Article was originally published in Bloomberg on 1 February 2017
Where is billionaire Xiao Jianhua?
That depends on whom you ask, and the answer may further inflame Hong Kongers worried that China is increasingly meddling in the city’s affairs.
Xiao, a student leader at the time of 1989 pro-democracy protests in China who now runs the Tomorrow Group investment conglomerate, hasn’t been seen around Hong Kong since last week. He’s a long-time resident of the luxury Four Seasons Hotel fronting Victoria Harbor.
The South China Morning Post reported that Xiao left the hotel Friday accompanied by a group of unknown people. He then crossed into mainland China, where he remains, the paper reported Wednesday, citing sources it didn’t identify. Xiao can communicate with his family, one person told the paper, which didn’t say why he was in China. Hong Kong police, when asked about Xiao, said “the subject” entered China on Jan. 27 but didn’t explain.
The New York Times also reported that Xiao was taken by Chinese police and brought back to the mainland, where he was in custody. The paper, which didn’t say why Xiao was detained, cited a person close to the businessman whom it didn’t identify.
Yet Xiao, or someone claiming to be him, tells a different story. On Tuesday, amid social-media speculation about his whereabouts and circumstances, he posted an advertisement on the website of Hong Kong’s Chinese-language Ming Pao newspaper saying he’s “recuperating abroad” and hadn’t been “abducted.”
“The Chinese government is a civilized government ruling according to law,” the ad said. “Everyone don’t misinterpret. There’s no such thing as me being abducted back to mainland China.”
The Canadian citizen also said in the ad that he’s protected by both that nation’s embassy and by Hong Kong law because he’s a permanent resident of the city.
As of Wednesday, Xiao remained outside China, according to a subordinate in contact with him daily. That person, who asked not to be identified because the discussions are private, declined to be more specific.
The Canadian consulate in Hong Kong declined Wednesday to confirm whether Xiao is a Canadian citizen, citing privacy issues. Consulate officials had been in touch with local authorities for information following the media reports, said Cindy Tang, a spokeswoman.
A Hong Kong police statement released Tuesday about “a Mainland citizen in Hong Kong” didn’t name the person. Officers received a “request for police assistance” on Jan. 28, but a family member later said the person contacted relatives and was safe, so the report was withdrawn. The investigation showed the person entered China from Hong Kong on Jan. 27, which is the day Xiao reportedly left the Four Seasons.
A spokeswoman for the Four Seasons Hotel, Priscilla Chan, declined to comment Wednesday.
The possibility that police from mainland China seized Xiao and took him back across the border is a politically sensitive issue in Hong Kong, which is part of China but has a separate legal system.
Hong Kong’s Basic Law — the mini-constitution drawn up in consultation with the British before the 1997 return to China — prohibits Chinese law enforcement authorities from operating independently in the city.
Yet last year, five men — including U.K. and Swedish nationals — who sold books critical of China’s Communist Party went missing and later turned up with authorities on the mainland. In a report to the U.K. Parliament in February 2016, then-Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond called the detentions a “serious breach” of the handover deal.
“This is a real concern,” Kevin Yam, a spokesman for the Hong Kong-based Progressive Lawyers Group, said Wednesday. “You have people entitled to be in Hong Kong who are being nabbed across the border. It goes right to the heart of ‘one country, two systems.”’
In 2014, thousands of protesters occupied areas of the city because of what they considered Beijing’s increasing control over Hong Kong politics.
The Hong Kong government said Wednesday that police were investigating the case, and it expected the Basic Law to be followed. The government “will not allow non-Hong Kong law enforcement officers to take law enforcement actions in Hong Kong,” according to the statement.
The question of where Xiao is also prompts the question of why he’s the subject of political intrigue. In a 2014 interview with Hong Kong Next Magazine, Xiao said he was chairman of the Peking University student union in 1989, but he didn’t participate in the Tiananmen Square protests.
Xiao formerly ran a business unit affiliated with Thai billionaire Dhanin Chearavanont’s Charoen Pokphand Group Co. He was chairman of Chia Tai Worldwide Investment Co. in the months before Dhanin completed his $9.4 billion purchase of a stake in Ping An Insurance (Group) Co. in 2013.
Stock exchange filings by Ping An in 2012 indicate CP Group began investing in the insurer while Xiao still was Chia Tai Worldwide chairman. Chinese magazine Caixin reported in January 2013 that China Development Bank Corp. pulled its funding of the deal after learning of Xiao’s involvement.
When the deal was consummated in February 2013, Xiao no longer held the title of chairman, a CP Group executive said at the time.
Later that year, he and Taiwanese billionaire Richard Tsai were in talks to help fund a $4.2 billion bid for American International Group Inc.’s aircraft-leasing unit. Tsai is chairman of Fubon Financial Holding Co.
Xiao now runs the closely held Tomorrow Group Co., which invests primarily in financial services and uses shell companies to control the investments. The Hurun Report of China’s richest people says Xiao is part of a fortune estimated at almost $6 billion.
In April 2016, Xiao’s T Stone Group Ltd. donated HK$10 million ($1.3 million) to Chinese University of Hong Kong for a robotics institute.
The school described T Stone Group as a collection of companies focusing on emerging industries such as artificial intelligence, clean energy and new materials. The group and affiliates also donated to science research at Peking University, Tsinghua University and Harvard University, according to the press release.