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A Chinese billionaire with connections to top Beijing leaders has been abducted from the Four Seasons Hotel in Hong Kong by Chinese public security agents and taken to mainland China, according to two people familiar with the investigation.
Xiao Jianhua, a financier with links to the family of Xi Jinping, China’s president, was one of several mainland businessmen who resided at the luxury hotel’s serviced apartment block in Hong Kong in recent years as Mr Xi’s corruption crackdown ensnared a growing number of tycoons.
They hoped they were beyond the reach of China’s feared public security forces because Hong Kong is a semi-autonomous territory that has its own police and legal system. Chinese law enforcement agencies are not allowed to operate in Hong Kong, according to the former British colony’s mini-constitution.
Mr Xiao, one of China’s richest men, controls the Tomorrow Group, a low-profile but influential holding company based in Beijing with stakes in banks, insurers and real estate developers. The Hurun Report, which analyses the fortunes of China’s richest people, estimates his personal wealth at $6bn.
He is a Canadian citizen, and the foreign ministry in Ottawa said “consular officials are in contact with the authorities to gather additional information and provide assistance”. It declined to give further details “in order to protect the privacy of the individual concerned”.
Mr Xiao’s disappearance will add to fears that Hong Kong is losing its autonomy, coming after the abduction in 2015 of five booksellers who published works that criticised Chinese leaders and made explosive allegations about their misdemeanours.
Mr Xiao was accosted in his Hong Kong waterfront apartment at around 1am on Friday, the eve of Chinese new year, by “five or six plain-clothed Chinese public security agents”, who then took him and two of his bodyguards to the mainland, said one person familiar with the investigation.
The Four Seasons has provided Hong Kong police with CCTV footage of Mr Xiao, who is normally followed everywhere by a group of female bodyguards, being led away by the Chinese security agents, the person said. It is unclear what happened inside the room where Mr Xiao was living but there was no scuffle in the hallway or elevator and he appeared to go with them willingly once they all left his room, the person added.
The person added that Mr Xiao called his family later and informed them he had been taken by mainland Chinese public security agents but that he was fine. He asked them to withdraw a request they had made to the Hong Kong police for assistance.
Another person familiar with the situation confirmed that Mr Xiao, who was born in China but holds Canadian citizenship as well as a diplomatic passport issued by Antigua and Barbuda, had been taken from the Four Seasons to the mainland.
It is unclear why he was taken. In 2014, he denied widespread media reports that he had fled to Hong Kong to avoid being caught in the president’s corruption crackdown.
A statement posted on the WeChat account of the Tomorrow Group, published on Tuesday and purportedly from Mr Xiao, said he was overseas for medical treatment and would return “soon”.
In the statement, which was subsequently deleted by censors, he denied he had been “abducted to the mainland”. He said he was a Canadian citizen and Hong Kong permanent resident who was protected by the Canadian consulate and Hong Kong law. He added that he “had never harmed the interests of the country” or “supported any opposition organisation”.
The Four Seasons in Hong Kong said the case was “under active investigation”, so it could not comment further, and directed inquiries to the police.
When asked about Mr Xiao’s whereabouts, Hong Kong police said a family member lodged a request for police help on Saturday before withdrawing it on Sunday after he contacted relatives and said he was safe. He entered the mainland through one of Hong Kong’s border crossings on Friday, the police said.
Police added that they would “continue to investigate the case” and had asked the mainland authorities for assistance in determining “the subject’s conditions in the mainland”.
The Hong Kong government’s security department reiterated that outside law enforcement agencies, including those from the mainland, were not authorised to enforce the law in Hong Kong.
Rooms at the Four Seasons’ residential block cost $6,000-$26,000 per month and some Chinese tycoons are believed to have rented entire floors in an attempt to ensure their privacy and security.
The pattern of Mr Xiao’s removal from Hong Kong fits with the abduction of the booksellers. Their families initially reported them missing before trying to withdraw the police reports. They turned up in the custody of mainland security. One of the five, Swedish citizen Gui Minhai, remains in detention on the mainland, 15 months after he was taken.
It is common for Chinese businesspeople and others detained by China’s powerful security apparatus to be pressed to release messages through social media, email or via their families insisting that all is fine.