'Invisible tycoon' now in the limelight

Low-profile China billionaire making waves after alleged abduction by mainland agents

Mr Xiao was reportedly taken away by Chinese security agents in two cars on Jan 27 while in Hong Kong.
Mr Xiao was reportedly taken away by Chinese security agents in two cars on Jan 27 while in Hong Kong.

He is one of China's richest men but has kept such a low profile that he is called "the invisible tycoon" by the Chinese media.

But the cloak of invisibility has come off for 46-year-old Xiao Jianhua, founder of the Beijing-based Tomorrow Group, who has made headlines around the globe after his alleged abduction in Hong Kong by mainland security agents on the eve of Chinese New Year.

Mr Xiao was ranked China's 32nd richest person with a net worth of US$6 billion (S$8.5 billion) in the 2016 Hurun China rich list.

Reflecting how much Mr Xiao had wished to keep a low profile, The Financial Times (FT) reported that compilers of the list say they had at first calculated that Mr Xiao was the richest person in China but he had argued that he was much poorer than he seemed to be.

Mr Rupert Hoogewerf, chairman of the Hurun Report, told FT: "He's considered to be extremely intelligent and extremely low profile."

  • 'No evidence mainland agents were involved'

  • HONG KONG • Was China-born tycoon Xiao Jianhua taken back to the mainland by Chinese law enforcement agents acting illegally on Hong Kong soil?

    This is the question many Hong Kongers have been asking since news of Mr Xiao's disappearance broke last week.

    The city's police chief Stephen Lo said over the weekend there was no evidence so far that suggested mainland law enforcement agents were involved in the case, reported the South China Morning Post.

    Hong Kong police said last week that Mr Xiao had entered Shenzhen via a border checkpoint on Jan 27 and that they were seeking more information from the Chinese authorities.

    "Up to this moment, we have not seen mainland counterparts exercising their authority in Hong Kong," Mr Lo said on a radio programme on Saturday morning.

    Mr Xiao's disappearance was reported the following day and on Sunday, his family withdrew the missing persons report after knowing that he was safe.

    "The probe is not over. We will continue to investigate as members of the public are concerned about the case," said Mr Lo.

    The police chief, however, refused to say if any triads were involved, reported South China Morning Post.

    The latest incident has added to growing fears that Hong Kong's autonomy is being slowly eroded and that China's powerful but secretive security forces have intensified their meddling in the city's affairs in recent years.

    Under the Basic Law, no law enforcement agencies from outside Hong Kong, including those from mainland China, are allowed to operate inside the territory.

    Mr Steve Vickers, a political risk consultant and former head of the police criminal intelligence bureau during the colonial era, said the Hong Kong authorities were "powerless" to stop the mainland security forces from interfering, particularly as they often worked with local triad groups.

    There have been several other cases of wealthy businessmen being kidnapped from Hong Kong and reappearing in the custody of mainland police, Mr Vickers told the Financial Times, not all of them made public.

    The South China Morning Post reported earlier that police had been checking roadside surveillance footage around the city to try and trace the movements of the 46-year-old after he left the luxury Four Seasons Hotel on the eve of Chinese New Year.

    At 3am that day, Mr Xiao and his two female bodyguards were picked up by two cars at the hotel, but they crossed Lok Ma Chau control point only 12 hours later.

While many details of Mr Xiao's life, including whether he has children, have not been reported, what is known is that he was born in a poor village in eastern Shandong province and his father is a secondary school teacher.

The younger Xiao stood out for being a prodigy who entered Peking University to study law at age 15 in 1986. A student leader there, he held positions such as chairman of the student union, which is linked to the Chinese Communist Party.

FT and The New York Times reported that Mr Xiao had supported the authorities during the Tiananmen student uprising in 1989. Some believe his alleged abduction could be because of his close links to the allies and kin of top political leaders Jiang Zemin and Xi Jinping, and these connections likely grew from his university days.

After a brief stint working at the university after graduation, Mr Xiao founded Tomorrow Group in 1993 with a group of friends from his alma mater and Tsinghua University, to sell imported computers.

In a rare interview in 2013 with the 21st Century Business Herald, a Chinese business newspaper, Mr Xiao said this was how he made "his first pot of gold" - worth more than one billion yuan (S$205 million).

In the late 1990s, Mr Xiao, whose wife Zhou Hongwen was his university schoolmate and is co-founder of the Tomorrow Group, switched to investing in stocks and dealing in lucrative mergers and acquisitions.

Today, the group has investments in businesses such as chemical plants, coal mines, banks and insurance companies, including insurance giant Ping An.

Mr Xiao told the 21st Century paper why he became a businessman and not a politician, noting that high achievers go into politics."If businessmen like us enter the political arena, we will merely be below average. But, for people like us who are able to take a macro view of things, we will have a huge advantage in the business circle."

Since 2000, Mr Xiao, now a Canadian citizen, has been living abroad mostly. In 2015, he was made an ambassador for Antigua and Barbuda in the Caribbean.

But in recent years, he has been based mainly in Hong Kong, specifically in a suite at the city's Four Seasons Hotel, where he was reportedly taken away on Jan 27 in two cars along with two female bodyguards.

According to media reports, Mr Xiao, like many rich Chinese businessmen, chose to live in Hong Kong to avoid the scrutiny of China's internal security service, which is not allowed to operate in the self-autonomous territory.

His alleged abduction, which follows the saga of five booksellers in Hong Kong who went missing in 2015, has raised further alarm about the erosion of the city's limited autonomy.

According to South China Morning Post, Mr Xiao is now in the mainland assisting with investigations into the Chinese stock market rout in 2015. FT also said he could have been held as part of Mr Xi's anti-graft drive, like many businessmen linked to former Chinese president Jiang Zemin. For now, "the invisible tycoon" seems to have vanished and lost his freedom.

Ironically, Mr Xiao, a self-professed student of American investor Warren Buffett, had told the 21st Century Business Herald: "My personality is that of an educated man who values freedom.

"So, I don't like going to the office. I've not been in an office for more than 10 years. I'm usually taking a stroll at the beach, or walking around in the hotel... This is how I work," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 06, 2017, with the headline ''Invisible tycoon' now in the limelight '. Subscribe