The Canadian taking on Beijing's "Belt and Road" Bank
PR veteran Bob Pickard says he discovered he was part of a 'captured elite' enabling CCP-controlled Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to undermine the West, so he risked all to blow the whistle
Bob Pickard was hired by the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to lead its global communications strategy.
In June 2023, he announced his resignation in a viral social media post, alleging the international bank, started under President Xi Jinping as an alternative to Western-led multinational lenders, is secretly controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.
In a wide-ranging interview Pickard revealed new details on what he discovered from inside — including how he was monitored by a CCP employee and came to fear for his safety — and why he believes the bank is a massive Chinese Communist Party influence operation.
Canada, one of AIIB’s 106 members, responded to Pickard’s explosive allegations in June by announcing an ongoing review of Ottawa’s membership.
Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank also responded quickly, releasing a 36-page internal review in July, finding Pickard’s allegations baseless and concluding the “bank follows the highest standards of multilateral governance, that its governance is functioning as intended, and that there was no evidence of undue influence on decisions taken by the board of directors or management.”
The Bureau’s hour-long conversation with Pickard has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
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I'll just jump in with what I think is a direct and timely question that could get to the heart of where you are right now, and your experience.
So you were at the center of a global Chinese-led banking operation started under Xi Jinping, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
And from my perspective, even from a distance, as a student of China's soft power plans and it's Belt and Road strategy, I think it's fair to say that there could be concerns from a Western intelligence and security perspective that there's more going on, than just banking deals.
So, my question is, you joined in the spring of 2022.
By the spring of 2023, obviously you felt there were some pretty big concerns and you exited the bank, and in a highly public way.
There was a big stir.
So what I want to highlight right here, is in very recent news we have a senior executive from the Japanese bank, Nomura, that has been barred from leaving mainland China.
I saw that.
And this week we read about someone from Kroll, the U.S. risk advisory firm, a United States executive barred from leaving China.
So can you tell me how you left China this summer — and did you talk to security and intelligence representatives before or after?
Sure. First, I fixed on joining Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank [AIIB] when they came to recruit me in late 2021.
My official start wasn't until early in 2022. But really, I was getting ready for the job, going back two years ago.
And I did considerable research. And I sought reassurance for my concerns, born of my ignorance at the time, concerning the governance of the bank.
I had thought before being recruited, that the bank could be a tool of Chinese Communist Party statecraft. The People’s Republic statecraft of projecting China’s power.
And I was reassured, just like the World Bank or just like the Asian Development Bank, or just like the other multilaterals, AIIB is governed in a way where even the largest shareholder [China] cannot wield all the power in the bank.
Or have any politics that would loom inappropriately over the mechanisms that run the bank.
So I felt I had done my due diligence. I felt that this is a misunderstood organization. Everyone thinks it's run by the PRC government.
But I thought, wow.
It's this really cool organization with people from over 60 countries who all work in an English language bubble in Beijing, where apparently there's this truly multinational and multilateral system in play.
Sam, I was very excited about this job. And I thought it was a job for which I had been preparing my whole career. So when I came to the bank, and spent a few months there, I was naturally very disappointed, angry, shocked, crestfallen and well, I felt betrayed.
Because I realized that a lot of the stereotypes, perceptions that I felt I was going to go in there and correct – are in fact the reality of how it does work.
Quite often stereotypes based on geopolitical assumptions are inaccurate.
But in this case I found — well, these were more than accurate.
These were chillingly accurate. And so having come to that realization and having seen over many different contexts of a year-plus at work, that I was ultimately Sam, being asked to mislead people. I was being asked to lie to people.
And that is something that any ethical public relations person should avoid at all costs. And so this was the tragic realization. It was unfortunate.
And I felt I responded to that realization in an appropriate fashion.
So when you came to that realization, and we'll get into how you discovered what led you to jump, and do it publicly.
But when you did make the decision that you had to go – was this a situation where I've talked about the sort of risks with executives being barred from leaving China? Can you walk us through how you left?
Well, I raised some concerns about my safety with the bank in writing.
In fact I wrote an email not long before I left China to the head of security of the bank. She is well known to be a Chinese Communist Party member. And she responded. She responded to my message. But it was in such a general and unsettling way. I did not feel reassured.
This was just after the Canadian government expelled that Chinese diplomat, but before I resigned. I asked as a Canadian, ‘Do I have anything to worry about here at the bank?’
[Editor’s note: ZHAO Wei, a youthful Toronto Chinese Consulate diplomat that threatened Conservative MP Michael Chong among other alleged clandestine election interference and federal government infiltration activities, was expelled in May 2023 after media reports exposed some of his alleged activities, resulting in a rise in tensions between China and Canada.]
And this was before she or the bank was aware that I had this Chinese Communist Party [control of AIIB operations] pattern recognition going on in my mind, that would cause even more concern, on their end.
And so when I received a lack of reassurance from the bank, I also bounced my concerns off a contact at the Canadian embassy in Beijing.
I sought reassurance from the Canadian government. I didn't get it.
They did not in any way reassure me. I think I asked my contact at the Canadian embassy in Beijing twice for feedback.
And the second time, I think was after I had raised my CCP concerns inside the bank.
And I said, look, this is something that makes me concerned for my safety.
The President of the bank [JIN Liqun] and the President's office knew that I had concerns about the Communist Party, and the invisible power the CCP wielded in the bank, in a way that I felt was a failure of transparency.
It was not consistent with the governance of the bank.
You know, one person I know who also worked in China, she said to me after I left, ‘Bob, you were never in danger. I worked there for years. Nothing happened to me.’
And I thought, ‘Well, good for you. I'm happy that you safely survived your China experience. But did you happen to raise, including in writing, your concerns about Communist Party influence in AIIB, and did you make it clear that you would make those concerns public while you were still on PRC soil?’
[Editor’s note: In a profile for Time, AIIB President JIN Liqun credits his early Chinese Communist Party training, being sent to the countryside to learn “the rural people’s dreams, aspirations, their hardships, their challenges,” as a “character-building” experience that set him on path to becoming president of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.]
So judging Sam, by the number of people I have consulted, nobody thinks I should ever return to that country, at least as long as the Communist Party is in charge.
And I think the wisdom of my moving quickly when I did not receive sufficient reassurance — I feel like I've been, I'm not going to say vindicated.
It's not like I want to look wise in retrospect, because of bad things that have happened to these other executives.
But I'm just glad I wasn't around to find out. I'm a Dad of two teenage kids myself, and I am happy to pursue my career in interesting and challenging places.
But for a parent that would've been, I think foolish if I decided to stay.
Right. So it is fair to say you have read these recent stories about executives being barred from leaving China – and very quickly you thought of your own situation and where you are sitting safely, now.
As the fellow in the bank who knows hundreds of media around the world, they knew that I was aware, through just accumulative experience, of the Communist Party influence in the bank.
They knew that I planned to share it with the public.
I felt that put me in clear danger. Which is why I left for Japan immediately. I had raised these concerns with the office of the President and the AIIB. And my concerns about how the CCP influenced the bank, were not denied.
They just said they didn't like me raising that topic.
That was it. And that's where I felt, because of what I had discovered, I would be in professional and personal jeopardy. It would be deliberately misleading people about the governance of the bank, after I realized that Party people hold sway in their various subterranean ways.
Let me ask, because this gets right to the heart of the matter.
So what did you recognize, that you say that the bank claims to be apolitical and global, but you're saying that at a subterranean level, the Chinese Communist Party was in control.
So explain how that works and how you found that out.
Well, it was a gradual journey of discovery, aided by what people warned me about.
Third parties warned me about members of my own department. These people said, ‘Bob, don't screw with Person X.’
Or ‘Here's this guy who runs such and such department. Don't mess with him.’
And I had to speak exclusively to three Communist Party members whose consent or buy-in would be necessary for me to do big projects.
I found out through my own experience, that to get any big things done, I would have to work through these people.
And the over-concentration of power in the bank President's office was extraordinary.
And in that office, the control of CCP people was workable and completely unknown to people outside of the bank.
When I joined the bank, a few months later, there was a guy who came in.
And nobody seemed to really know his job description. Or what he was in charge of.
But it was communicated to me, that was the new Party person. And this new Party person along with the Chief Executive Officer of the bank, are the two top Party members in the bank.
Along with President Jin himself, a former Red Guard.
That troika of people in the President's office called all the everyday operating shots.
And yeah, sure there's management at AIIB. There are board meetings. The bank does approve different projects that have to pass muster with the investment board.
But for my world, as a communications department leader, it was these three Communist Party members in the President's office, which they could in a discretionary way, just decide.
It’s not like I walked by a meeting once, and I saw a Hammer and sickle flag on the wall with a picture of Lenin. And everyone stopped talking when I walked in. It wasn't anything like that.
But it was pretty clear that these folks are in cahoots, and the way things really worked in the bank were actually far different than what everyone outside of the bank thought.
On the outside, the bank says we're independent, we are apolitical. But inside the bank, it was all politics. And it was all CCP politics. It was CCP people.
For example, they assigned a CCP member to be my assistant. And this is so that all of my relationship interactions would be known with journalists, with civil society leaders, and the other types of people who the CCP historically has real trouble with.
So there was a manifestation, in a very intense and personal way, around my ability to run the department, absent party interference. And that's where the push came to the shove. And I tendered my resignation in, I think it's late April 2023.
And President Jin talked me out of it. He did not accept that resignation.
I then had to tender my resignation again, in June. But at that point, I was en route to Japan. I was already on the way to the airport. You see?
Yes I see.
But let me ask, you're saying that as a bank executive, that you were assigned, a subordinate employee.
But you knew that she was a Chinese Communist Party member or operative? So essentially she was monitoring you or handling you, as a subordinate?
Yeah, I had a personal assistant who was assigned to me as a CCP member.
And she reported to me. That's how it's supposed to work. Right?
But she was reporting directly into the President's office. She was reporting effectively to my boss, when I'm the guy who's supposed to report to my boss and she reports to me.
So there was no respect for traditional hierarchical boundaries that are supposed to be in place for running multilateral organizations.
A subterranean group of people would do things the way they want to.
So that in the end, this subterranean network of Party people and their own reporting structures [in AIIB] — that is effectively what became the straw that broke the camel's back.
I want to take a step back here.
Because you're well-placed as a global businessman and communicator, a student of history and finance. You are aware of these things that probably not everyone realizes, that the financial systems of this world not only run everyday business. But they're of course, a big part of geopolitics.
And look, when there's a war in Ukraine, we see very quickly that finance becomes important, for example with sanctions on oligarchs, and it becomes a part of that war.
So just taking a step back, can you describe to the average person that'll read this interview.
What is this bank, AIIB?
And if it is, as you say, very much controlled by Chinese Communist Party power structures, what could it be up to around the world? What would be the objective?
The objective is very clear.
It is to help China supplant the United States as the leading power of a global, multilateral world. And the AIIB is effectively a Chinese rival to the World Bank in Washington.
And many people know about China’s so-called Belt and Road Initiative [BRI.]
China's effort to invest in infrastructure, including in debt traps in developing countries throughout Asia, to restore the old silk trading routes of centuries ago.
That's the Chinese vision behind it. AIIB was not supposed to just be part of the Belt and Road Initiative, which meant bilateral Chinese lending to Country X.
Like building that deep water port in Sri Lanka, for example. The former leader, Mahinda Rajapaksa was partly overthrown because of that. That's the real classic debt trap example.
[Editor’s note: Sri Lanka’s inability to repay Beijing’s $1.2 Billion Belt and Road loan on the Hambantota Project, forced it to give China the Indian Ocean port, on a 99-year lease.]
So while AIIB is not synonymous with the BRI, or so I was told, it marshals the $100-billion in capital pledged by its 106 members to build sustainable infrastructure.
Because these developing countries, as you know, have a lot of vulnerability to climate change. But who gets credit for that?
Is it Canada, Australia, UK, Germany, or some other Western members of the bank that get credit for this lending? Or is it basically China that gets all the geopolitical credit for that?
I can tell you right now, it's exclusively China.
So I feel most countries are foolish to underwrite this mechanism.
And just the other day, Xinhua News Service was talking about how AIIB is the funding platform for the Belt and Road initiative. So the bank says publicly we're one thing. And then Chinese state media says: ‘No, here's what you are.’
You are actually part of BRI, China's most important geopolitical mission of modern times.
And it is true, the AIIB lending would be different from China's bilateral lending [in Belt and Road projects.]
But if you look at the list of countries and places, it's a more respectable form of lending to the same kinds of places.
So Laos, for example. They have borrowed too much money from China buying a high-speed rail system, which is part of the Belt and Road initiative.
Well, AIIB doesn't lend to the railway.
But they lend to road projects, and other projects in Laos, or in Cambodia or in Central Asia.
So AIIB has been a way to create a positive international image for China's Belt and Road Initiative, where everyone can get used to the idea of China sitting at the head of the table and running the multilateral system.
That really has been the name of the game.
This is not an easy area, Sam, for the average person to understand without a lot of research.
To put it in simple terms, AIIB is a way that China packages internationally, its geopolitical ambitions focused on lending money to countries across Asia, who desperately need the money.
And after they do that, they are sucked into the Chinese sphere of influence almost as surely as a gravitational field that goes around a planetary body.
The money that creates that field of commercial gravity, locks them into this Chinese mercantile orbit.
That's what AIIB does. And they tried to say that it didn't do that at AIIB. But I discovered that's exactly what they do.
Right. So I want to make this comparison. If it's fair, you've probably been following, there's starting to be a lot more coverage about these islands, Papua New Guinea …
Exactly. Yes. Very near to Australia.
So if we're thinking about it in the most dangerous terms, the world becomes like a Risk game board. And it's not far-fetched, when we see Russia and Ukraine, we see China looking very hungrily at Taiwan.
And as you know, I'm writing about federal election interference, or the suspicions that Canadian politicians are being cultivated by China's United Front networks.
And this is the same sort of story in these Pacific Islands that are near Australia.
Allegations that most of certain governments on some of these islands are perhaps under the influence of proxies related to the Chinese Communist Party.
Just as an aside, it was really interesting to me, some people noticed that this big Vancouver real estate developer from China that I had written about, that he was involved in British Columbia casino money laundering investigations.
And during the pandemic he flew PPE on his private jet to one of these South Pacific islands. Interesting things like this are happening.
So, is it fair to say that if you're looking at the potential of elite capture or even state capture in countries such as these South Pacific islands near Australia — that it would be very related, if China would want to have a World Bank that, as you say, has this gravitational pull once they're lending for major ports and industrial complexes.
Do you see them as related?