BEIJING (Reuters) - Legendary Chinese oil trader "Crazy Yang" Qinglong, who started China's oil business with Iran in the 1990s and was renowned as a hard-drinker who bear-hugged Iranian officials, has died, said company officials and former acquaintances.
"He's a legend, a tough man, a man of perseverance," said an oil industry executive who plans to attend Yang's funeral at his hometown in southwestern Yunnan province.
"You can hardly find a second such Chinese official who achieved what Yang has achieved."
Yang, 62, who died of cancer on Sunday, set up China's state trader Zhuhai Zhenrong Corp around 1995 after "high-level military friends" wanted someone to formally import crude oil from Iran. At the time, Iran was supplying oil to China to pay for arms supplied by Beijing during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
By 2001, Yang's state trader was supplying 16 percent of China's crude imports, importing 11 million tonnes of Iranian crude or 220,000 barrels per day.
A decade later Zhuhai Zhenrong was the biggest supplier of refined petroleum products back to Iran, according to the U.S. State Department. The Chinese oil trader brokered the delivery of more than $500 million in gasoline to Iran between July 2010 and January 2011, contravening U.S. sanctions law.
Yang was a hard-drinker from a military background who always wore an army-green jacket, with a matching canvas bag slung over his shoulder.
Stories of Yang banging his fist on a table demanding that a Chinese refiner take Iranian oil or how he greeted Iranian officials with a bear-hug and hoisted them into the air, painted an image of a larger than life character.
He would regale dinner companions with how he spent much of his youth in a mental hospital. Yang called himself "Crazy Yang".
"Some (Chinese) officials scoffed at Yang for his not totally refined behavior like hard drinking, but I respect Yang as oil industry person who did something to serve the country's political needs, not just in pursuit of commercial gains," said the executive who plans to attend Yang's funeral.
Yang was the person who connected China's current state energy majors CNPC, Sinopec and CNOOC with Tehran, sources said.
Former colleagues attribute Yang's success to his eloquence, consummate networking skills and ambition.
"Crazy Yang's superb networking skills and his unusual personality are the valuable assets that few Chinese officials of his position can match," said a former Zhenrong trader.
In quieter moments, colleagues said Yang was something of a bookworm and movie-buff. They said he read and re-read biographies on Napoleon and Hitler and the 18th century Chinese classic 'A Dream of Red Mansions'. He took staff to the cinema to watch Hollywood movies 'Gladiator' and 'Saving Private Ryan'.
Yang retired in 2011 to become Zhenrong's advisor.
"China's Iranian oil business has been carried on till today largely because of Yang's heritage," said the former Zhenrong trader.
Editing by Michael Perry