A relative by marriage of late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping and chairman of aggressive overseas investor Anbang Insurance is reportedly under investigation by the ruling Chinese Communist Party after becoming "temporarily unable to fulfill his duties," state-backed media reported on Wednesday.
"Anbang Insurance Chairman Wu Xiaohui is temporarily unable to fulfill his duties owing to personal reasons, and has authorized the relevant high-level company officers to carry out his duties," Anbang said in a brief announcement on its website on Wednesday.
Wu, who is married to Deng's granddaughter Zhuo Ran, was taken away by Chinese authorities on June 9, the influential financial magazine Caijing reported on its website, citing unnamed sources.
Officials from the China Insurance Regulatory Commission met with a small group of Anbang staff on June 10 and didn’t provide specific reasons for Wu being taken, the report, which was later deleted, said.
Sources also told the English-language South China Morning Post that Wu had been “assisting relevant investigations” and previously had always returned to his office or home after a few hours of questioning.
But this time, Wu hasn’t returned, the paper quoted the source as saying.
A Chinese financial journalist said the Caixin story reporting Wu's detention needs no further confirmation for her and her colleagues.
"If Caixin says Wu Xiaohui has been detained, then he's been detained," the journalist, who asked to remain anonymous, told RFA.
"Both of these publications have the backing of [party disciplinary czar] Wang Qishan."
'Far too political'
She said that no other Chinese publications are likely to touch the Anbang story now, for fear of being disciplined themselves.
"It's far too political for us ... We can't touch the Anbang story; only Caijing and Caixin can do that," she said.
And a journalist surnamed Wan said that while the Chinese rumor mill is currently churning out a confusing mass of stories about Wu's detention, a key theme in the investigation appears to be the transfer of capital overseas by China's financial and political elite.
Beijing-based political commentator Zhang Lifan said he too is fairly certain that Wu is now under investigation.
"The news that Wu Xiaohui was taken away has been deleted, and Anbang has in the meantime made personnel arrangements now that he is unable to carry out his duties," Zhang said. "Actually, I think we can assume that the news that Wu Xiaohui is under investigation has already been confirmed."
"I just think that Anbang and the government want to minimize coverage, so as to protect the financial markets from shocks," he said. "That's why they haven't gone public or high-profile with this."
Repeated calls to the Anbang Insurance corporate headquarters rang unanswered during office hours on Wednesday.
19th Party Congress looms
Zhang said Wu's detention, like the disappearance last January of billionaire Xiao Jianhua from a Hong Kong hotel in the middle of the night, likely reflects behind-the-scenes power struggles ahead of the 19th Party Congress later this year.
"This could be part of an attack on serving leaders ahead of the 19th Party Congress, or it could represent a challenge to the authority of [President Xi Jinping]," he said. "But I think it's more likely to be a form of threat or warning than a direct attack on anyone."
Anti-graft campaigner Ma Bo said President Xi's anti-corruption campaign, which critics say is a thinly disguised form of factional strife, is unlikely to end any time soon.
"There are two many [high-ranking] tigers and [low-ranking] flies, and they'll never be able to get them all," Ma said. "And a lot of cases aren't being immediately reported on."
Anbang is China’s third largest insurer with 1.97 trillion yuan (U.S.$290 billion) in total assets, and recent reports by financial news service Caixin and the New York Times have exposed complex ownership patterns linking much of its assets to Wu and his wife.
Caijing's cover story “A Maze of Capital Leads to Anbang’s Aggressive Expansion” prompted legal threats and counter-threats amid strenuous denials from the company.
The company was propelled into the international spotlight with its purchase of New York's iconic Waldorf Astoria hotel in 2015, and has made other international deals worth U.S.$30 billion.
However, the company was banned from issuing any new financial products for three months in May by China's insurance regulator, which cited shoddy risk-management practices.
Reported by Wong Siu-san and Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Ding Wenqi for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.