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Australian-based Chinese company encounters opposition in PNG

Written by: Nick G. on 21 May 2021


More than 40 clans along the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea have joined forces to oppose an Australian-based company and its plans to open one of the world’s largest copper, silver and gold mines.

It is the latest development in an on-going dispute which has been raging for over a decade.

The company, headquartered in Brisbane, is PanAust.  In addition to its interests in PNG, it owns a 90 per cent interest in the Lao-registered company, Phu Bia Mining Limited (Phu Bia Mining, PBM). The Government of Laos owns the remaining 10 per cent.

It also owns a 90 per cent interest in Myanmar’s Wuntho Resources Company Limited (WRCL) and has established a joint venture with Myanmar Energy Resources Group International Company Limited, a Myanmar-based company which holds the remaining 10 per cent of WRCL.

In South America, it holds a 66 per cent interest in the Inca de Oro Copper-Gold Project through a Chilean incorporated joint venture, Inca de Oro S.A. (with Codelco). The Company also as a 100 per cent interest in the nearby Carmen copper-gold deposit.

Not bad, perhaps for a small Australian-based company. But who owns it, and what is it up to in PNG? 

Aussie-based, Chinese-owned

PanAust began its life as a small Australian-owned mining company.  It was listed on the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX) and its largest shareholders were originally nominee companies of some of the world’s largest banks. They included JP Morgan, HSBC, National and Citicorp. 

But then the Chinese started buying in. In 2011, the Guangdong Rising H.K. (Holding) Limited, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Guangdong Rising Asset Management (GRAM) had 23.38% of the shares, becoming the largest shareholder. 

In 2015, GRAM offered $1.1 billion to buy out the remaining shareholders.  The Directors opposed the sale, but agreed when the Chinese raised stakes to $1.2 billion. Having become a wholly-owned private Chinese company, it was delisted from the ASX and there were no further trades in its shares.

Chinese-owned, Chinese-run

With its takeover completed, the new Chinese owners sacked the old Board of Directors and six of the seven are now Chinese. The two most influential are Dr Yang Qun, Executive Chairperson, and Mr Zheng Daling, Director and Chief Financial Officer. 

Since 2011, Dr Yang Qun has held the roles of Deputy General Manager and General Manager with Shenzhen Lingnan Nonfemet Company Limited (Nonfemet) overseeing corporate culture and human resources for the Company and its subsidiaries (including overseas entities). He has been active in dismantling socialist ownership, having been involved in mergers and acquisition processes for state-owned enterprises and state-owned listed companies in China.

Dr Yang is also a Non-Executive Director of Perilya Ltd, another Australian-based and formerly Australian-owned mining company. Perilya Limited is a foreign-owned public unlisted company, deriving revenue from the mining and exploration of base and precious metals. The company operates in Australia, Malaysia, Americas, Ireland, South Africa and Mauritius, and is administered from its head office in Perth. The company is a wholly owned subsidiary of Dr Yang’s Shenzhen Zhongjin Lingnan Nonfemet Co Ltd.

Prior to joining PanAust, Mr Zheng Daling worked at Dr Yang’s Zhongjin Lingnan Nonfemet Co Ltd where he was involved in mergers, acquisitions, and the asset management of international mines. He also worked at the China Ping An Group where he was responsible for the acquisition of global-listed companies and commercial banks, and has also been responsible for corporate banking at the China Minsheng Bank.

Does a socialist society produce such avaricious finance capitalists? No, but then China is no longer socialist.

What is the story in PNG?

The scale of the proposed mine is enormous. If approved and built, it would be the largest in PNG’s history, and one of the largest in the world, covering 16,000 hectares. It is situated on the Frieda river, a tributary of the Sepik in the north of PNG, and is forecast to yield gold, silver and copper worth an estimated US$1.5bn a year for more than 30 years.

However, clans downstream of the Frieda, and particularly along the Sepik are concerned by forecasts of environmental damage and health risks, particularly given the propensity of tailings dams to leak with disastrous consequences. And the location of the proposed dam is a seismically active area, adding to fears about the dam being damaged by earthquake.

Determined to try and win a “social license” (community approval) for the mine’s go-ahead, PanAust has engaged in consultation with some local communities and has show-cased a so-called Frieda River Project Accord with leaders from seven nearby villages. However, this was compromised by reports of official (mainly police) intimidation of anti-mine activists, and by reports that some human rights defenders in the region had received death threats and been shot at by “unidentified individuals”.

Then there was a conflict with employees over unresolved pay disputes that led to a work stoppage or ‘sit down’. According to the company, “a small group of employees acted outside of the agreed Company grievance protocols and demanded PanAust address their concerns. The actions of these employees endangered other site colleagues, placed the Company’s property at risk, and forced the evacuation of the Project site. These interruptions also forced the suspension of all site activities, including community programs.”

Australians should be concerned that a company based in Australia, but owned by China, is out to exploit PNG’s resources.

We will soon publish a report on a similar pattern involving Australian and Australian-based mining companies operating in Africa.


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