Another high-profile Chinese billionaire business tycoon has gone missing.
Bao Fan, the CEO of China Renaissance Holdings, a leading boutique investment bank, was reported missing and "unavailable" by his firm in mid-February. He is said to have been seen last on January 6 and is believed to have been unreachable ever since. More than a week has passed since the official statement, but there has been no news from or of him, raising concerns about his safety and whereabouts.
There is much speculation that President Xi's aggressive anti-corruption campaign may have something to do with his sudden disappearance. The possibility of government involvement is fueled by a handful of media reports that authorities took Bao away earlier this month in connection with an ongoing investigation into his former colleague, Cong Lin, the company's former president. The Chinese government has been conducting an extensive regulatory crackdown on technology companies, and Bao Fan is a lynchpin of the country's tech ecosystem.
Launched in 2015, Bao Fan's firm quickly established a reputation for spotting promising startups and investing strategically in early-stage technology companies. Some of his notable successes include Chinese electric vehicle maker NIO and the online education platform Yuanfudao. He was on the board of several prominent companies, including ByteDance (developers of TikTok) and the popular food delivery services, Meituan-Dianping. He leveraged his connections in the tech and financial worlds, building a reputation for brokering and facilitating difficult and complex mergers and acquisitions. His orchestrations and vision have steered the country's online consumer economy to heights never seen before.
While such skills, stature, and reputation are feted in the business world, these very traits could make one a target in the eyes of the Chinese regime. President Xi's government has acted against businesspersons the administration sees as a threat or challenge to authority. Bao Fan is one of many business tycoons that have disappeared without warning. Jack Ma disappeared after commenting against the government and just before the proposed IPO of his fintech giant, Ant Group. Guo Guangchang, founder and chairman of investment conglomerate Fosun International, vanished from public and emerged many weeks later, saying only that he'd been assisting with an investigation.
It is speculated that Bao Fan may be the target of the government's anti-corruption drive. Some of Bao Fan's investments had come under scrutiny earlier. Though details of the investigations are unavailable, there is conjecture that he may be in government custody or is hiding to evade the authorities.
Also, the billionaire was said to be setting up a "family office" in the city-state of Singapore. It is reported that he had plans to move some of his wealth out of China and Hong Kong, which would have raised red flags with Beijing. Other than denying all knowledge of the businessman-banker's whereabouts, the Chinese government has raised no alarm.
Bao Fan's disappearance appears to have been well-orchestrated. According to sources, his phone was turned off shortly after he was last seen. His social media accounts were all deleted within hours, suggesting that the disappearance was planned and may have involved multiple parties.
Regardless of the cause or reason, the disappearance of another well-known and well-connected businessman has damaged China's tech industry and the country's reputation. While the fate of his ventures is being discussed, his bank is "struggling to reassure clients and staff." His prolonged absence could negatively impact investments and deals in mainland China.
Beijing is already reining in the booming tech industry under the guise of addressing data privacy and monopolistic practices. But, the government's need for control is well known, and many view the regulations and investigations as a means to wrest power from the tech giants.
The latest vanishing act calls into question the safety and security of businesspeople in China and highlights the risk of doing business in the country. Many wealthy and well-connected entrepreneurs have gone missing from the public eye for months and reappeared without an adequate explanation. Chinese billionaire and former Interpol president Meng Hongwei disappeared during a visit to China. It later came to light that the government detained him on corruption charges.
While it's unclear what has happened to Bao Fan, there is no denying that the Chinese tech and financial world has sustained another shock. The reach of Beijing's hands is mere speculation, but there is enough precedent for casting doubt. It would be wise to limit success to proportions that President Xi's government can tolerate.