Some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in Hong Kong, on the mainland and elsewhere in the world are watching nervously as the identities of those holding accounts in the offshore haven of the British Virgin Islands (BVI) are being exposed in what is described as the biggest information leak in recent history.
More than two million documents naming many individuals and detailing their financial exploits have leaked from the British Virgin Islands to the US-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) . The group is working with dozens of journalists around the world to process the data and publish the secret financial information.
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The ICIJ said its data analysis showed most people setting up offshore entities lived on the Chinese mainland and in Hong Kong and Taiwan. "This explains why the second-largest source of capital investment flowing into China is the offshore tax haven of BVI," it said.
Britain's The Guardian newspaper, which is working with the ICIJ, said the leak could cause "a seismic shock worldwide to the booming offshore trade". The leak, in terms of quantity, was 160 times bigger than the WikiLeaks' political data haul three years ago. The Guardian said the leak also included data on "offshoots in Singapore, Hong Kong and the Cook Islands in the Pacific".
It will take weeks, even months, for ICIJ journalists to analyse the data. They will release their findings in batches.
A few details already released raise questions about French President Francois Hollande's personal friend and campaign treasurer Jean-Jacques Augier; Maria Imelda Marcos Manotoc, governor of a Philippine province and daughter of late Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos; as well as Mongolian politicians and Spanish art tycoons.
Augier was forced to publicly identify his Chinese partner in the offshore firm as Xi Shu - who he said was a businessman and member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, The Guardian said. Augier was also found to have a 2.5 per cent shareholding in a Hong Kong entity, Capital Concord Development. Many more names will start to appear as the ICIJ updates its findings through its website and Twitter messages.
Greece asked the ICIJ if it could examine the data for evidence of illegal conduct by Greeks, the ICIJ said.
More Hong Kong and mainland firms will be revealed, the ICIJ said. Many of the world's top banks, including Deutsche Bank and UBS, had been found to have helped clients transfer money to BVI and others havens, such as the Cayman Islands, it said.
"There is so much information that people in Hong Kong and USA will recognise some of the names if ICIJ reveals more stories," said John Bruce, Macau director of Hill & Associates, a Hong Kong risk consultancy. "This will be a major blow for BVI companies and a lot of individuals and companies … [and] hugely bad for BVI because people won't want to use them."