China-born businesswoman charged over meth flight built a web of influence in PNG

Photo: Australian Federal Police

Mei Lin is a prominent member of Papua New Guinea’s business community, with ties to influential locals. She’s also allegedly a key player in an audacious drug trafficking plot.

Key Findings

  • The owner of an international network of companies, Lin is alleged to have used her cornerstone PNG business, KC 2, to store and transfer over 71 kilograms of methamphetamine from PNG to Australia
  • Born in China, Lin has built business ties to prominent PNG citizens, including a former deputy prime minister and senior members of the local Chinese diaspora
  • She obtained PNG citizenship in 2016, but appears to have falsified key parts of her life story to do so
  • Companies tied to Lin have received Australian government money under a controversial program that is now being probed for corruption

Chinese-born businesswoman Mei Lin spent more than a decade building an economic empire in Papua New Guinea –– spanning sectors from retail to real estate –– and cultivating ties with wealthy and powerful figures in the Pacific nation.

But that world came crashing down on January 16 when Lin, 41, was arrested in the Australian city of Brisbane. Police accuse her of facilitating a “black flight” last year that smuggled over 71 kilograms of methamphetamine from a remote hillside airstrip in PNG to Australia.

The drug smuggling scheme was foiled on March 21 in a coordinated operation by PNG and Australian police, who swooped in as the light plane stopped to refuel in the rural Australian community of Monto. Six people were arrested and charged in Australia, including two pilots. Eight others were charged in PNG, including a police officer and a soldier.

But it took nine months for police to collect enough evidence to arrest and charge Lin. She is alleged to have stored the meth and organized its transportation within PNG, the Australian Federal Police said in a statement after her arrest, as well as paying for fuel for the aircraft and the use of the runway in the town of Bulolo, where it took off.

OCCRP and its local partner center, Inside PNG, spent months investigating Lin, who had previously attracted nationwide controversy over dealings unrelated to drugs. Reporters examined thousands of pages of public documents and court records, and spoke to police in both PNG and Australia.

They found that, prior to her arrest, she built business ties with some of PNG’s most prominent figures, including the country’s former deputy prime minister, Moses Maladina. Companies linked to Lin appear to have also benefited from Australian government assistance to the country.

Lin is now “the prime suspect” in the methamphetamine smuggling case, said Manu Pulei, the lead PNG police investigator. “Without Mei Lin, this thing wouldn’t have happened,” Pulei told Inside PNG.

PNG court records obtained by reporters show that the allegations against Lin center on her role as owner and boss of KC 2, a wholesale and retail firm in Lae where the meth was allegedly stored. A KC 2 employee arrested last year over the drug smuggling operation, Lin Hezhong, is her uncle.

That business, however, is just one of nearly two dozen companies involving Lin in PNG and Australia, according to corporate documents obtained by reporters.

Documents show that Lin was a manager at one company owned by former Deputy Prime Minister Maladina, Chatswood PNG, which is the subject of an investigation into the alleged abuse of Australian government funding for the care of refugees and asylum seekers in the country under Australia’s “offshore processing” regime.

Maladina and his company are not alleged to be connected to drug trafficking.

OCCRP sent a detailed list of questions to Lin’s lawyer. No response was received by press time.

In a written response to reporters’ questions, Maladina denied any wrongdoing in the migration scheme and said Lin had only briefly worked for his company.

“Chatswood is not and has never been involved in any illegal [activity], and we strongly oppose the use of and involvement with drugs in our society. Chatswood and its Directors and staff are NOT in any way associated with the activities of Mei Lin,” Maladina said.

Lin’s other recent business partners have included a prominent Malaysia-born business tycoon, the daughter of a former prime minister, and two prominent ethnic Chinese business figures who have played senior roles in Beijing-backed organizations in the country.

None of those people are accused of any connection to drug smuggling, and the charges against Lin have yet to be tried in court.

Lin’s case comes amid fears that rising drug trafficking through PNG could further destabilize a country that is already rife with poverty and elite corruption. The country is already awash with illegal guns and is frequently gripped by violence, such as urban riots earlier this month that killed 22 people.

Surging demand for narcotics in Australia — one of the world’s most expensive drug markets — makes PNG a natural transit point for international drug traffickers, said Jeremy Douglas, regional representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

“The proximity of PNG to Australia is perfect for staging shipments by small private planes [and] fishing vessels,” Douglas said. “We’ve seen traffickers fronting as business people to build connections with local elites and power players across the region. It is simply easier to co-opt elites and officials where capacities are lower and activities are not heavily scrutinized,” Douglas said.

Unclear Origins

Lin had been a well-known — and controversial — figure in PNG even before her arrest.

Born in China’s southeastern Fujian province in 1982, Lin — who also goes by the name Gigi — claims to have immigrated to PNG with her family as a teenager, attending two of the country’s most exclusive schools, according to documents submitted to PNG authorities as part of her successful 2016 citizenship application, which were obtained by reporters.

But the information she submitted to acquire citizenship contains key inconsistencies.

Lin gave PNG authorities a letter written in error-riddled English attesting to her attendance at Port Moresby Grammar School. But school administrator David Olley told reporters it was a “fraudulent letter” that had been signed by a person who had never worked there.

“Any agency or reader should be able to detect that it is a fraud and therefore not respect the letter,” Olley said.

Lin also told authorities she had studied at the elite Port Moresby International School in 2003 — when, according to the Chinese birth certificate she supplied to them, she was already 20 years old. But the school’s secretary, Albina Melua, said she could find no record of Lin’s attendance.

“In 2003, there was no Lin here,” Melua said.

Whatever her true history, public records show that Lin has, over the last decade, become a force in business in her adopted country.

She built her base of power in her adoptive hometown of Lae, a port city that acts as the gateway to PNG’s fabled highlands. Corporate documents show that Lin set up the centerpiece of her network there in 2013, the supermarket and wholesaler, KC 2.

Business soon boomed, with company revenues exploding from just 6.4 million kina (US$1.7 million in current value) in 2013, to over 121 million kina ($33 million) by 2022.

Lin soon built a reputation as a local power player who treated even public officials “just like talking to an ordinary friend or colleague or employee,” said Joikere Kusip, a lawyer who has worked for her.

Lin also began to attract critical nationwide attention, after local media reports alleged that she had improperly obtained state-owned land and violently evicted tenants. One of her land deals was ruled illegal, and Lin was questioned by a parliamentary committee in 2021.

Elite Education and ‘Kwik Moni’

Negative publicity doesn’t appear to have slowed Lin’s rise among PNG’s movers and shakers.

Corporate records show that Lin has over the last decade established at least a dozen other PNG-based companies, along with other close family members and partners. The firms have spanned sectors including property, security, nightclubs, gambling, and finance.

Lin’s list of business associates has included some prominent local names.

In 2020, Lin became a founding director of the Raggiana International Academy, an elite school in Lae partly owned by Vanessa Chan-Pelgen, the daughter of former PNG Prime Minister Sir Julius Chan. Lin is still a director at the academy. Chan-Pelgen did not respond to questions about Lin’s association with the school.

The following year, Lin co-founded a new financial institution, Kwik Moni, alongside a roster of other well-known figures in PNG.

Kwik Moni bills itself as a lender for personal expenses including “school fees, bride price, funeral expenses… and any worthwhile purposes.”

Lin’s fellow shareholders included Jimmy Poh, a Malaysia-born businessman whose interests include high-profile property developments in the capital, Port Moresby. He was previously a director of a major PNG health supplies company, Borneo Pacific Pharmaceuticals. Founded by his brother, Martin, Borneo Pacific has been a key supplier of medical kits and drugs to the PNG government. Australia reportedly withdrew funding for a PNG health program involving Borneo in 2013, citing concerns over how the company was awarded the contract and allegations by doctors that it had imported substandard drugs into the country.

Poh did not respond to questions about his business ties with Lin.

Other partners in Kwik Moni include two people who have held senior roles in the China and PNG Friendship Association, an advocacy organization for the Chinese diaspora in the country. Although ostensibly aimed at promoting bilateral relations and the interests of overseas Chinese, analysts say such organizations ultimately fall under the control of the ruling Chinese Communist Party under a so-called “United Front” strategy to push Beijing’s interests abroad.

One of these Kwik Moni partners, Billy Huaan Lin, also hails from Fujian province and is the owner of a network of companies in PNG including a Port Moresby-based car dealership, 2 Fast Motors Ltd. He has served in several leadership roles in the China and PNG Friendship Association. He has also played an intermediary role in PNG’s security relationship with China, donning a PNG police uniform and traveling with PNG officers to China for training, according to Chinese media coverage.

Another partner in Kwik Moni, Irene Wan Xia Seeto, has been identified in local media as recently as 2021 as chapter head of the China-PNG association in the township of Rabaul.

Neither Billy Lin nor Irene Seeto responded directly to requests for comment from OCCRP, but after questions were sent to them and Poh, Kwik Moni issued a press release saying that Mei Lin had been “requested to resign from the board and dispose of her shareholdings” in March 2023, after the company became aware of allegations against her. Indeed, corporate records obtained by reporters show that Lin relinquished her stake in the company last April, about three weeks after the meth flight. The shares were transferred to her father and another person who appears to be a relative.

But Lin’s alleged involvement in the flight did not deter her Kwik Moni business partner, Seeto, from continuing their business relationship. Corporate records from Australia show that Seeto and Lin opened a new company together in August 2023, called IG Developments Pty Ltd, which lists its place of business as what appears to be an empty lot in suburban Brisbane. It is unclear what the company does.

Lin and the Malaysian-born businessman Poh have also remained partners in a Port Moresby-based company, Arabica Coffee Exports (PNG) Ltd, according to company filings.

OCCRP and Inside PNG are not alleging any wrongdoing by Poh, Seeto, or Billy Lin.

Immigration Deals

Some of Lin’s most consequential dealings relate to her business relationship with the former PNG deputy prime minister, Maladina.

That relationship was first reported by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) on January 20, but OCCRP and Inside PNG have uncovered additional documents that provide further detail on the ties between Maladina and Lin.

Maladina has recently faced scrutiny over allegations that the company he founded, Chatswood PNG, has mismanaged funds granted by Australia under a secret deal to care for migrants left in the country by Australia’s much-criticized policy of turning back boats carrying asylum seekers.

Australia’s Home Affairs Department in late 2021 handed over to PNG authorities responsibility for the accommodation and welfare of previously detained migrants living in the country and awaiting refugee resettlement. The agreement came with a commitment by Australia to provide an undisclosed amount of funding, in an arrangement known as the PNG Humanitarian Program (PHP).

Maladina’s Chatswood PNG, which was designated a key service provider under the deal, soon faced allegations from migrants that it was failing to provide services like food deliveries. PNG’s immigration minister pledged an investigation last October after whistleblower complaints from within PNG’s Immigration and Citizenship Authority alleged that millions of dollars had likely gone missing under the scheme, and that Chatswood PNG was allegedly involved in fraudulent billing.

Maladina told reporters that Chatswood PNG was just one of several contractors on the PHP and that “the person named as Mei Lin has absolutely no association with the company in its Ownership, Shareholding or Directorship,” he said. Lin had only worked for the company’s property division for two months “on a casual basis,” he said. He gave a similar statement to the ABC.

However, OCCRP and Inside PNG have obtained documents that appear to show that Mei Lin did in fact play a senior role in Chatswood PNG. These include a February 2022 letter bearing the company’s seal and signed by Lin, in which she identified herself as the “property manager” of Chatswood PNG, and a Chatswood PNG corporate visa card in her name.

Namora Niugini, a Lin family business, is also alleged by the whistleblower to have been involved in fraudulently charging the PHP in concert with Chatswood PNG.

PNG’s chief migration officer, Stanis Hulahau, has previously told local media that Namora Niugini was a contractor on the project, while Chatswood PNG was the program case manager. The company “provided groceries/vouchers and an allowance for the refugees,” Hulahau was quoted as saying.

A third company, bearing the name PNG Humanitarian Program Ltd was established by Maladina in October 2021, two months before the bilateral agreement was inked, corporate records show. It was transferred to Lin’s ownership five months later and subsequently renamed ABC Enterprises. It is unclear if the firm has played a role in the administration of the migration scheme.

Maladina told OCCRP and Inside PNG that his company had no direct relationship to Namora Niugini.

Maladina also said that although he had “assisted” in the establishment of PNG Humanitarian Program Ltd, he “had no involvement whatsoever [in] the subsequent creation of ABC Enterprises Ltd… [and] no knowledge of its business and functions.”

Australia’s Department of Home Affairs said in a written response that reporters’ questions were “a matter for the PNG government.” Hulahau did not respond to questions.

New Evidence

Despite Lin’s growing prominence in PNG, law enforcement appeared to have been unaware of any alleged connection between Lin and drugs prior to last year’s meth flight.

OCCRP and Inside PNG reconstructed the investigation using public documents, PNG court records, and interviews with police in both PNG and Australia.

The investigation that foiled the flight started in late 2022 in Australia’s commercial capital, Sydney, where AFP narcotics investigators picked up intelligence that a group including local pilots and their associates allegedly intended to fly meth into Australia from PNG.

At least one similar scheme had been attempted before. In 2020, a light plane weighed down by a reported half-tonne of cocaine crashed in PNG’s forests while attempting to reach Australia.

The following year, a raid on a hotel in PNG’s capital of Port Moresby reportedly uncovered a meth lab operated by an Australian citizen. The suspect was released after local authorities made the embarrassing discovery that methamphetamine had not yet been added to the country’s list of controlled substances.

After getting wind last year that a group of Australians including pilots were allegedly plotting to import meth by plane from PNG, the AFP put the group under surveillance. They worked with other Australian law enforcement and PNG police to spring a trap on both sides of the Torres Strait, which separates Australia from its northern neighbour.

At the time, they were still unaware of the identity of Mei Lin or her alleged accomplices in PNG, AFP Eastern Command investigations head, Kate Ferry told OCCRP.

“The AFP and [PNG police] were investigating who was involved in the drug import plot in PNG but we did not identify the alleged offenders until the day of the flight,” Ferry said.

Arrests in PNG on March 21 led police to a warehouse owned by Lin’s KC 2 that served as a storage point for the meth, which a chemical analysis found was similar to drugs produced by Mexican cartels.

Bags of Meth
Photo: Australia Federal Police

Officers found that Lin had left Lae for Australia the day before the meth flight. Two days after that, she was questioned at Brisbane airport as she prepared to fly to Taiwan. She was allowed to depart after insufficient evidence was found to arrest her. She subsequently returned to Australia and lived in Brisbane until her arrest.

But back in PNG, the investigation into the eight suspects arrested there eventually produced evidence –– including CCTV footage and testimony –– that allegedly implicated Lin.

That investigation is ongoing and authorities will release only “limited information” until it is complete, PNG’s police minister Peter Tsiamalili said in a January 22 statement.

“These international criminal networks, particularly from parts of Asia, are organized and the damage they cause to people in our countries is devastating,” Tsiamalili said.