China Tobacco Goes Global

Country/area: Romania

Organisation: OCCRP, Concolón (Panama), Cuestión Pública (Colombia), Houston Chronicle, The Intercept (Brazil), The Kyiv Post (Ukraine), Newshawks (Zimbabwe), RISE Romania, Süddeutsche Zeitung, TVI Portugal, IRPI (Italy).

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 22/06/2021

Credit: Alessia Cerantola, Andrei Ciurcanu, Jared Ferrie, Caroline Henshaw, Nathan Jaccard, Lilia Saúl, Luiz Fernando Toledo, Julia Wallace, Sol Lauría, David Tarazona, Mateo Yepes, Naira Hofmeister, Anna Myroniuk, Owen Garare, Nhau Mangirazi, Dumisani Muleya


Alessia is an investigative journalist with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). Fluent in Japanese, she began her career writing about social and economic issues in Japan and her work has been  for a cross section of mediathe Italian weekly magazine, Internazionale. She regularly contributed stories from Japan and Italy to BBC Radio, as well as the broadcaster’s magazine and website. Alessia has also worked with Report, the flagship investigative program on Italy’s public broadcaster, RAI, and as a reporter with Outlook, BBC World Service.

Andrei is an investigative journalist working with Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. He has been journalist since 2004 and working as an investigative reporter for 10 years, covering topics like organ and human trafficking, money laundering, land grabbing, gun and drug trafficking, environmental crime. Andrei has worked with media outlets like Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Arte TV and won several international awards. Based in Romania he’s also active in Rise Project, the biggest investigative platform in the country.

Project description:

  • China National Tobacco Corporation is the world’s largest tobacco company, accounting for nearly half of global cigarette production. 

  • Unlike BAT, PMI, JTI and Imperial, China Tobacco’s rapid rise has gone largely unremarked in much of the world. That is now starting to change as the company expands aggressively into new countries as part of Beijing’s controversial “Belt and Road” initiative.

  • OCCRP and its partners on five continents spent months investigating the massive corporation. They discovered China Tobacco is using the same strategies Big Tobacco used in the ’90 s – flooding countries with cigarettes and working with smuggling networks.

Impact reached:

  • Romanian and Italian police are now investigating the involvement of China Tobacco officials in the smuggling phenomena. The authorities are searching now for a possible pattern of business with organized crime groups and China Tobacco Corporation. 

  • In Italy the investigation published by our partner IRPI Media won the first prize from the Italian Society of Tobacco and the Fondazione Umberto Veronesi.   

  • In Brazil, the story published by our partner Intercept Brazil won one of the most relevant human rights awards in the country (Premio Direitos Humanos de Jornalismo, Categoria Online). 

  • The maps and databases that OCCRP published, regarding the Chinese cigarette exports and imports in war torn countries, soon became a platform that is used by national authorities in their official investigations. 

  • The OCCRP project was a breakthrough also for the academic and tobacco control organizations worldwide. China Goes Global Project is the first investigative journalistic project that analyzed and investigated the China Tobacco Corporation model of business and showed that the Chinese tycoon is using the same illegal schemes used by the other big western tobacco corporations. The information OCCRP provided became the base ground for a deeper academic research.   

Techniques/technologies used:

  • To process and crosscheck the data, obtained from all teams in different continents, we used Aleph, OffshoreLeaks by ICIJ, Open Refine, OCCRP ID. 

  • For one story, to identify a Chinese partner in Iraq, we combined the data we had on one company with Google Imagery and Youtube to locate the exact address of the building HQ we were interested in finding. 

  • Google Imagery and Leaflet combined with information obtained from police were also used to draw the map of a truck that smuggled chinese cigarettes between Romania and Italy. 

  • Flourish was used to draw the map that included top 20 China Tobacco Europe partners worldwide and to identify the destination countries and social and economic impact of the chinese cigarette trade.  

  • Vessel Tracker was used to obtain data and track vessels and containers that were used by organized crime groups to smuggle chinese cigarettes.

  • For the European stories we cross-checked export and import data from China Tobacco factory and we found connections to politicians in Ukraine and cigarette smugglers in Italy, Romania, Ukraine, Republic of Moldova, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo.

  • For the Brazilian story, we’ve cross-referenced data from China Tobacco and other tobacco companies to political donations and found out that people and companies who have successfully changed public policies in favor of the tobacco sector have already been funded by companies like Philip Morris, Souza Cruz, etc. 

  • We’ve also obtained and organized a huge dataset of cigarette seizures by the Brazilian Federal Police, including brands, amount, date and origin.

What was the hardest part of this project?

  • OCCRP had to deal with a huge information shortage when it started this project. The investigation did not kick off with a leak or access to whistleblowers.  

  • During the documentation process the data OCCRP journalists obtained from five continents via anonymous sources, open source data or official requests was incomplete and fragmented and it was very hard to compare from country to country in order to obtain a coherent global analysis of the China Tobacco Corporation model of business.

  • The difficulty was doubled by the way the smuggled seized cigarettes were categorized by the police and customs. In one case, for instance, law enforcement mistakenly identified cigarettes coming from Romania, where the Chinese factory is located, as Romanian cigarettes.      

What can others learn from this project?

  • We based this investigative project on three main pillars – field reporting, data analysis and cross border partnership. The combination of these three elements was the key to the success of China Goes Global. 

  • China is a secretive state and the information is almost impossible to obtain, so we had to concentrate our efforts into obtaining information from countries where the Chinese tycoon does business and where more information and resources were available. So, satellite companies became small gateways into the vault of secrets and business of this opaque tobacco giant.   

  • That is why, after extensive documentation about this big corporation, we chose to work with partners on continents where different countries housed China Tobacco importers. Local investigative journalists cultivated sources, had access to court documents, to local assets involved in the trade or investigating it and to import and export transactions. All this information exchanged and combined between partners, using secure platforms, offered the big picture that nobody had before about China Tobacco. 

Project links: