Alarming clue about missing billionaire

She was rich. She was powerful. She “disappeared” in 2017. Now a famous painting she owned has strangely appeared on sale in Beijing.

She was rich. She was powerful. She “disappeared” in 2017. Now a famous painting she owned has strangely appeared on sale in Beijing.

The fate of real-estate billionaire Weihong “Whitney” Duan is unknown. Her ex-husband doesn’t know. Her parents don’t know. Her friends haven’t seen or heard from her.

Whitney was a high-profile advocate of Beijing-based contemporary artist Zeng Fanzhi.

She bought many of his paintings for large sums.

Whitney was also a power player.

She had many friends. Most were in high places. She was close to the wife of the former prime minister of China, Wen Jiabao. She worked with Sun Zhengcai, who saw himself as a candidate for China’s top job.

But, Whitney backed the wrong horse.

When Xi Jinping took control of the Chinese Communist Party in 2013, he initiated a high-profile “anti-corruption” campaign. Many of its targets were among China’s ruling elite. Unfortunately, most of these just happened to be Xi’s political opponents.

Sun was convicted of bribery in 2017.

About the same time, Whitney, then aged 50, disappeared.

But the sudden appearance of one of her more famous art purchases at a Beijing auction house has revived interest in her fate.

Pray, hope – and don’t worry

Whitney bought Zeng’s “The Prayer” for about $US5 million (A$7.01 million), according to her former husband.

It’s now appeared at auction.

It’s in one of Beijing’s most prestigious art houses.

It’s on offer with the note “entrusted by an important institution”.

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Four other artworks by Zeng are in the catalogue, all being offered by the same unnamed government agency.

How they got there is not explained.

The auction house is seemingly oblivious to the paintings’ provenance.

The art world only wised up to the connection because Whitney’s former husband, Desmond Shum, had left China and written a book about his experience – called Red Roulette.

Shortly before it was published earlier this year, Whitney made a sudden reappearance.

After four years of silence, she phoned her ex.

She demanded the book be withdrawn.

That, Shum says, was all she was permitted to discuss.

“Although many countries have experienced mysterious and sometimes fatal disappearances, the Chinese government has developed this technique for silencing people into an art form,” says Council on Foreign Relations analyst Jerome Cohen.

The list is a long one. And growing.

Tennis champion Peng Shuai. Premier Zhao Ziyang. Human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo’s widow, Liu Xia.

“And tens of thousands of individuals are illegally constrained, for varying periods, to what is basically house arrest, unable to speak or move freely,” adds Cohen.

‘Throwing eggs against a stone’

The world’s eye is on Beijing.

It’s not just will to “disappear” its own citizens. But also those of non-compliant nations.

Hostage-taking is just one aspect of Beijing’s “wolf-warrior” diplomacy.

Two Australians are currently detained in China under undefined “national security” grounds.

Writer Yang Hengjun.

TV anchor Cheng Lei.

Nobody knows why. Nobody knows where. Few have heard or seen from them since.

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Their fate has prompted Canberra to formally warn Australian travellers that they risk arbitrary detention and trial under a non-transparent and Party-controlled judicial system if they travel to China.

“In the short term, there is not much Australia can do to help the detainees,” writes Sydney-based former PRC diplomat Han Yang.

“The power imbalance between the two countries means it is futile for Australia to engage in trade sanctions against China as retaliation. And Australia’s constitutional democracy and independent judicial system won’t allow Canberra to arbitrarily detain Chinese nationals as tit-for-tat countermeasures.”

That they are political hostages is almost certain.

In 2018, after the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Canada for alleged breaches of trade embargoes, Beijing seized two Canadian citizens on unspecified or poorly-defined charges.

They were released as soon as Meng was allowed to return.

“Even with increasing international pressure, it seems unlikely that Beijing will change,” argues Cohen. “As Peng’s explosive complaint noted, seeking justice in today’s China continues to be, as the Chinese saying goes, as hopeless as ‘throwing an egg against a stone’.”


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