U.S. aluminum executives claim Liu Zhongtian, founder of Chinese metals conglomerate China Zhongwang, used a factory in Mexico to game the global trade system
Los Angeles, San José Iturbide, Mexico, Liaoning, China – Two years ago, a California aluminum executive commissioned a pilot to fly over the Mexican town of San José Iturbide, at the foot of the Sierra Gorda mountains, and snap aerial photos of a remote desert factory.
He made a startling discovery. Nearly one million metric tons of aluminum sat neatly stacked behind a fortress of barbed-wire fences. The stockpile, worth some $2 billion and representing roughly 6% of the world’s total inventory—enough to churn out 2.2 million Ford F-150s or 77 billion beer cans—quickly became an obsession for the U.S. aluminum industry.
Now it is a new source of tension in U.S.-Chinese trade relations. U.S. executives contend that the mysterious cache was part of a brazen scheme by one of China’s richest men to game the global trade system.
Aluminum-industry representative Jeff Henderson says he is convinced that China Zhongwang Holdings Ltd., a Chinese aluminum giant controlled by billionaire Liu Zhongtian, tried to evade U.S. tariffs by routing aluminum through Mexico to disguise its origins, a tactic known as transshipping.
“My Moby-Dick has been Zhongwang,” says Mr. Henderson, president of the Aluminum Extruders Council, a U.S. trade group.
Mr. Liu, a member of China’s ruling Communist Party, denies any connection to the Mexican aluminum or transshipping. “These things have nothing to do with me,” he said in a June interview at his company’s Liaoning, China, plant, where he lives in an apartment inside the factory. He said he wouldn’t know how to establish a business in Mexico, joking that “in that sort of place, there are a lot of killers with guns.”
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