China's state propaganda machine has moved to erase all mention of "disappeared" billionaire Xiao Jianhua from state media and internet sites, amid growing skepticism over his departure from the former British colony, a leaked document showed on Wednesday.
"Please would all websites, including Weibo, WeChat, and mobile media apps, find and delete any news items relating to Xiao Jianhua or the Tomorrow Group," the propaganda ministry ordered media editors via a directive leaked online and published by the U.S.-based China Digital Times website.
"For immediate implementation," the directive said.
Meanwhile, another statement purporting to be written by Xiao following his mysterious departure from a Hong Kong hotel in the early hours of Friday morning, appeared as a front-page advertisement in the city's Ming Pao newspaper.
"Thanks to everyone for your concerns," it said. "I am currently receiving medical treatment overseas ... I haven't been abducted to mainland China."
"I believe that the Chinese government is a civilized one that abides by the law," the statement said.
In an apparent reference to speculation over Xiao's role as a student during the pro-democracy movement of 1989, the statement said Xiao was a Canadian citizen, a permanent resident of Hong Kong, and a loyal overseas Chinese who doesn't support opposition forces.
"Please would everyone set their minds at rest!" it concluded.
Confusion has been mounting over Xiao's whereabouts after he was reportedly abducted by mainland Chinese state security police from his apartment in Hong Kong, a separate legal jurisdiction under the terms of the1997 handover agreement.
The Financial Times reported that Xiao was "accosted" in his waterfront apartment in the Four Seasons resort at around 1.00 a.m. on Friday by "five or six plain-clothed Chinese public security agents," who took him to mainland China along with his bodyguards.
But the Apple Daily newspaper said the kidnapping was arranged via Hong Kong's criminal "triad" societies, who escorted Xiao and his wife Zhou Hongwen by train across the Huanggang Port border crossing by train to Shenzhen.
Zhou was allowed to return to Hong Kong, but later received a call from Xiao asking her not to allow the incident to "get blown out of proportion," prompting her to withdraw the missing persons report filed with the city's police, the paper said.
Xiao's departure from Hong Kong was immediately compared to the cross-border detention of two of five booksellers from the city last year who were accused of selling "banned" political books across the internal immigration border to customers in mainland China.
Former Causeway Bay Books employee Lam Wing-kei, the only one of the five to depart from the official Chinese government script regarding their detentions, said his colleague Lee Bo's wife had acted similarly after he "disappeared" from his Hong Kong workplace in December 2015.
Lam said Xiao's disappearance is a clear indicator that China no longer respects the "one country, two systems" approach promised before the handover.
"I think that statement is definitely fake," he said. "It's the same thing that happened with us ... I also issued a statement because I was told that I had to."
He said the incident will naturally cause people to worry.
"If it was the police coming over and kidnapping him back to the Chinese mainland, then this would be a very clear breach of the one country, two systems principle," Lam said.
Under the terms of the 1997 handover, Hong Kong was promised the continuation of its existing legal system and traditional rights and freedoms.
But the detention of the Causeway Bay booksellers for actions that fell within the confines of Hong Kong law prompted an international outcry.
According to veteran political commentator Willy Lam, the Hong Kong government should seek assurances from Beijing that a similar scandal won't happen again.
"The Lee Bo scandal affected Hong Kong's image as an international financial center," Lam said. "This time, Beijing has blatantly sent its own agents to carry out operations in Hong Kong's poshest hotel."
"The video footage from the Four Seasons shows them carrying out law enforcement in Hong Kong ... without any attempt to cover it up," he said. "This is a clear breach of Hong Kong law."
He said he believes Xiao's detention could only have been ordered from the highest echelons of the ruling Chinese Communist Party leadership in Beijing.
"Some of these billionaires have quite close ties with [President] Xi Jinping's political rivals, and they are resident in Hong Kong for tax purposes, and some have even become permanent residents of Hong Kong," he said.
"Perhaps another purpose of this operation was to send a warning to these mega-rich people living in Hong Kong that they can't escape from the long arm of Beijing."
Meanwhile, Hong Kong police on Wednesday denied rumors that they had any involvement in Xiao's departure from the city.
"The incident first came into notice of Police after a 'Request for Police Assistance' report was received on Jan. 28," the force said in a statement on the official Hong Kong government website. "Police attach great importance to the case and active investigation is under way."
It said the investigation had continued in spite of the request from Xiao's wife Zhou Hongwen that the missing persons file be closed.
"Police ... have requested the mainland authorities' assistance [in finding out Xiao's status] on the mainland," it said.
The concern over Xiao's apparent abduction came as the U.S.-based nongovernment organization Freedom House slightly downgraded Hong Kong's rating as a "partly free" territory in an annual report published on Wednesday.
The city's score for political rights and civil liberties dipped from 63 to 61 out of 100, with the report citing "Beijing's encroachment on freedoms in the territory" as a factor affecting its score.
It also cited the case of the five booksellers.
By comparison, mainland China scored 15 out of 100 points, and was rated "not free."
Reported by Goh Fung for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Ding Wenqi for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.