China's financial and political elite are continuing to hold assets overseas in the wake of the Panama Papers revelations, with relatives of President Xi Jinping still owning millions of dollars' worth of property in Hong Kong, recent reports have indicated.
Hong Kong's Apple Daily newspaper on Wednesday ran an expose of a luxury property owned by Zhang Yannan, the same name as the president's niece. The property's existence had been reported by Bloomberg and The New York Times in 2014, as part of a story detailing widespread disinvestments by Xi's family since he became president in 2013.
The Apple Daily said relatives of former president Hu Jintao, former Beijing mayor Jia Qinglin, and serving Politburo member Li Zhanshu all remain invested in luxury accommodation in the city.
It cited the ownership by Zhang Yannan of four linked private houses in Hong Kong's luxury Repulse Bay. RFA was able to confirm that the owner of the property is listed with the Hong Kong Land Registry as Zhang Yannan, using the same characters as Xi's niece.
"It is understood that members of Xi Jinping's family come to Hong Kong to stay in this Repulse Bay villa," the paper reported. "The reporter observed from Lijing Road that the house and large garden are encircled by a gate and wall, making it impossible to see in from outside.
On the side of the 1,700 square meter house fronting the sea, the windows are tinted, "for better privacy," the paper said.
The market value has more than doubled to 300 million yuan, since Zhang bought it, it said.
RFA also traced the name of Zhang Yannan to Hong Kong's Companies Registry, where she is listed as the owner of a company called Jinyi, which in turn owns an apartment on the 38th floor of Convention Plaza in Wanchai, not far from the location of the 1997 handover of Hong Kong.
Calls to the apartment intercom rang unanswered on Wednesday. A janitor at the apartment building said they hadn't seen anyone come in or out for some time.
No link to wrongdoing
Hong Kong current affairs commentator Poon Siu-to said there is no reason to imagine that there has been any wrongdoing linked to the Xi family's property portfolio.
"Under new tax laws, the government is going after taxes on income not just in mainland China but overseas as well, and they are pursuing people around the whole world," Poon said. "I just wonder if the tax authorities will be pursuing the Xi family for taxes in the same way now that their property has been revealed by the media."
"That could be a big blow to Xi Jinping's anti-corruption campaign [if they didn't]," he said.
Li Yuan, a former high-ranking official in the Chinese Red Cross, said he has seen at first hand the "unimaginable wealth" that some of the highest-ranking Chinese leaders enjoy.
"A few hundred million yuan in Hong Kong is nothing," Li said. "I think this is just the start, and that many more properties will start to come to light now."
But he said the ruling Chinese Communist Party may also move swiftly to cover the tracks of its highest-ranking leaders and their families, indicating that the re-emergence of reports about the Repulse Bay house may have been deliberate.
"There is a system for doing this under the central leadership. Once you get to a certain level in the hierarchy, all of your personal data gets erased or sealed ... so the very fact that we know this could indicate that someone in the corridors of power is up to something," Li said.
Unwilling to report
A second person with ties to China's financial elite said many people linked to political leaders fear being unable to leave the country, or being prevented from getting their wealth out, in the event of a coup d'etat.
But he said journalists are increasingly unwilling to report on the overseas wealth of China's leaders.
"The South China Morning Post ran a story about Li Zhanshu's daughter Li Qianxin, and then the reporter's home was turned over," RFA's source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"Li Qianxin [also] bought a house in Repulse Bay ... that's where they all live."
"Some of them have gone to Singapore, because they are worried there won't be enough time to leave 'once the bullets start flying'," he said. "That's the way they are all thinking."
The Apple Daily said increasing incursions from Chinese law enforcement into Hong Kong's supposedly separate jurisdiction are making the country's elite nervous.
In February 2017, Chinese billionaire Xiao Jianhua, who has links to the Xi family, was abducted from his luxury apartment in the Four Seasons Hotel in Hong Kong by Chinese public security agents and taken to mainland China.
Meanwhile, Beijing-based political activist Zha Jianguo said Hong Kong has long been a money-laundering center for ill-gotten gains from China.
"A lot of corrupt officials launder their money in Hong Kong, which is the perfect place to hide your money, for sure," Zha said.
"There is a highly developed financial system there, and a lot of private companies, unlike in mainland China," he said. "There are also a lot of business connections between Hong Kong and the mainland, so they find a connection in Hong Kong to launder their money for them or buy property with it."
China-linked offshore companies reported in the 2016 Panama Papers far exceeded the number of entities from other countries and regions of the world.
Some 25,000 offshore companies with owners—either companies or individuals—from China were listed in a mass online leak of data from Panama law firm Mossack Fonseca, according to initial analysis of the data.
Of those, around 13,000 were traceable to Hong Kong, which has long been suspected as a major staging post for offshore Chinese funds re-entering the country as "foreign direct investment."
The leak sent shock waves around the world as the tax avoidance habits of the world's wealthiest people were exposed.
But the ruling Chinese Communist Party responded by shifting its censorship machinery into overdrive since the leaks, banning news outlets from independent coverage of the story and ordering the deletion of related content from websites and social media platforms, while its officials have dismissed queries about the leaks as "groundless accusations."
Reported by Wen Yuqing, Wong Siu-san and Lee Wang-yam for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.