U.S. customs officials have seized $25 million worth of aluminum linked to a Chinese billionaire accused of stockpiling the metal across the world, the Wall Street Journal reported this morning.
The Obama administration also launched a formal complaint Thursday against the Chinese government with the World Trade Organization over subsidies it says Beijing provides to the country’s vast aluminum industry.
The move against the stockpile of aluminum connected to Chinese billionaire Liu Zhongtian, the owner and CEO of aluminum company China Zhongwang, is the strongest action yet by federal authorities probing whether U.S. companies connected to the Chinese magnate illegally avoided nearly 400% tariffs by routing the metal through other countries.
We previously reported the whereabouts of the aluminum stockpile as it curiously moved around the globe. China Zhongwang has denied any connection to the stockpile or its movements, but hundreds of shipping containers of aluminum were seized this week by the Department of Homeland Security. The containers are owned by Perfectus Aluminum, Inc., a California company founded by Mr. Liu’s son, Liu Zuopeng. Perfectus is now run by one of Liu’s close business associates, Jacky Cheung, who runs several companies with connections to Liu.
Homeland Security is conducting laboratory tests on the aluminum to determine whether the metal is restricted under U.S. law, according to federal court documents. The seized aluminum is in the form of pallets and court records don’t state which company manufactured the aluminum. The WJ saw shipping records which show that a separate company called Peng Cheng — which later became part of Perfectus in a merger—imported the metal from an affiliate of China Zhongwang in 2013 and 2014.
Homeland Security and the Justice Department are investigating whether the companies committed criminal or civil violations that could include smuggling, conspiracy and wire fraud. The WSJ reported that Homeland Security agents have also questioned former employees of the companies associated with Liu, according to people familiar with the investigation.
WTO Case Against Chinese Aluminum Subsidies
As for the subsidies case, the U.S. Trade Representative‘s office said in a formal complaint that China’s actions in the aluminum sector violate WTO rules prohibiting subsidies that cause “serious prejudice” to other members of the trade body.
The complaint argues that “artificially cheap” state-directed loans and coal, electricity and alumina for the Chinese aluminum sector causes such prejudice by undercutting global prices and artificially expanding China’s market share.
“China gives its aluminum industry an unfair advantage through underpriced loans and other illegal government subsidies,” outgoing President Barack Obama said in a statement accompanying the announcement.
The pending complaint follows an October request for a WTO case against China’s aluminum trade practices by six U.S. senators concerned about 15,000 lost jobs in the sector in recent years.
These actions are the latest dust-up in an ongoing trade dispute involving how China subsidizes industry, particularly metals producers.