TYCOON XIAO JIANHUA, the 46-years-old billionaire investor abducted from Hong Kong late last month, was the then 17-years-old chairman of Beijing University’s student union in 1989 and remained loyal to the Party in that tumultuous year. Subsequently, he was aligned with the Shanghai-based faction around Jiang Zemin, president from 1993-2003 and, as a nonagenarian, still casting a long shadow over the country’s elite politics. The allegiances helped Xiao deal his way from student leader to being one of China’s richest people through investments from insurance to coal mines.
However, like any good businessman, Xiao diversified his loyalties. He also built close business links with the family of President Xi Jinping, a position in which, perhaps dangerously, he would have learned much about the president’s family’s business enterprises.
The political rules of the anti-corruption operation have been unpredictable for tycoons for some time. Xiao was lifted by Chinese security agents from the tony Four Seasons hotel in Hong Kong, and, it seems certain, spirited across the border into mainland China and, in all likelihood, one of the unofficial detention centres being used to held businessman and officials who have fallen foul of the anti-corruption campaign.
Xiao is unlikely to be the only businessman with links to the Jiang faction to be helping authorities with their inquiries. Conspiracy theorists will be quick to draw links to the important party congress due later this year where Xi will be seeking to consolidate his power and aiming to put his stamp on the next generation of top leadership. Xiao’s disappearance will send a chill warning to others that this is no time to be playing party politics.
What makes Xiao’s case stand out, however, is that he was seized in Hong Kong, roughly a year on from when five booksellers mysteriously disappeared. Xiao had operated from the city for some years as a place close enough to the rest of China to let him run his mainland business interests while still offering the protection from Chinese security services of an independent legal system — or so he had supposed.
Bit by bit legal and civil rights protections are being eroded in Hong Kong as Beijing increasingly waits out the countdown to the end of 50 years of ‘one country, two systems’ by ignoring the second system and turning the city into just another corner of China of middling importance.