Is Fiji developer Freesoul a Chinese company?
The Chinese embassy in Suva has distanced itself from controversial resort developer Freesoul, saying it is not a Chinese company.
Freesoul has had its permits to develop one of Fiji's biggest tourism resorts on Malolo Island revoked after revelations by Newsroom of environmental destruction and disputes with local landowners.
The Chinese Embassy has cautioned local Fijian media to be careful in labelling Freesoul 'Chinese'.
However, Newsroom’s investigation has revealed one of the firm’s biggest backers is a state-run media company.
The Shanghai Media Group runs radio and television stations in China’s biggest city and entered into a strategic cooperation agreement with Freesoul Cultural International (Shanghai) Resort World Co Ltd to develop the Malolo Island resort.
In most Chinese language references to the joint project in promotions and property seminars, the resort is called China-Fiji Cultural Resort World.
In one article in China, the resort is said to be wholly owned by Freesoul International, "which was founded by the Chinese".
On a site called 5i5j.com, Freesoul Cultural International (Shanghai) Resort World Co. Ltd is directly advertised as the developer of the Malolo resort.
And on at least two other Chinese headhunting websites the company has been advertising for Chinese staff for the resort. It describes itself as being "devoted to the cultural exchange, travel, wedding, filming and trade between China and Fiji in responding to the state's Belt and Road Initiative to promote the global economic integration."
Freesoul started in Fiji in 2002, going from a telecoms business (its executive director Dickson Peng still operates from a mobile phone shop in Suva) to now reportedly owning 6000 acres of land in Fiji, with 1200 under development and priority given to tourism properties since 2017.
Shanghai Media Group took responsibility under its cooperation agreement with Freesoul for all media promotion in China of the new Resort World.
In 2017 another mainland company, Beijing Aptech Jade Bird, allied with Freesoul’s mainland Chinese company to set up an IT training school and then a hospitality industry school to train workers in Suva for hotel work.
Despite its corporate links, and the arrival in Fiji in the past two years of groups of workers from mainland China, the Chinese Ambassador to Fiji, Bo Qian, told Fijian media his government did not recognise Freesoul as a Chinese company.
“As far as we have found, this company is not a Chinese company. It is most likely a Fijian company. Strictly speaking this has nothing to do with the Chinese Embassy or China,” Mai TV reported.
It quoted Bo saying: “Whether he (Dickson Peng) looks like a Chinese, it doesn’t matter. What matters is his passport. I think it is important for the press and even for the government to find out the exact citizenship of those people who are the owners of this company so that you will have a better understanding.”
Bo said that his embassy, in its capacity as the arm of the Chinese government in Fiji, would make sure Chinese companies were “behaving well and behaving responsibly”.
He implied the Fijian authorities might be more closely connected to Freesoul than the Chinese government. “We also know there are some connections with some of the officials or relatives of the officials that are involved in this project. This might be an internal issue for the Fiji government or the business circle.”