‘The darkest time’: Hong Kong reels over bizarre disappearance of Chinese billionaire
by Benjamin Haas / 13 February 2017 / SCMP
It has been more than two weeks since Xiao Jianhua last crossed the threshold of his luxury suite at the Four Seasons hotel in Hong Kong.
For a billionaire – even one with a relatively low profile like Xiao – to vanish would, in normal times, be alarming.
But when the place he has been sucked into is the black hole of China’s security state, nerves have become increasingly rattled.
Xiao is renowned for his close relationships and business dealings with elite families, including relatives of President Xi Jinping. Many believed those connections made him untouchable.
His bolt hole at the Four Seasons – where suites can cost £21,000 a month – and the relatively safe environs of Hong Kong, which has a separate legal system from China, were seen as affording extra protection.
Xiao also employed multiple security firms and surrounded himself with a squad of female bodyguards who were apparently known to wipe the sweat from his brow.
But all that changed when he was seen being led away in a wheelchair by plain clothes Chinese security agents, his head covered by a sheet, and taken across the border into China, possibly by boat to avoid immigration checks, according to a report in the New York Times.
As Hong Kong prepares to mark the 20th anniversary of its handover from Britain to China, Xiao’s case, like the disappearance of five booksellers a little more than a year ago, highlights the erosion of promised freedoms and autonomy, and threatens to undermine the territory’s global reputation.
“There’s an increasing tendency of Hong Kong becoming more and more like just another Chinese city,” said Anson Chan, the former lawmaker and number two official in Hong Kong. “How else can we compete as a global city other than holding on to the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary and rights and freedoms, particularly freedom of expressions and free flow of information?
“These are Hong Kong’s strengths but every day we see an erosion of those strengths. The long arm of the mainland authorities reaches far and wide into Hong Kong.”
Xiao is the 32nd richest person in China, with a fortune of Y40bn (£4.7bn). He has more than tripled his wealth since 2013, and many believe it is a low estimate anyway. He controls Tomorrow Group, which has stakes in real estate, insurance, banking, coal and cement firms.
His vast wealth may have been his downfall, with the head of China’s stock market regulator saying “there must be a plan to capture and bring capital market crocodiles back to the mainland”.
Beijing will not allow tycoons to “suck the blood of retail investors”, Liu Shiyu, chairman of China Securities Regulatory Commission, said at a meeting on Friday, without directly naming Xiao. China’s stock markets experienced a politically embarrassing rout in 2015, erasing £4 trillion in stock value and severely denting the reputation of the country’s nascent markets.
Xiao helped Xi’s sister and brother-in-law dispose of assets after Bloomberg News reported on the wealth of the president’s family in 2012, and has invested in the same deals with other members of the political elite.
After Xiao was abducted, his wife filed a request for police assistance – but then tried to withdraw it and reportedly flew to Japan. While the Hong Kong police have said they are investigating the case, sources have described the case as far above their pay grade.
Hong Kong’s business world meanwhile is reconsidering the implications of dealing with Chinese firms, especially those controlled by politically connected elites.
“There used to be a feeling that if you invested with politically powerful people you were safe, but Xiao’s disappearance shows that doesn’t work,” said a businessman in Hong Kong with extensive dealings in China who asked not to be named. “A lot of people are wondering: if I can get snatched from my home in the middle of the night, is this worth it?”
Many saw Hong Kong as a sanctuary. As part of the agreement for the UK to transfer sovereignty to China, Hong Kong maintains separate laws, banking regulations and freedoms not found on the mainland, under an arrangement known as “one country, two systems”. Under that agreement Chinese police are forbidden from operating in the city.
“For anyone that has illusions Hong Kong is some kind of safe haven, they are lying to themselves. If China wants to arrest you, they will,” the businessman said. “Most people just hope they can get themselves, their family and their money out of Hong Kong before the Chinese can catch up with them.”
When five booksellers – publishers of salacious, thinly sourced stories on China’s leaders – disappeared in 2015, droves of foreign businessmen lobbied consulates in the city to register their concerns with Hong Kong and Chinese authorities. Read more…