Was J.Lo a Chinese Bribe to Turkmenistan?

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Reports about Jennifer Lopez’s weekend birthday tribute to Turkmenistan’s president have mostly focused on her apparent lack of concern for the country’s staggering human rights abuses and systemic repression – her pleas of ignorance notwithstanding.

But The Wall Street Journal probes why it was China’s state-run gas company that paid for J.Lo to sing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” at 56-year-old Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s glittery birthday bash on June 29.

Good question. And the answer, in part, lies in the multiplier effect of an opaque, cronyistic, energy-hungry economic powerhouse doing business in an opaque, cronyistic, energy-rich dictatorship.

Turkmenistan, home to the world’s fourth-largest gas reserves, is integral to China’s energy plans. As analyst Alexandros Petersen wrote recently, Beijing has made Turkmenistan “the spoke at the center of its regional wheel of energy infrastructure” by building the 6,000-mile Central Asia-China gas pipeline, which opened in 2009. The pipeline is expected to carry 60 billion cubic meters a year, and connects to one of the world’s largest gas fields, Galkynysh, which is slated to come online this fall during a visit to Turkmenistan by the Chinese president.

Importantly for Berdymukhamedov, the pipeline helps him diversify: Previously most of Turkmenistan’s gas infrastructure pointed toward Russia, where it was bought at discount rates.

We’ll probably never know what the China National Petroleum Corporation paid Lopez (they’re not saying, nor is her publicist). Whatever you may think of her principles, she may simply have been a token of appreciation from CNPC to Berdymukhamedov for being so gracious with his gas. And some will see the concert as yet another reminder of the culture of corruption that permeates China’s state-run companies, despite government attempts to clean up their image, the Journal says.

The Turkmenistan event underscores the lengths to which China’s oil-and-gas companies will go to curry favor in resource-rich locales. Turkmenistan has some of the world’s largest reserves of natural gas. While an insufficient pipeline infrastructure and other challenges have limited exports, Turkmenistan is China’s largest foreign supplier of natural gas by far.

And it wouldn’t take a lot of gas to pay for J.Lo.

[T]he sheer magnitude of CNPC’s overseas dealings means paying for a performance by Ms. Lopez likely would be justified as long as it furthered company interests, according to some analysts.

“If they get a deal and this played a part in it, then [the performance] would be 100% entirely justified,” said Scott Kennedy, director of Indiana University’s Research Center for Chinese Politics & Business. The costs for such events “are very far to the right of the decimal.”

Throughout Central Asia, as in other regions of the world, Chinese companies are notorious for their closed doors, non-transparency, and, many say, their willingness to grease the right palms.

J.Lo can donate the proceeds from the concert to charity, as many have suggested she do, but she’ll be hard-pressed to shake the impression that she’s become just another Chinese bribe.

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