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A Tycoon With Ties To China's President Is Missing


A tycoon with ties to China's president has gone missing, and there are concerns that Chinese authorities took him out of Hong Kong and over the border into mainland China. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing that this news has rekindled concerns about the rule of law in that former British colony.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: When he disappeared, billionaire financier Xiao Jianhua had reportedly been living at the Four Seasons hotel in Hong Kong, protected by bodyguards. Tuesday, he took out a full-page ad in a Hong Kong newspaper just to say that he had not been kidnapped. He said he's a Canadian citizen and he's just receiving medical treatment overseas. But Hong Kong police confirmed that Xiao crossed the border into China on January 27. It's not clear who, if anyone, accompanied him. David Zweig, a China expert at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, says the case raises troubling memories.

DAVID ZWEIG: It took six months for it to get out of the psyche of Hong Kong people. So when this case with Mr. Xiao happens, people immediately remember the booksellers.

KUHN: Zweig is referring to last year's case of five Hong Kong booksellers who mysteriously vanished. Zweig notes that at least in the case of the financier Xiao, there was an official record of him crossing the border.

ZWEIG: It's different than the booksellers, where they were clearly kidnapped and just disappeared and then showed up in China.

KUHN: Both cases have spooked Hong Kong residents because Chinese law enforcers have no jurisdiction in Hong Kong. But one thing that's increasingly clear from both episodes, Zweig says, is that if you're wanted by authorities in China, then Hong Kong is no place for you to hide.

ZWEIG: The border's probably just getting more and more porous and particularly, it seems, when the cases are related to the Xi family.

KUHN: That's President Xi Jinping. The booksellers were accused of putting out salacious books about Chinese politics, including President Xi's personal life. As for financier Xiao Jianhua, The New York Times reported that he helped Xi's family unload some $2.5 million of their assets after Bloomberg reported on the family's vast wealth five years ago. Xiao denies that he's profited from his connections to China's leaders.

But he's known as what Chinese call a white glove, someone who profits from making leaders' hands appear clean. The Hurun Report, which tracks China's wealthy, puts Xiao's fortune at nearly $6 billion. It's common knowledge that for Chinese businessmen, if you find the right political patron...

VICTOR SHIH: Then you can do very well. But if you bet on the wrong person, then some very dire things can happen to you.

KUHN: That's Victor Shih, an expert on Chinese politics and finance at the University of California, San Diego. He says that private-sector business elites are no longer safe in China, and that's bad for the nation's economy.

SHIH: People will think twice before they invest in China because ultimately, property rights, even for people with connections, continue to be very, very weak, and the rule of law continues to be very, very weak in China.

KUHN: China's still celebrating the Lunar New Year holiday, and the government has yet to comment on Xiao Jianhua's case. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF LITTLE COMETS' "THE WESTERN BOY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.