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Billionaire’s disappearance a reminder of who calls shots in HK

HONG KONG — The saga of Chinese billionaire Xiao Jianhua is the latest instance of China’s intent to assert its authority in Hong Kong after the 2014 protests, and it is unlikely to be the last, said experts interviewed by TODAY.

HONG KONG — The saga of Chinese billionaire Xiao Jianhua is the latest instance of China’s intent to assert its authority in Hong Kong after the 2014 protests, and it is unlikely to be the last, said experts interviewed by TODAY.

Mr Xiao’s disappearance from a luxury hotel in Hong Kong last month and his reappearance days later in custody in China amounts to meddling in Hong Kong’s rule of law, and has clear political implications, they said, adding that this could undermine confidence in the city’s government.

While Hong Kong’s police chief has rejected speculation that Mr Xiao was kidnapped by Chinese agents, the notion that mainland visitors were able to enter Hong Kong and make the billionaire agree to go back with them to China shows some degree of Beijing’s interference in Hong Kong, which is supposed to have an autonomous government and an independent legal system.

“It’s a strong reminder sent by China to Hong Kong as to who’s calling the shots in the ‘one country, two systems’ structure,” said Mr Song Seng Wun, an economist with CIMB.

China analyst Dylan Loh said that the message behind Mr Xiao’s case is to “let Hong Kong and the world know that Beijing is in control”. Mystery surrounds how Mr Xiao, one of China’s richest men who is closely linked to some of its political leaders, ended up in China for questioning by authorities for bribery and stock market manipulation.

He was last seen at Hong Kong’s Four Seasons Hotel, with some media outlets claiming that he was whisked to the mainland by Chinese agents.

Sources told the South China Morning Post that four visitors from China met Mr Xiao at a pre-arranged rendezvous and the latter entered China via normal border control procedures.

The authorities in Beijing have declined to comment on the case.

“China has always meddled in Hong Kong’s affairs, but it did so more subtly in the past. In the post-Umbrella Revolution period, however, there has been a clear increase in both public and private pressure on Hong Kong (of which Mr Xiao’s case is an illustrative example),” added Mr Loh, a graduate research fellow at the University of Cambridge.

The Umbrella Revolution refers to the mass sit-ins in 2014 against proposed reforms to the Hong Kong electoral system, which protesters said amounted to Beijing pre-screening candidates running for chief executive.

Dr Mathew Wong, an analyst with the University of Hong Kong, said even though the territory’s autonomy had been undermined, Hong Kong lacks the mechanisms to sort out these issues with China.

In 2015, five booksellers known for publishing salacious titles about Beijing’s leadership ended up in China to assist in investigations into the sale of banned books. And last year, the Chinese moved to ban advocates of Hong Kong independence from the territory’s Legislative Council.

“(After the 2015 booksellers’ saga), people are very concerned about whether Hong Kong residents or people lawfully staying in Hong Kong will be protected,” said Mr James To of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party.

“This is a real concern,” Kevin Yam, a spokesman for the Hong Kong-based Progressive Lawyers Group, said last week. “You have people entitled to be in Hong Kong who are being nabbed across the border. It goes right to the heart of ‘one country, two systems.”’

More interferences in Hong Kong affairs are likely to occur in the future if the out-of-bounds (OB) markers China has ostensibly put in place following the Umbrella Revolution are circumvented, added Dr Lim Tai Wei, an adjunct research fellow with the National University of Singapore’s East Asian Institute.

These OB markers include anything to do with the independence movement, political activities that affect a smooth leadership transition in Beijing and the mainland’s fight against corruption, said Dr Lim, who is also a senior lecturer at UniSIM College.

Chinese meddling could strengthen the cause of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp as well. “It would give the independence movement more ammunition,” said Mr Loh.

On the economic front, the implications are less clear. While confidence in the city could be shaken, talk of capital flight from Hong Kong might be premature, experts say.

The timing of Mr Xiao’s case ahead of a major party congress later this year suggests an attempt by China to pre-empt any surprises during the meeting.

“Observers like myself had thought Mr Xiao would be safe because he conducted transactions for multiple political elites in China, which is a good hedging strategy,” Associate Professor Victor Shih of the University of California, San Diego told the Financial Times.

“If he does not resurface soon, then this hedging strategy will be shown to no longer be a foolproof way of protecting oneself,” noted the expert in Chinese political economy.

The political landscape of Hong Kong is currently in flux as well.

Its current chief executive, the pro-Beijing Leung Chun-ying, will step down in July after a four-year term that was sullied by the 2014 protests.

Nominations for the position begin on Feb 14. An election committee will choose a new leader for Hong Kong in March with Mr Leung’s tough former deputy, Ms Carrie Lam, tipped to be China’s favourite.

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