February 12, 2017
Xiao Jianhua in a park in Beijing in an undated photograph. The Chinese billionaire disappeared from the Four Seasons Hotel in Hong Kong last month and is believed to be in police custody in mainland China.
The New York Times
HONG KONG — In a newspaper ad, the Hong Kong billionaire declared that he was just fine, merely resting overseas. The local news media insists that he is helping with an important investigation in China. The police say he left the territory through a normal border control point.
But Xiao Jianhua, one of China’s wealthiest and most politically connected financiers, whose disappearance last month sent a chill through Hong Kong and the political class in Beijing, does not appear to be fine.
In the early hours of Jan. 27, he was taken out of the Four Seasons Hotel in Hong Kong in a wheelchair, his head covered by a sheet or a blanket, according to people who have seen or been briefed on video footage captured by security cameras in the hotel.
Mr. Xiao, 45, who was not known to use a wheelchair, was accompanied by about half a dozen unidentified men who were also pushing a large suitcase on rollers. He is believed to have been transported by boat from Hong Kong, eluding border controls, and is now in police custody in mainland China, according to two people familiar with the investigation into his whereabouts.
While the reasons for his apparent abduction remain a mystery, it comes ahead of an important Communist Party leadership meeting this year that will fill top posts, leading to speculation that someone powerful may have wanted Mr. Xiao out of the way, or perhaps wanted to use him to silence rivals with whom he has business ties.
Few people are in a position to know more about the financial holdings of China’s leading political families than Mr. Xiao, who made billions investing in banks, insurers and real estate around the world. In the past decade, he has served as a de facto banker to the Communist Party elite.
His disappearance has again raised fears about Chinese encroachment into Hong Kong in violation of the “one country, two systems” rule that allows this former British colony to run its own affairs and bars mainland security forces from operating here. A year ago, the city was outraged when five Hong Kong booksellers disappeared — only to turn up in Chinese custody.
Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London, said Mr. Xiao’s extraction from Hong Kong was unlikely to have occurred without the approval of China’s president, Xi Jinping, who has challenged party traditions of collective leadership with a bold drive to consolidate power.
Mr. Tsang said Mr. Xi might be holding Mr. Xiao in custody to protect himself or to gain leverage against people he “needs to persuade” at the coming party congress to push through his agenda and cement his legacy.
“I do not know if the operation was initiated or ordered by Xi, but his consent must have been given, in light of Xiao’s connections with Xi’s family,” Mr. Tsang said in an email.
In January 2013, weeks after Mr. Xi came into power at the last party congress, his sister and brother-in-law sold their stake in an investment firm to a company founded by Mr. Xiao. Mr. Xiao later said the move was part of an effort by the Xi family to exit investments, which reduced Mr. Xi’s political vulnerability as he embarked on a sweeping campaign against corruption.
But Mr. Xiao also appears to have done business with relatives of other party leaders, including Zeng Qinghong, a former vice president and power broker whom Mr. Xi may consider a potential threat.
A Chinese-born Canadian citizen with an Antiguan diplomatic passport, Mr. Xiao has lived in a serviced apartment at the Four Seasons in Hong Kong for years, attended to by a coterie of female bodyguards.
On the night he disappeared, the men in plain clothes were recorded by closed-circuit security cameras entering his suite with a wheelchair and the large suitcase, according to one of the people familiar with the footage.
Some time later, the men emerged from the suite with Mr. Xiao in the wheelchair, along with several women and the suitcase. Mr. Xiao was not struggling but seemed fatigued and his head was covered, according to the people familiar with the video. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the news media or feared retaliation by the Chinese government.
The lobby of the Four Seasons apartment tower is separate from the main hotel, with its own front desk and a single door that opens with a key card. Hotel staff members there questioned the men who left with Mr. Xiao, and they were told that the men were part of his security detail and that he was ill and needed medical attention, the people said.
Mr. Xiao’s disappearance has been marked by confusion and misinformation.
His flagship company, The Tomorrow Group, printed a front-page advertisement in Mr. Xiao’s name on Feb. 1 in Ming Pao, a Hong Kong newspaper, saying that he had not been abducted and that he was “recuperating abroad.” But that was a lie meant to appease the Chinese government, which did not want his case discussed in the news media, one person close to Mr. Xiao’s family said at the time.
Days after the apparent abduction, the Hong Kong police disclosed that one of Mr. Xiao’s relatives had filed a missing persons report but later withdrew it. The police also said that Mr. Xiao had left at “one of Hong Kong’s boundary control points.”
Asked about the possibility that Mr. Xiao had left Hong Kong by boat, the police said in a statement that they were continuing to investigate. Amy Powell, a spokeswoman for the Four Seasons, said the hotel would not comment.
Mr. Xiao’s family members have been allowed to communicate with him, a person close to the family said, adding that his wife is concerned about his heath because he left Hong Kong without his medication for angina and other ailments.
Mr. Xiao’s path to fortune began shortly after he graduated from Peking University, where he enrolled as a child prodigy at age 14. He was head of the official student union and remained loyal to the government even as many of his classmates participated in the pro-democracy protests that ended in a bloody crackdown in June 1989.
As his wealth rose, he entered into various business deals with relatives of the Communist Party elite.
Several companies affiliated with Mr. Xiao were involved in the controversial 2006-7 privatization of Luneng, a huge state-run power company in Shandong Province, in eastern China. Among the others who gained shares was a man named Zeng Ming, according to an exposé published by the investigative magazine Caijing that the Chinese authorities later ordered removed from newsstands.
Overseas Chinese news media later identified Zeng Ming as a pseudonym used by the son of Zeng Qinghong, the former vice president.
In January 2009, one of the Tomorrow Group’s main companies, Baotou Tomorrow Technology, announced that it would pay about $50 million to buy property in southwestern China from a company headed by the son-in-law of the fourth-ranking member of the Communist Party at the time, Jia Qinglin, company records show.
While both Mr. Jia and Mr. Zeng are retired, they have long been seen as important allies of Jiang Zemin, the former president and party leader who continues to wield some influence.
Another prominent Chinese businessman who has taken refuge in Hong Kong to stay out of reach of mainland authorities and spoke on the condition of anonymity said that Mr. Xiao’s extraordinary political connections made him an obvious target.
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