Explained | Who is Xiao Jianhua, the Chinese billionaire given a 13-year prison sentence?

The Chinese-Canadian tycoon was convicted of a string of financial offences 

August 24, 2022 12:59 pm | Updated 05:35 pm IST

A pictoral representation of Chinese judiciary

A pictoral representation of Chinese judiciary | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The story so far: Xiao Jianhua, the Chinese-born Canadian tycoon who was last seen in public in 2017 before being whisked away from his Hong Kong apartment, was sentenced by a Shanghai court to 13 years in prison. The Chinese conglomerate he founded, the Tomorrow Group, was fined $8.1 billion dollars.

Mr. Xiao on August 19 was convicted of misusing billions of dollars of deposits from banks and insurers controlled by his Tomorrow Group and of offering bribes to officials, the Shanghai First Intermediate People’s Court said on its social media account.

Who is Xiao Jianhua?

Chinese-born Xiao Jianhua, 50, , founded the Tomorrow Group, a Chinese corporate giant with interests spanning financial services, insurance, real estate, and mining. By 2016, he had a net worth of $6 billion. At the time of his mysterious detention by Chinese authorities from Hong Kong in 2017, he held Canadian citizenship and a diplomatic passport from Antigua and Barbuda, according to the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Growing up in the small village of Shandong in China’s East in the 1970s, the child prodigy got into Beijing’s elite Peking University at the age of 14 and went on to sell Dell and IBM personal computers (PCs) around the Peking campus, according to a New York Times report. Being a student leader at the university, he remained on the government’s side when the pro-democracy demonstrations took place in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Mr. Xiao’s rise to success was fairly quick, owing in part to the connections he made with China’s politically influential families — the Financial Times described him in 2017 as a “bagman” for powerful Chinese families and “the dealmaker who helps arrange their business affairs and who rises in turn to great wealth on their coattails.”

“A banker for the ruling class” was how one newspaper profile in 2014 described Mr. Xiao. His appetite for risk-taking helped him manage the wealth amassed by China’s elite, including leaders of the Communist Party and family members of the current President Xi Jinping.

According to an early Bloomberg investigation into the finances of Mr. Jinping’s family, the young entrepreneur had aided the President’s sister and brother-in-law dump shares of a company for the same money they had paid while buying the said shares.

He was also involved in the takeover of the state-owned company Shandong Luneng for around 3.7 billion yuan, while the market value of its assets was reportedly more than 73 billion yuan, Chinese financial magazine Caijing reported in 2007.

He had joined forces with Zeng Wei, the son of former vice-president Zeng Qinghong,a top government official during the premierships of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. The operation involved multiple shell companies, several revealed to be owned by Mr. Xiao. .

By 2016, the tycoon through his investment vehicle Tomorrow Group, had dipped his toes into various businesses, with stakes in the Baoshang Bank, insurance giant Huaxia Life Insurance, and multiple other enterprises. It was in this year that he was listed at the 32nd spot on the Hurun Chinese rich list, with a net worth of almost $6 billion.

Mysterious disappearance

In 2017, Mr. Xiao was reportedlyoverseeing his empire from a 28th-floor service apartment in Hong Kong’s Four Seasons Hotel, with an attache of female bodyguards at the door. In February 2017,, close to the Lunar New Year, five men, reportedly state security agents, forced their way into his flat and left with the billionaire, who was reportedly rolled out in a wheelchair and taken across the border into mainland China. He has not been seen in public since.

Soon after his alleged abduction, a full-page ad was published in Ming Pao, a Hong Kong newspaper, in Mr. Xiao’s name, saying that the news of his abduction and departure to mainland China was untrue. News reports later said he was under investigation by anti-graft authorities, but no details were released.

It was only three years later in 2020, that his conglomerate Tomorrow Holdings issued an official statement that the billionaire was indeed in the mainland, cooperating with authorities in reorienting his company.

Dismantling of his empire

In the years following Mr. Xiao’s detention, Chinese authorities began to pick apart his conglomerate and other firms linked to him. In 2018, the Chinese government seized Mr. Xiao’s Baoshang Bank, accusing it of a poor track record in lending. In July 2020, Chinese regulators announced the takeover of nine financial institutions, with combined assets worth $140 billion, all of them with alleged links to the Tomorrow Group.

Mr. Jinping, since he came to power in 2012 had launched anti-corruption crackdowns in multiple phases, first targeting government officials or those referred to as ‘tigers’, then military officials, followed by the private tycoon class who Chinese officials have described as ‘big crocodiles’ and more recently, property and tech giants.

After the 2015 crash of the Chinese stock market, which wiped out $5 trillion from the market and created instability, the Communist Party began cracking down on those it viewed as causing market instability.Chinese regulators grew alarmed at the debt-fuelled expansion of many of the country’s biggest conglomerates. In February 2017, Liu Shiyu, Chairman of the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) said in an annual work meeting that China would reel in more “big crocodiles”, who under lawful looking arrangements, called the shots in financial markets and “suck the blood” of retail investors, as per an SCMP report.

While the official did not name anyone in his speech, other tycoons also faced the heat. In 2017, Xu Xiang, a hedge fund expert, was given over five years in jail for market manipulation. In 2018, regulators took over another conglomerate, the Anbang Group, which had embarked on a massive global buying binge that included thefamous Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York. Its chairman, Wu Xiaohui, was sentenced to 18 years in prison in 2018 for fraud and embezzlement.

A 2022 analysis in Foreign Policy magazine also pointed out that Mr. Jinping, whose family wealth came under heavy scrutiny after he assumed power, cracked down on corruption to tackle his political opposition. Billionaires like Mr. Xiao, who had dealings with the presidents kin, were left vulnerable to action, due to their vantage points of knowing too much, it said.

In 2020, one of the nine companies authorities seized was a critical block in Mr. Xiao’s empire- Huaxia Life Insurance, which had reported a $26 billion of insurance premium in the previous year.

In what was described as a “clean up” operation in “public interest”, other companies linked to Tomorrow Group- Tian’an Property Insurance, Tian’an Life, Yi’an Property Insurance, New Times Trust and New China Trust were placed “under state ward” while New Times Securities, Guosheng Securities and Guosheng Futures were to remain under government management for a year; the period was later extended .

What has he been convicted of doing?

In July this year, the SCMP reported that Mr. Xiao was set to face trial in the mainland. The Shanghai First Intermediate Court in its ruling on August 19, gave him 13 years of jail time and individually fined him 6.5 million yuan ($950,000) while his company was fined 55 billion yuan ($8.1 billion).

Xiao and Tomorrow Group were convicted of improperly taking more than 311.6 billion yuan ($46 billion) from the public and misusing entrusted property and money totalling 148.6 billion yuan ($21.8 billion). The former tycoon was also convicted of bribery.

According to Reuters, the court said that Xiao and his firm "severely violated a financial management order" and "hurt state financial security." The Shanghai court also said that between 2001 to 2021, Xiao and the company distributed shares, real estate, cash and other assets to government officials with more than 680 million yuan. This was done to evade financial supervision and seek illegitimate benefits, the court added. It also stated that from 2004, Mr. Xiao controlled various financial institutions through layers of indirect shareholders and anonymous ownership.

A retired bank regulator, Xue Jining, also admittedto taking 400 million yuan ($62 million) in bribes in a corruption case linked to Baoshang Bank Ltd. in the northern region of Inner Mongolia, which regulators seized from Tomorrow in 2019.

Mr. Xiao held Canadian citizenship since 2008 but dual citizenship is not recognised in China. The Canadian government said diplomats were blocked from attending his July 5 trial. Xiao was deemed to be a Chinese citizen, meaning he wasn't entitled to see Canadian diplomats under a consular treaty between the two governments, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said.

Mr. Xiao’s 2017 detention also indicated China’s growing heavy hand on Hong Kong, which then operated under a separate legal system. Since then, Beijing has tightened control over Hong Kong and imposed a contested National Security law in 2020.

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