Chinese-Filipino Businessman’s Curious Mainland Links

Controversial figure floats to the top in Manila

Much attention has rightly been paid internationally as well as locally to the criminal libel case brought against Maria Ressa, the founder and publisher of the respected on-line news portal Rappler.

Less attention has however been paid so far to the suitor, businessman Wilfredo Keng, and what he and his mainland links say about the openness of the Philippines to mainland businessmen with controversial reputations and sources of upstart wealth. The ability of some of these persons to penetrate to the very top of the Philippine political structure is striking.

President Duterte, well-known for his dislike of Rappler and its coverage of his administration, professes not to know Keng. Quite probably they have never met, but there is at least one rather obvious connection. In 2016 it was announced that a mainland businessmen Huang Rulun was donating PHP1.5 billion to build a 10,000-bed drug rehabilitation center in the Philippines.

Quite why Hung, whose business was mainly in China, would give away so much for no apparent return was one puzzle. Another was why it was to be built within the country’s largest military base, Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija.

In 2017, the Philippine Department of Health reported that Keng would be the liaison with the construction company hired to build the facility, which was opened by Duterte in the company of Huang. However, the center has been reported as largely unused, so there have been suggestions that it become a training center.

Huang’s links to Keng also involve a joint venture with his son Huang Tao in Century Hongyu Property Ventures. He is known to have moved to the Philippines in 1986, remaining there for several years before returning to China to build one of the larger real estate firms in China, with assets also in Europe and elsewhere.

However, he has been reported in the official Chinese media and in the magazine Caijing, and the Financial Times as having been under investigation for allegedly bribing one Bai Enpai, formerly Communist Party secretary in Yunnan and Qinghai provinces.

It is not clear whether Keng was linked to Huang in earlier times. Keng was the subject of allegations, not substantiated, in the Philippine Star in 2002 of being involved in cigarette smuggling and illicit immigration of Chinese, and also linked to the murder of a Manila council member.

In an unexplained episode in 2010, he was found to have loaned a luxury SUV that he owned to Supreme Court justice Corona, who was later impeached. By then, Keng was being described as one of the richest men in the Philippines, having acquired various interests including property and mining and worth about US$100 million according to Forbes magazine. Some of the mining rights were the subject of a court battle by a previous owner.

The nickel and mineral exploration rights in Surigao and other provinces are now held though the publicly listed Century Peak Holdings, of which Keng is chairman, which makes him a public figure. Its Dinagat operations had been closed by then-Department of Environment and Natural Resources secretary Gina Lopez and the company was declared a “recidivist environmental violator” but after she was forced out, it passed a mining audit.

According to filed accounts, Century Peak has been losing money for the past three years. It is now sixth of seven in market capitalization of the Mining Index of the Philippine Stock Exchange. Nonetheless, it has received outline approval from the Cavite government for a 1,332 ha. Manila Bay reclamation close to expand the Sangley Point air facility into a new airport. This is being backed by the Marcos-created billionaire crony Lucio Tan and state-owned China Communications Construction Corporation.

Although these are not national projects, Duterte is reported to have taken an interest in the progress of major Manila Bay reclamation projects, following in the footsteps of former First Lady Imelda Marcos.

Keng, a naturalized Filipino, also has various assets in China. However, the extent of his personal wealth is unclear given that he also appears to represent Huang interests, whose flagship Golden Century Resources owns 40 percent of Century Hongyu Properties while Keng only has 10 percent.

The Keng family evidently has some influence at Malacanang, even if, as Duterte asserts, he had no knowledge of Keng prior to the libel case. Wilfredo’s daughter Patricia, an unsuccessful candidate for a party list seat in 2019, has been appointed youth representative to the Philippine Commission on Women. (This body has 12 NGO members representing different sectors but four are currently vacant.)

See related story: Duterte’s Teflon Starting to Fade?