China’s disappeared: high-profile figures who have gone missing during Xi Jinping’s rule

The Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai has not been heard from publicly since she accused a former vice-premier of sexual assault. Peng is the latest in a long line of high-profile figures in China – artists, celebrities, high-ranking officials, and media moguls – who have disappeared during the rule of Xi Jinping.

The dissident contemporary artist has been openly critical of the Chinese government, especially on issues of democracy and freedom of speech. In 2011, he was arrested in Beijing and spent 81 days at a secret prison facility. For years his passport was withheld.

Ai is one of the few celebrities to have shown the world what it is like to be disappeared in China. In 2015, he took over the main galleries at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, building a mock-up model of his severely restricted life in prison. In it, menacing-looking guards oversee his every activity, from sleeping to eating, showering and defecating.

In recent months, the Chinese government has launched an intensive crackdown on celebrities who it says lead young people astray and away from the ideals of the Communist party.

The billionaire film star and pop singer Zhao Wei in effect vanished from public life in China in August, with her online presence erased. Her films and TV shows were also removed from popular streaming sites.

It is not clear if Zhao is under house arrest or keeping a low profile. In September, she was spotted at her hometown in eastern China posing for a photo. Last week, the Chinese internet portal Netease spotted Zhao at an online shopping event.

A former vice-minister of public security in China, Meng Hongwei was among a growing group of Communist party figures caught in President Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, which is seen largely as a purge of political enemies.

Meng rose to global prominence in 2016 when he was elected as president of Interpol, the international organisation that facilitates worldwide police cooperation.

However, his term ended prematurely in 2018 when he disappeared during a visit to China. He was later accused of accepting bribes and expelled from the Communist party, and in 2020 Meng was jailed for 13 years on bribery charges. His wife, Grace, was granted political asylum in France last year after saying she feared she and her two children would be the targets of kidnapping attempts.

Beijing’s leadership has become deeply concerned about the rapidly growing power and influence of the country’s business elite. Jack Ma, the founder of the e-commerce giant company Alibaba, was the most prominent figure to have disappeared from public life after a crackdown on his empire. Authorities in Beijing had ordered an investigation into allegations of “monopolistic practices” at Alibaba.

Ma’s vanishing a year ago, shortly after he publicly criticised government business regulations, had fuelled speculation that he may have fled China. However, he resurfaced three months later in an online video from his hometown. According to local media, Ma said he had been “studying and thinking, and we have become more determined to devote ourselves to education and public welfare”.

In the past few weeks, Ma was seen in Hong Kong meeting business associates. He also travelled to Spain, where he was spotted on his luxury yacht.

A Hong Kong-based publisher who specialised in sometimes gossipy books about China’s political elite, Gui Minhai mysteriously vanished from his Thai holiday home in October 2015. Held incommunicado for months, he reappeared in 2016 in mainland China on state television where he said in a seemingly staged announcement that he had turned himself in over a drink-driving incident.

Two years later, Gui was partially released and allowed to make video calls, but in 2018, he was again detained by plainclothes officers while travelling with two Swedish diplomats to a medical appointment.

As a Chinese-born Swedish citizen, Gui’s detention has caused a serious diplomatic rupture, pitting China against Sweden and other European Union countries, prompting concerns that their citizens could be next.

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