with the relevant issue in accordance with the law and honestly safeguard the legal rights and interests of Chinese companies”, foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said during a regular press briefing.

A spokesman for the bank in Beijing told Chinese media that its Madrid branch will actively cooperate with the investigation, saying that the bank “strictly implements anti-money laundering provisions” and operates in compliance with regulations, adding that the bank's Europe-based lawyers have hurried to Madrid in response to the probe.

The bank is suspected of allowing funds earned through the alleged crimes of smuggling, tax fraud and labour exploitation to be transferred “to China in a way that appeared legal”, Spanish police said in a statement.  

“Spain has become an important destination of investment from Chinese companies and financial institutions”, Hong said, calling on the country to “safeguard the sound state” of the relationship.

Spanish police said the raid was a follow-up to an operation carried out last year that targeted Madrid-based Chinese gangs suspected of importing huge amounts of goods from China without declaring them on customs forms to avoid import and tax duties.

The crime groups allegedly deposited their illicit proceeds into ICBC accounts, with the lender accused of sending the funds to China without checking their origin as required by law.

ICBC is not the first Chinese bank embroiled in controversy over money-laundering overseas.

Last June Italian prosecutors alleged that the Bank of China was involved in illegal transfers of large sums of money out of the country.    

A month later the US Federal Reserve faulted China Construction Bank for weaknesses in its anti-money-laundering programme.  

ICBC is the world's largest bank by market capitalisation. It entered the Spanish market in January 2011 with the inauguration of its branch in Madrid.    

More than 190,000 Chinese nationals legally live in Spain, making the Chinese immigrant population the fourth largest foreign community in the country, according to Spain's national statistics institute INE.

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FOOTBALL

Wu Lei’s move to Spain’s ‘Liga’ is ‘massive’, says ‘China’s Beckham’

Wu Lei's transfer to La Liga is "massive" for Chinese football, says a former international who made a similar journey 19 years ago and helped convince the forward to take the plunge in Europe.

Wu Lei's move to Spain's 'Liga' is 'massive', says 'China's Beckham'
Espanyol's unveiled its new Chinese forward Wu Lei on January 29, 2019. Photo: AFP

Xie Hui knows what it is like to venture out of the relative obscurity of Chinese football and make a success of it, having scored goals in Germany's second division.

Now 44 and retired from playing, Xie also knows Wu better than most after working with him for the last few years at Chinese Super League champions Shanghai SIPG.


Xie Hui looking on during an AFC Champions League group stage football match last week. 

Wu left SIPG, where Xie is an assistant coach, for Espanyol in January for a reported €2 million ($2.25 million) and made history this month when he became the first Chinese to score in Spain's top league.

Few Chinese have played among Europe's elite, but Xie told AFP that 27-year-old Wu can make as much of an impact — if not more — as Sun Jihai, who was at Premier League Manchester City from 2002-2008.

“I have no doubt that he has the capability to play in a top league, in a decent team,” Xie said of last season's CSL top-scorer.   

“He always had this dream so he would talk to me and say, 'Oh, but what about the language?' But football is a common language.   

“I told him not to worry, the most important is on the pitch and the training ground. They will respect you if you show it on the pitch, it's as simple as that.”

Xie, who once earned comparisons to David Beckham, because he was married to an actress/model, sent Wu a message of congratulations after his landmark goal in Chinese-owned Espanyol's 3-1 win over Real Valladolid.   

Wu's progress is being closely monitored in China and millions back home will watch the broadcast of Espanyol's city derby with Lionel Messi's Barcelona on March 30.

“It's massive, massive, and something we missed for almost the last 15 years,” Xie said of what Wu's move meant for the development of Chinese football.

Need for speed

Like Wu, Xie was a forward, and after starting his career at Shanghai Shenhua, he moved to Alemannia Aachen in Germany's second tier in 2000.   

Xie hit 20 goals in 52 games and attracted the attention of teams in Germany's top flight, before returning to Shenhua in 2002.   

He had two further stints in Germany, before retiring in 2008.   

Xie, who scored nine goals in 22 appearances for China, warned that Wu will need to be patient and “speed up his mindset” in Spain.   

“Pace and physically, he has no problem,” Xie said.   

“But the CSL is much slower, he had much more time, two seconds in front of the goal. But maybe in Spain, you have just one second.”   

Xie, who has worked under the “unique personalities” of Sven-Goran Eriksson, Andre Villas-Boas and now Vitor Pereira at SIPG, is confident Wu will succeed in La Liga.

But he is less optimistic about the immediate future of Chinese football.   

“I do not see that many (like Wu Lei), I would say another one or two, and that's it of that generation,” he warned.   

That dearth of quality hurts the national side, who have qualified for the World Cup only once, in 2002.

So what hopes of reaching Qatar 2022?   

“That will be a miracle, I would not bet over 50 percent,” said Xie.

“From my understanding it will come, but later, at least 10 years from now.

By AFP's Peter Stebbings 

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