Newly discovered deep ties between the chief investment officer (CIO) of the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) and the Chinese government, along with CalPERS’s China investment holdings, have provoked controversy about the operations of the largest public retirement fund in the United States.
CalPERS manages more than $350 billion for public employees either retired from or currently working for most of the state and local public agencies in California.
The fund holds tens of millions of shares in equities of Chinese companies. Among other things, these companies develop advanced weapons for China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and, according to one expert, are involved in unethical business practices and human rights abuses, including the concentration camps holding Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
According to a 2017 report by People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), CalPERS’s current CIO, Yu “Ben” Meng, as of 2015 was a participant in the Chinese government’s prestigious headhunting program called the Thousand Talents Plan (TTP).
In testimony by the FBI to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in December 2018, the TTP was called part of “China’s non-traditional espionage against the United States.”
Thousand Talents Plan
The TTP, according to a 2016 unclassified FBI report, is a program that allows China to gain access to and benefit from advanced technology from the United States and to “severely impact the U.S. economy.” The program recruits and hires professionals who hold high-level positions, mainly in the United States, but also throughout the Western world.
Individuals recruited by the TTP, according to the FBI report, have been experts or scholars in prestigious universities or research institutes, senior managerial professionals in internationally known financial institutions, or entrepreneurs holding IP rights.
According to the FBI report, the TTP is a program that “[poses] a serious threat to U.S. businesses and universities through economic espionage and theft of IP.”
Associating with the TTP is legal and breaks no law, the FBI report said, but the individuals who participate in the TTP may easily conduct illegal activities through the program.
What makes the TTP different from an ordinary headhunting operation is that the individuals who participate in the program are often required to work in China for certain amount of time each year while still holding their positions in the West, so that they can help Chinese institutions or companies benefit from their counterparts in the West.
The TTP started its operations in 2008. According to a report by BioSpace.com, China recruited more than 6,000 high-level professionals through the TTP in the decade since its beginning.
Meng’s Relationship With TTP
Meng’s résumé posted on the fund’s website shows that he worked in CalPERS for seven years starting in 2008 before leaving for three years. It states that in 2019, he “returned to CalPERS after serving as the deputy CIO at the State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE) for three years.”
The CalPERS website doesn’t specifically state to its own members or the general public that SAFE is a top-level Chinese state agency managing and regulating China’s foreign-exchange activities.
Before Meng first joined CalPERS in 2008, he worked at Barclays as a senior portfolio manager and at Lehman Brothers Holdings as a risk officer, and he was a fixed-income trader at Morgan Stanley, according to a report by Institutional Investor.
Meng’s experience in the United States qualified him to be a candidate for the TTP program.
According to an Oct. 2, 2017, report by People’s Daily, Meng was officially hired by SAFE through the TTP program in November 2015.
It’s unclear whether there is any continuation of the relationship between Meng and China’s TTP program, although most of the participants in the program continue their commitments to the TTP by working for institutions both in China and in the West.
China had more than $3 trillion in foreign-exchange reserves during the time that Meng served as deputy CIO at SAFE.
The position of deputy CIO at SAFE is a prestigious position, in which Meng was exposed to the Chinese regime’s sensitive information. Meng maintained significant influence over the investment decisions of China’s foreign reserve system, which is the world’s largest such system.
Tightly controlled by the regime, China’s foreign reserve system is one of the key institutions for the world’s second-largest economy. The person hired for the position needs to go through strict security checks in order to confirm the person’s loyalty to the CCP.
Meng’s decision to leave his public sector job in the United States and work for the Chinese state was widely reported by many state-owned Chinese media, as it stimulated China’s national pride.
According to the report by People’s Daily, Meng said that nothing else could give him more honor and responsibility than serving China. He said he fit into his position at SAFE almost perfectly.
Many Chinese state-owned media praised Meng for his success at SAFE.
When Meng later decided to leave SAFE and return to CalPERS, he also received positive reports from China’s media.
Concerns About Agency’s Hiring Decision
It’s unclear how much scrutiny CalPERS applied during the recruitment process that led to Meng being hired straight from a top-level Chinese agency.
In response to questions posed by The Epoch Times relating to CalPERS’s decision to hire Meng, the fund simply referred to a September 2018 press release announcing his appointment.
Meng did not respond to a request for comment.
However, given the fund’s extensive holdings of shares in Chinese companies, concerns have been raised about the potential risks facing CalPERS, which is now making investment decisions under Meng’s oversight.
“Somebody coming from China who clearly had [a] close relationship with [the] Communist Party would clearly [be] helping investment into China. This of course will bring risk to CalPERS, because we are in the middle of rebalancing our economy away from China,” said Robert Spalding, former senior director at the White House National Security Council and senior fellow at Washington-based think tank the Hudson Institute.
Konstantinos Roditis, the vice chairman of advocacy group Reform California, voiced concerns about CalPERS’s hiring decision, given Meng’s previous role working for the Chinese government.
“We have to wonder, did CalPERS hire someone that will direct investments so he can have access to companies that are in the best interest of China and not Californians?” he said.
“I will presume the innocence of Mr. Meng, but with CalPERS’s poor history of not properly vetting employees and poor oversight, I think a closer look into Mr. Meng is warranted.”
Roditis was one of the two candidates for California state controller in the November 2018 midterm election. Reform California is a 527 political action committee dedicated to holding state and local governments accountable.
Agency’s China Investments
CalPERS’s investment in Chinese companies has also been criticized.
Based on its 2017–2018 annual investment report, CalPERS invested in more than 100 Chinese companies. Among them are companies related to China’s military, cyberwarfare, human rights abusers, and defense industries, and some that have been cited for unethical business practices outside China.
One of CalPERS’s holdings is China Communications Construction Co. (CCCC). CalPERS held more than 16 million shares in CCCC’s equity.
CCCC, a state-owned company, is one of the largest contractors of China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative. According to a report by Bloomberg Businessweek, CCCC was alleged by U.S. members of Congress to have helped with the Chinese military’s island construction in the disputed area of the South China Sea.
The Bloomberg report also provided a long list of countries with allegations against CCCC for corruption, labor abuse, environmental damage, and other practices. In 2009, CCCC was blacklisted by the World Bank for alleged fraudulent bidding practices.
CalPERS, according to its 2017–2018 report, also held more than 2.7 million shares in China Aerospace International Holding Ltd., which is a subsidiary of state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., China’s largest space contractor. Other companies under the space contractor include China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, China Academy of Space Technology, China Great Wall Industry Corp., and China Satellite Communications.
“It is a well known fact that the Chinese space program is operated by the PLA,” said Roger W. Robinson, president and CEO of RWR Advisory Group, a Washington-based risk management company.
Robinson was the senior director of International Economic Affairs at the National Security Council during the Reagan administration, and later served as chairman of the Congressional U.S.–China Economic and Security Review Commission.
Another company on the list of CalPERS’s China investment holdings was China Unicom. The 2017–2018 CalPERS report showed that the fund held more than 20 million shares in China Unicom, a company that has helped North Korea build its internet network since 2010, according to a report from The Washington Post.
Based on the 2017–2018 report, CalPERS appears to hold shares in funds that track against the MSCI Emerging Markets index. MSCI Inc. is a U.S.-based investment company.
According to research findings by RWR Advisory Group, this index has included companies like AVIC Aircraft, Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology Co., Zhejiang Dahua Technology Co., and China Shipbuilding Industry Group Power.
AVIC Aircraft develops and produces a range of aircraft, unmanned aircraft systems, and airborne weapons for the PLA air force, PLA naval air force, and PLA rocket force.
Hikvision and Dahua are companies that play important roles in China’s video surveillance system, which is the world’s largest.
In September 2018, 17 members of the U.S. Congress sent a letter to the secretaries of state and the Treasury urging sanctions against the two companies.
In April, 43 members of Congress sent a letter to the secretaries stating, “We believe the United States should establish strengthened disclosure requirements to alert American investors about the presence of Hikvision, Dahua Technology, and other Chinese enterprises that pose national security dangers or are complicit in human rights abuses, in the U.S. capital markets.”
China Shipbuilding is a company that provides naval equipment including guided missile destroyers, frigates, nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, and aircraft carriers to China’s PLA navy.
In response to The Epoch Times’ request for comment on its Chinese investments, CalPERS referred to a policy document on its governance and sustainability principles.
Calls for Scrutiny of China Investments
Robinson called for greater scrutiny of CalPERS’s China-related investments.
“Relevant state legislative committees should call for a comprehensive review of Chinese companies in the investment portfolios of CalPERS and other state pension and insurance funds that have ties to human rights abuses and national security concerns, because of the material risks such companies pose to the hard-earned retirement dollars of state employees,” Robinson told The Epoch Times.
“Not only have [these] material, often asymmetric, risks to share value and corporate reputation been overlooked by state fund managers, they are associating California state employees with Uyghur concentration camps in Xinjiang, advanced Chinese weapons manufacturers working with PLA, and other such activities likely contrary to their principles, values, and moral compass.
“The bulk of the 50 states have a similar problem to that of California,” Robinson said.
He urged all states to take steps to require their public employee pension systems to conduct national security- and human rights-related risk assessments concerning their prospective Chinese investment holdings.
In May 2000, Robinson testified before the California State Joint Legislative Audit Committee on CalPERS’s China investments. It is ironic, he said, that he is seeing the same kind of diligence-related blind spots witnessed then.