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Xiao Jianhua

Chinese billionaire’s wife keeps company fires burning while husband ‘assists’ mainland authorities

Wife and business partner’s role seen as key in fate of Xiao Jianhua

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 February, 2017, 5:37pm
UPDATED : Friday, 03 February, 2017, 12:08am

It is a well-known adage that ­behind every successful man is a strong woman. For Chinese ­billionaire Xiao Jianhua, that role is being filled by his wife, Zhou Hongwen.

Zhou co-founded Tomorrow Group with her husband. And while he is reportedly on the mainland “assisting” the authorities in an investigation, it will be up to Zhou to hold their business empire together and handle its public relations.

Tomorrow Group’s WeChat account issued a brief statement on Thursday, ahead of today’s resumption of stock trading on the mainland, saying that all operations of the company and its subsidiaries were proceeding normally, and expressing gratitude for the “care and love” shown for Xiao and his business.

A source close to Xiao who ­declined to be named said Zhou, as a family member, was still able to communicate with her husband.“She is in charge now,” the source said. Statements on the group’s WeChat account were ­ultimately cleared by Zhou, the source added.

Earlier statements, made after Xiao first disappeared, claimed he was receiving medical treatment “overseas”, which ran counter to Hong Kong police information. Xiao was actually on the mainland, multiple sources reported.

The WeChat statements saying otherwise were later deleted.

Xiao and Zhou ranked 32nd on the Hurun China Rich List 2016, with US$5.97 billion in wealth. They met in the late 1980s as students at Peking University.

Zhou, who was studying information management, joined Peking University’s Founder Group upon graduation and was widely regarded as the true mastermind of the Tomorrow Group businesses, at least in the beginning.

In an April 2013 interview with the 21st Century Business Herald, Xiao, who studied law in school, said his “first barrel of gold” was made by trading computers in Beijing IT hub Zhongguancun.

The couple greatly expanded that wealth in the late 1990s by ­doing business in Baotou, Inner Mongolia, where Zhou was born and her family had an extensive family network, the China Business News reported in an investigative piece on Tomorrow Group in 2013. The paper also identified her as the “legal ­representative” when Tomorrow Group was incorporated in 1999.

According to the report, in running Tomorrow Group and its many affiliated businesses, Xiao was in charge of overall business strategy, major deals and the “ideological training” of ­employees. Zhou handled corporate finance and had “direct control of the vast internal financing and accounting system”, it said.

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“Xiao showed great respect to his wife,” another person who had worked with him said, adding that Xiao referred to her formally as “Zhou Zong” – or boss Zhou – instead of as his spouse.

Although Zhou is one of the richest women in China, she works behind the scenes and keeps an extremely low profile, with few public appearances. She has never spoken publicly or given interviews, and there are no publicly available photographs of her.

Xiao’s fate is currently unknown. Judging by past cases, things can go several different ways for a Chinese tycoon ­involved in an investigation.

At best, he could be freed after just a few days, as was Guo Guangchang, the chairman of Fosun International, who went missing for three days in late 2015 before reappearing.

The stocks linked to China’s missing tycoon Xiao Jianhua

However, Xiao could also be charged with criminal offences, as was Xu Xiang, China’s top private fund investor, who was sentenced last month to five-and-a-half years in prison for insider trading and stock manipulation.

Another toppled tycoon, Huang Guangyu, the ex-chairman of China’s largest appliance chain Gome and once the nation’s richest man, got 14 years in jail in 2010 for insider trading and other financial crimes.