A Chinese-Canadian billionaire who was snatched in Hong Kong and taken to China five years ago finally went on trial in Shanghai on Monday amid high secrecy, with a hearing that was not publicized, and to which diplomats were denied access.
Xiao Jianhua, who was worth an estimated $4.5-billion at the time of his disappearance, led a successful life that gave him access to China’s political and business elite. But he was also dogged by accusations that he acted as an agent or facilitator for officials who wanted to make business deals without public scrutiny, something he always denied.
In January, 2017, he was allegedly kidnapped by Chinese agents and ferried across the border, where he has been under house arrest ever since.
There was no public notice of the trial from the Chinese government. A source familiar with the case told The Globe that a hearing would be held in Shanghai on Monday morning, which was subsequently confirmed by Global Affairs Canada. Late Sunday, department spokesperson Patricia Skinner said Ottawa was “aware a trial in the case of a Canadian citizen, Mr. Xiao Jianhua, will take place on July 4, 2022.”
The Globe is not naming the source because they were not authorized to speak about the case.
Mr. Xiao’s name did not appear in any dockets for the Shanghai court Monday, and when The Globe phoned to inquire about his trial, staff demanded the name of the judge in charge before they would divulge any information. A reporter who visited the court could not find any evidence of the trial being held.
Chinese authorities barred Canadian diplomats from the closed-door hearing. Charlotte MacLeod, a spokesperson for Global Affairs, said Canada made several requests to attend.
Details of the trial remain unclear. Global Affairs would not share further information, citing privacy concerns.
Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that Mr. Xiao’s trial was imminent, citing “people familiar with the matter.”
“After five years of quietly waiting, our family is still, based on my brother’s strict instructions, putting faith in the Chinese government and Chinese law. We hope the authorities can give our family an acceptable conclusion,” Mr. Xiao’s elder brother, Xiao Xinhua, told the Journal, adding that the case was “very complicated and full of drama.”
It is understood that prosecutors planned to charge Mr. Xiao with illegally collecting deposits, a charge the Journal said has previously been “levelled against individuals accused of selling real estate or raising funds for investment from regular people under false pretenses or without the proper licenses.”
If charged with that offence, Mr. Xiao could face a sentence of five years or more in prison, though it is unclear whether or how his years of house arrest would be taken into account.
There would be little doubt about the verdict, however, as more than 99 per cent of cases in China end in conviction.
Since his arrest, Canadian diplomats have not been able to meet with Mr. Xiao, a naturalized Canadian citizen. Speaking to The Globe earlier this year, former ambassador to China Guy Saint-Jacques said Beijing “has stonewalled all requests for consular access.”
Born in 1972 to a middle-class family, Mr. Xiao was a child prodigy, earning a scholarship at 15 to study law at Peking University, which is where he met his wife, Zhou Hongwen.
After the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, Mr. Xiao abandoned plans to go into politics, choosing instead to focus on business and becoming a devotee of Warren Buffett.
When Chinese President Xi Jinping began a much-vaunted anti-corruption campaign, Mr. Xiao gradually reduced the amount of time he spent in mainland China, choosing instead to operate primarily out of a luxury apartment in Hong Kong, where he was occasionally the focus of local paparazzi.
Starting in the early 2000s, his wife and sister-in-law developed extensive business interests in Canada, buying numerous properties in Toronto. Mr. Xiao eventually followed them in acquiring Canadian citizenship, and in 2015 he also became ambassador-at-large for Antigua and Barbuda, advising the Caribbean country on trade issues.
China does not recognize dual citizenship, however, and in the end neither of Mr. Xiao’s foreign passports could protect him.
Just after 1 a.m. on Jan. 27, 2017, a team of plainclothes agents working for the Chinese government entered Mr. Xiao’s apartment in Hong Kong. Two hours later, they emerged, pushing Mr. Xiao in a wheelchair to a waiting vehicle, which spirited him across the border.
His kidnapping sparked outrage in Hong Kong and Canada and wild speculation about why Chinese agents took such an extreme measure. Mr. Xiao has not been heard from since that day in 2017, even as authorities have gradually dismantled his former empire, selling off assets and nationalizing companies linked to the financier’s Tomorrow Group.
With a report from Alexandra Li
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