Xiao Jianhua, a Chinese billionaire, has reportedly been kidnapped from a Hong Kong hotel by Chinese security forces. As in other such incidents, confusion surrounding Xiao’s disappearance has been compounded by statements, allegedly by him, that he went voluntarily to the Chinese mainland. This case is another indication of the erosion of Hong Kong’a autonomy, the disrespect the Beijing government has for its international commitments and the lengths to which it will go in pursuit of its perceived national and political interests.
Xiao is one of China’s richest men, with a net worth of just under $6 billion. He began his business career selling personal computers while a student at Peking University. He parlayed close connections with the political elite attending the school into a thriving business. Xiao is often referred to as a “bagman”: someone who helps arrange the business deals of important and powerful people and uses those associations to build their own wealth.
Xiao was very good at what he did — the size of his Tomorrow Group is testimony to his success — and scrupulous about maintaining a low public profile. But politically correct connections in some circumstances can be dangerous in others. Two of Xiao’s connections are particularly troubling for him now.
The first is to Ma Jian, a former vice minister in China’s Ministry of State Security. Ma was kicked out of the Communist Party and his job last December on suspicions of taking bribes and “abusing power.” The second connection is to Zeng Qinghong, vice president of China from 2003-08, a former Politboro member, and a confidant of former Presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.
Officially, or at least according to statements made by Xiao and released on his company’s WeChat account and published on the front page of a Hong Kong newspaper, Xiao, “a patriotic overseas Chinese,” voluntarily returned to China to assist investigations into stock market tumult in 2015, when the Shanghai market peaked in June and plummeted 40 percent over a two-month period.
In theory, investigations are focusing on insider trading as part of the anti-corruption campaign that has been a pillar of President Xi Jinping’s administration. Most observers believe those investigations are in furtherance of another objective, however: The elimination of opposition — real, potential or imagined — to Xi. Xiao, as a middleman for many powerful and connected Chinese, would be a rich mine of information in that effort.
Xiao’s disappearance follows that of five Hong Kong booksellers who vanished a year ago. The men were associated with publishing houses that put out books with embarrassing details about the Chinese leadership. All five surfaced in China, claiming that they had gone to the mainland of their own volition.
State-sanctioned kidnapping is deeply troubling, but a case can be made that three of the booksellers were Chinese citizens and thus subject to the legal authority of the government in Beijing. That is not true for Xiao and two of the booksellers: Xiao has a Canadian passport and one of the booksellers is a British citizen while the other is Swedish.
For anyone living and working in China and Hong Kong the message is clear. The border between the special economic zone and the mainland is permeable to the point of nonexistent.
This may seem like common sense since Hong Kong is a part of China and thus subject to the same authorities. But that logic defies the Basic Agreement between the Chinese government and the United Kingdom that laid out the terms of the return of the territory to Beijing. That document, the subject of laborious negotiations and agreed in 1997, established a “one country, two systems” framework that acknowledged separate development paths that Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland had taken over the previous half century. Kong Kong would be allowed to have its own political system, legal, economic and financial affairs, while Beijing would control relations with foreign countries and security affairs.
This agreement was designed to preserve Hong Kong’s autonomy, promoting confidence in the city’s future, as well as in Beijing’s respect for international agreements, while allowing the city to play a special role in China’s own development. Yet, since the handover in 1997, Hong Kong’s autonomy has eroded, with Beijing asserting ever more influence over the city’s affairs. The belief that mainland security forces can act there with impunity, enforcing Beijing’s writ without qualification, would constitute a virtually complete abrogation of the terms of the Basic Agreement.
This will occur if other countries acquiesce to China’s disregard for the terms of the Basic Agreement. Britain, as signatory, has the first responsibility for enforcing its terms, and while it spoke out in the case of the kidnapped bookseller with a British passport, it has been largely quiet as Beijing flexes its muscles in Hong Kong. Since Xiao is a Canadian passport holder, Ottawa has a special responsibility in addressing his case. But all countries must demand that China honor its commitment to preserve Hong Kong’s freedoms and autonomy. Thus far, the silence is deafening.
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