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A Chinese entrepreneur who struck deals with some of the country’s most powerful officials and their families has briefly surfaced after a four-year disappearance, according to her ex-husband and former business partner.
Duan Weihong’s business dealings with Zhang Beili, wife of former premier Wen Jiabao, is the subject of a new book by Desmond Shum, scheduled for publication on Tuesday.
Shum told US National Public Radio that he had received two calls from Duan, also known by her English name Whitney, on the eve of the book’s release.
According to Shum, Duan said she was on “temporary release” and asked him to cancel publication of Red Roulette, which has been widely reviewed over the past week.
“She said they can take her back any time,” added Shum, who thinks Duan is under “home detention” with her actions still strictly controlled by Chinese authorities.
Duan also spoke to the former couple’s 12-year-old son, who lives with his father in the UK and was just eight when she disappeared in September 2017.
In an interview with the Financial Times on August 30, Shum said he hoped the book would force Chinese authorities to confirm Duan’s whereabouts.
He added he had been warned by a well-connected friend in Beijing that “they are not going to let her come out alive” — or would only release her in a vegetative state. “I was shocked when I heard that,” Shum said. “That always circulates in my mind.”
Apart from her dealings with Wen’s family, Duan was also close to Sun Zhengcai, the youngest member of the Chinese Communist party’s politburo and a possible successor to President Xi Jinping, until he was arrested for alleged corruption in July 2017.
It is now widely expected that Xi will take an unprecedented third term as general secretary at the party’s 20th congress late next year.
Shum said Zhang typically took a 30 per cent stake in the projects and investments she helped him and Duan gain access to. Wen and Zhang, whom Duan and Shum affectionately called “Auntie”, were never accused of wrongdoing.
It is still unclear who has been holding Duan. While it is common for senior Chinese business and political figures to disappear for long periods of time during party or national security investigations, their detentions are usually confirmed by either the party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection or the prosecutors and courts that deal with their cases.
In July 2017, Xiao Jianhua, a financier with links to senior party officials, was kidnapped from Hong Kong’s Four Seasons hotel by Chinese public security agents and taken across the border, according to people familiar with his disappearance. Xiao’s whereabouts remain a mystery.