HONG KONG — A mysterious Chinese buyer surprised the financial world last year when it swooped in to buy a $9 billion chunk of Russia’s state oil company. Few outside of China had ever heard of the firm, called CEFC China Energy, or could explain how it would complete — or even pay for — such an expensive and politically sensitive deal.
The company’s young chairman, Ye Jianming, cast himself as a new kind of private entrepreneur in China. He had somehow become a big player in a strategic sector long dominated by big state companies. He appeared to have the government’s blessing and a relationship with a group tied to China’s military, according to experts.
His company invested so much in the Czech Republic that the Czech president named him an economic adviser.
But Mr. Ye now appears to have come under pressure from the government of President Xi Jinping, joining other major corporate figures in China.
Caixin, the Chinese business magazine, reported this month that Mr. Ye was being investigated for unspecified reasons. A person briefed on the company’s situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that several senior executives had been barred from leaving the country.
CEFC declined to comment for this article. Earlier, it issued a statement condemning the Caixin report as “irresponsible” and saying it was not based on fact.
Beijing is trying to rein in the unruly side of its corporate giants — plucky, privately run companies that burst onto the global scene just a few years ago, scooping up billions of dollars worth of hotels, properties, companies and even high-profile soccer teams. They financed their acquisitions by borrowing large sums, posing a challenge for China’s pledge to tackle rapidly growing debt in its financial system.
Mr. Xi has sent a strong message to China’s billionaires and entrepreneurs that such unrestrained deal-making will no longer be tolerated. In February, the government seized Anbang Insurance, the owner of the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan and the buyer of billions of dollars worth of other properties around the world. Wu Xiaohui, Anbang’s chairman who was detained in July of last year, was charged with economic crimes.
Like Anbang, CEFC appears to have taken on significant debt. Two Chinese ratings firms, China Chengxin and United Credit Ratings, have downgraded their outlook on the company’s finances, citing mounting debt. United Credit also cited the report of the investigation of Mr. Ye.
This week, an employee in the Hong Kong office of CEFC’s nonprofit arm said the office was closing and other employees had resigned.
But much of CEFC’s rise, and the reasons behind its latest stumbles, remain murky. “I had never heard this company being talked about before the Rosneft deal,” said Xizhou Zhou, head of power, gas, coal and renewables at IHS Markit, an information provider. “It wasn’t on people’s radar at all,” he said.
CEFC also faces a legal challenge in the United States.
American officials arrested a top executive of its nonprofit arm in November and charged him with offering bribes to officials in Uganda and Chad in exchange for oil rights. While court documents do not mention CEFC, the details of the case show prosecutors have evidence that Mr. Ye and other executives were apprised of the executive’s activities.
In a rare interview in 2016 with Fortune, which ranked him on its list of top business executives under 40 years old, Mr. Ye said he got his start buying oil assets that once belonged to Lai Changxing, a Chinese businessman who fled to Canada to avoid charges of running a smuggling ring. To get the funding, Mr. Ye said, he sold investors on a business that would find opportunities where China’s state oil companies could not compete. He was in his mid-20s at the time.
In the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis, CEFC scooped up European oil assets and built up a network of oil storage facilities and transport services through Central Asia and Europe.
Eventually, CEFC was able to secure highly coveted licenses to import oil as the government began to open up the oil sector. In Hainan province, CEFC’s oil storage facilities are used as part of the country’s strategic reserves.
By 2015, it had posted nearly $40 billion in revenue.
While not state run, CEFC showed it knew how to navigate politics. Mr. Ye, for example, has said in his official biography that he was once deputy secretary of an organization called the China Association for International Friendly Contact. That group is part of China’s People’s Liberation Army, according to researchers for the United States Congress, and according to Mark Stokes, a former United States military attaché in China and the executive director of a defense research group, the Project 2049 Institute.
It also has direct ties to the ruling Communist Party, through an internal party committee and the Communist Youth League, a training ground for many officials, according to its website.
Mr. Ye also cultivated the image of someone with political connections. A framed calligraphy of Mr. Xi’s hung on the wall in Mr. Ye’s Shanghai office, according to the Fortune article. On his desk sat a red phone made to look like the famous “red machines” that the Communist Party’s most important members would use to tap into a secure line of communication.
The company also played to China’s geopolitical ambitions with investments spanning Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa. Its deals have promoted China’s Belt and Road initiative, Mr. Xi’s push to spread China’s influence abroad.
Overseas, Mr. Ye and other CEFC executives have worn diplomatic hats. In the Czech Republic, where CEFC bought a majority stake in a bank, a brewery, a publishing house and one of the two national soccer teams, Mr. Ye is an economic adviser to President Milos Zeman. Weeks after CEFC said it would acquire the Rosneft stake, the president of CEFC, Chan Chauto, met with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in Moscow.
In Hong Kong, Mr. Ye is a political adviser to Regina Ip, a pro-Beijing member of the Hong Kong Legislative Council. Ms. Ip said Mr. Ye was appointed in 2015 because of his support of the Belt and Road initiative. Mr. Ye “never attended any activities of our party, and never gave advice on our political development,” Ms. Ip said in an email.
The Rosneft deal gave CEFC a global profile. It agreed in September to buy a 14.2 percent stake in Rosneft from the oil trader Glencore and the Qatar Investment Authority. Rosneft needed the support after Western governments grew increasingly critical of Mr. Putin and issued sanctions against Rosneft and other Russian companies. The deal broke a mold for Russian-Chinese energy deals, which had been tightly limited to state companies in both countries.
It is not clear how CEFC’s troubles will affect the Rosneft deal. In January, the head of Russia’s second largest bank, VTB, said the bank would lend CEFC about $5 billion to help with the acquisition. Two Rosneft spokesmen did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
CEFC is facing financial pressures. In a September filing, it disclosed debts of about $20 billion, an increase of 20 percent from the previous year. Last week, China Chengxin and United Credit downgraded CEFC on concerns about its mounting debt, saying that it faced “high pressure to pay back in the short term” and adding that if the Rosneft deal were to fall through, “the company will bear a huge loss.”
The arrest in the United States of Patrick Ho, the top executive at CEFC’s nonprofit arm, has extended its troubles beyond China. A former civil servant, Mr. Ho has been accused of offering millions of dollars in bribes to President Idriss Déby of Chad and Uganda’s foreign minister, Sam Kutesa, in exchange for oil rights in the two countries, according to United States government. Mr. Déby and Mr. Kutesa have denied the allegations.
Federal prosecutors have said that Mr. Ho was using the charity as a scheme to hide the passing of bribes on behalf of CEFC, the company. The nonprofit hosted networking events that featured former American military officials and Chinese People’s Liberation Army generals.
Mr. Ho, a former home affairs secretary in Hong Kong, has denied the charges under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and awaits trial in New York.
The American government’s complaint against Mr. Ho, 68, includes references to CEFC executives as well as the chairman, without naming Mr. Ye. The complaint also describes emails between Mr. Ho and CEFC’s chairman about the suspected bribes.
In court hearings, prosecutors have said the company and Mr. Ye are not a target. But, they have added, the investigation proceeds. To add to the mystery, the court in New York recently appointed a special officer to deal with documents that are expected to be classified.