In the early hours of Jan. 27, 2017, Chinese-Canadian billionaire Xiao Jianhua was abducted from a Hong Kong hotel room in spectacular fashion. Beijing security agents entered his luxury apartment, emerging hours later, reportedly pushing Xiao in a wheelchair — head covered in a sheet — before escorting him back to mainland China.
Five years later there have been no official updates from the federal government on his whereabouts, or whether Xiao, who holds a Canadian passport, has even received consular visits. He’s also not appeared in court to face China’s allegations of “bribery” and “stock manipulation.”
Beijing, meanwhile, says it has seized most of his assets, but a Global News investigation has found that several companies tied to his family, including his wife and brother-in-law, have been operating and buying up real estate across the Greater Toronto Area for more than a decade. Xiao became a Canadian citizen around 2008 and also obtained a diplomatic passport from Antigua and Barbuda shortly before he was spirited from Hong Kong.
Global News has repeatedly contacted Xiao’s family members in the Greater Toronto Area for comment on Beijing’s accusations against Xiao’s business in China, and questions about the family’s investments in Canada. The family hasn’t yet responded.
His brazen abduction sparked international outrage over Beijing’s violation of Hong Kong’s independence and continues to raise concerns about the legal rights of other dual citizens living on the island. Global Affairs documents, obtained by Global News under access to information laws, also offer a window into the diplomatic discussions following the disappearance of the Canadian-Chinese tycoon.
Some recent reports have speculated he’s under house arrest in Shanghai. The kidnapping of Xiao sparked periodic requests from journalists around the world who’ve prodded Global Affairs for updates, even speculating at one point that the Chinese-Canadian billionaire was believed to be dead.
“We’ve heard from good sources that Xiao Jianhua, the Canadian citizen taken from Hong Kong into mainland Chinese custody earlier this year, is dead,” the Financial Times wrote to Global Affairs Canada in a June 2017 email, obtained through access to information.
That same year, an intermediary representing Xiao’s family enlisted former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney to push the case to the top of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s agenda.
“Minister Freeland and her Deputy Minister Ian Shugart … are now personally involved in the file,” said a memo from the law firm Norton Rose Fulbright, obtained by Global News. The memo was first reported on by the Globe and Mail. “Prime Minister Trudeau himself is aware of the situation.”
The Chinese Embassy in Ottawa did not respond to questions about Xiao’s whereabouts and health status and Canadian officials have been equally light-lipped since his disappearance.
Citing privacy laws, a Global Affairs spokesman said that “Canadian officials are continuing to press for consular access to the individual.”
Xiao rose to prominence after using his influence as a student leader at Peking University to support the military’s brutal suppression of democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, according to the New York Times.
A Global Affairs report indicates Xiao and his business partners enjoyed high-level financial ties with People’s Liberation Army leaders and other wealthy families.
But as President Xi Jinping rose to power in 2013, Xi started to crack down on his rivals and other oligarchs, including Xiao, a report cited in Global Affairs documents shows.
“Xiao’s previous business dealings with some politically influential mainland Chinese only reinforce the suspicion that he is a pawn in the vicious power struggle raging at the top of the Chinese leadership,” the report said.
Experts on China’s politics, including former diplomat Charles Burton, told Global News they agree it is likely Xiao was ensnared in factional battles.
“(Xiao) has information about Mr. Xi’s own family and his factional allies that the government would like to see suppressed,” Burton said.
“Xiao is persona non grata and incommunicado now.”
For decades, Beijing has pursued a policy of “one country, two systems” that grants semi-autonomous status to territories, like Hong Kong. China began pushing up against Hong Kong’s autonomy with the kidnapping of five booksellers in late 2015.
Xiao’s abduction in 2017 from the Four Seasons in Hong Kong closely resembled that of the booksellers, according to a Global Affairs, and officials began expressing concern for the some 300,000 dual citizens living in Hong Kong.
Canadian consular officials also discussed how to manage inquiries coming from international reporters on “rumours that Xiao’s wife (redacted) … brother and business partner (redacted) ‘fled’ to Canada,” consular emails obtained by Global News show.
Cherie Wong, of Alliance Canada Hong Kong, said her community has no confidence in Canada’s handling of the case in the five years since Xiao’s abduction.
“It’s very concerning, because there are 300,000 Canadians in Hong Kong, and this case speaks to the lack of protection they have,” Wong said. “Even though they are Canadian citizens and should have consular access.”
Xiao’s case also raises concerns regarding the welfare of dual citizens jailed in China with little to no transparency or sign of judicial process.
“(Xiao) is a Canadian, regardless of his ethnic background, and therefore we should be working hard to see we get access to him,” said Burton. “To see that he’s in good health and to ensure that any process against him is consistent with international standards of the rule of law.”
Canada is currently without an ambassador to China, following the resignation of Dominic Barton. Wong hopes Xiao’s case will be given a profile similar to the Kovrig and Spavor cases when a new ambassador is named.
She said Canada’s government has been more focused on trade and business relations with China than protecting citizens from increasingly aggressive interference from Chinese security agencies operating in Hong Kong and on Canadian soil.
“This is about signalling to the diaspora community that we will be safe and protected in Hong Kong, or even in Canada,” Wong said. “We are facing immense pressure from foreign surveillance embedded in our daily lives.”
Wong added that revelations from a Global News investigation that showed Xiao’s family has extensive real estate investments in the Toronto area add a layer of complexity that the Hong Kong Canadian community has been following closely. It’s the concern, Wong said, that wealth connected to tycoons with elite Chinese Communist Party connections can raise national security concerns.
Burton and other observers, meanwhile, continue to call on Canada to renew efforts to press China for access to Xiao.
“A Canadian citizen who left Hong Kong under mysterious circumstances deserves consular attention,” Burton said. “The Chinese government should be providing us information, allowing Canada to access him in prison, and attend any judicial proceedings.
“To the best of my knowledge, none of that has happened.”