In defiance of US sanctions, one man was for two decades the linchpin of China’s oil dealings with Iran: a hard-drinking trader known as “Crazy Yang”, who came to be regarded as the world’s largest handler of Iranian crude.
The gregarious Yang Qinglong, who has died of cancer in his native Yunnan province aged 63, was known within his circle for his hospitality and for the green army jacket he wore everywhere. But in Washington Zhuhai Zhenrong, the company he founded, was vilified for impeding measures designed to force Tehran to the negotiating table over its nuclear programme.
In 2012, Zhuhai Zhenrong was added to America’s sanctions list for selling petrol and diesel to Tehran, which has long lacked the refining capacity to process its own output. The blacklisting made little difference to Yang or his company, whose only business was with Iran and whose assets were almost exclusively in China. Indeed, many in the Chinese oil industry saw the Iranian imports as a patriotic effort to provide the energy needed for China’s growing economy.
He had to fight early resistance from state-owned refineries that initially refused to process Iran’s particularly thick grade of crude. At one point, according to a 2012 Reuters profile, Yang banged his fist on the table in front of a startled refinery manager to insist he take the Iranian cargoes on offer. Iran is now China’s third-largest source of crude oil.
Yang was a member of the Bai ethnic group, a people native to the mountainous southern province of Yunnan, near the Myanmar border. Family survivors are unknown but he was born and died in Dali, a city next to one of China’s most beautiful lakes.
When Mao Zedong unleashed his 1960s Cultural Revolution, Yang and other local teens with a “bad” class background found themselves at the centre of a violent witch hunt, after their book club excited suspicion. He made it into college at age 23 just as the purge was winding down – and would later tell friends he had spent much of his youth in a mental asylum, earning him his nickname.
After college Yang was assigned to a military vehicle depot along the former Burma Road – where fuel shortages were so acute that officials were rewarded with cash if they could find supplies. Yang began brokering crude oil shipments from the northeast to be refined in central China and trucked to Yunnan.
By the end of the 1980s he was procuring military supplies for his province from Shenzhen, the town on the border with Hong Kong that was about to become the testing zone for Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms.
In the mid-1990s, some of Yang’s military friends came to him with a problem. Iran was shipping oil to China to pay for weapons supplied during its war with Iraq and they did not know what to do with it. They introduced him to officials in Tehran and he set up a tiny crude trading office staffed with young people from military families.
Zhuhai Zhenrong originally answered to the bureaucracy that controlled arms manufacture and trade. It became a civilian state-owned enterprise after President Jiang Zemin ordered the army – which by then was operating the nation’s biggest smuggling operation – to get out of business.
Even running a civilian trading house, Yang kept his enthusiasm for all things military. He hauled his staff to see films such as Gladiator or Saving Private Ryan and organised private dinners with the director of his favourite wartime television drama.
“Some people might have disliked his sloppy appearance but I respect Yang Qinglong very much because he tried to meet China’s political needs rather than merely pursue commercial profit,” a friend of his posted on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter.
Zhuhai Zhenrong now serves primarily as an import agent for Sinopec, the vast state-controlled oil group, lifting about one-third of the annual crude shipments the country takes from Iran. It also imports Iranian gas condensate on behalf of private Chinese petrochemical plants.
The company’s future is unclear. As China’s oil industry both professionalises and consolidates, there is less room for mavericks such as Yang Qinglong. But as long as the US and Iran remain at odds, it is useful for China to keep its Iranian trade at arm’s length from the activities of its increasingly international state oil groups.
That suited Yang just fine. Independent and thriving on personal connections, his biggest concession to corporate culture was to shed his green army jacket for a khaki-coloured cardigan.
In another online tribute, a friend of three decades wrote simply: “He was a real man.”
Additional reporting by Owen Guo
尽管自己掌管的是一家地方贸易公司，杨庆龙仍对所有与军事有关的东西充满热情。他组织员工观看《角斗士》(Gladiator)或《拯救大兵瑞恩》(Saving Private Ryan)等影片，并安排私人宴会，款待自己喜欢的战争题材电视剧的导演。