At the head of Cathay Capital, the Sino-French investment firm he founded in 2006, Chinese businessman Cai Mingpo is making ever more of a mark as French companies' expert guide to the much sought-after Chinese market. His fund is backed by the public investment bank Bpifrance and by the China Development Bank (CDB).

Cai, who was launched into the business world by Thierry de La Tour d'Artaise, the CEO of Groupe SEB, which he helped to gain a foothold in China, achieved this by building up an impressive list of contacts, in both Paris and Beijing. He has recruited French government heavyweights such as ex-Treasury director Bruno Bezard. At home, he enjoys a certain leniency from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which keeps a close eye on all foreign investments, especially in the central Hubei province. Cathay's big projects with Total came into being thanks to CCP bigwigs in Hubei, such as Zhou Aiqin, who cultivates ties with military research, and Li Yuanchu, who specializes in implementing the government's major technology transfer programmes. The US government frequently accuses both of being involved in China's economic spying campaigns.

Similarly, Cathay has approached the parastatal Hubei Yangtze River Industry Fund (YRIF) to develop Cathay Cartech, a fund focusing on start-ups in the automobile sector, in which YRIF has invested with parts manufacturer Valeo.

These cozy relationships could backfire on Cai: former Hubei provincial party secretary and YRIF chairman Wang Hanbing, has since January been under fire from the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), President Xi Jinping's anticorruption task force, and has been expelled from his party and his post.