Into the world of ‘Night and Fog’: Wealthy Unpersons of Modern China: and how not to become one

In the Northern Hemisphere, fog is the eternal curse of Winter.

Coupled with a deep, black night, you can almost feel it creep into your brain and grip your senses. It lowers morale and shrivels the spirit. This is the time, long after the bars have closed and well before dawn, when bad things, by design, happen to decent people. In this article, we look at how history may be repeating itself in China as an increasing number of wealthy dissenters are ‘disappeared’ into the ‘night and fog’.

Has China recreated the ‘Nacht und Nebel’ regime?

The policy of ‘Night and Fog’ (Nacht und Nebel) was created by the new German Nazi Government in 1932. It had been specifically designed to ‘disappear’ awkward people; people who might be enemies of the State, or terrorists, or just might know someone, anyone, who is.

A smart car appears at a respectable apartment block. A man is escorted swiftly, brutally, from the door. Once he is driven away he has indeed been… disappeared. The family knows nothing (and is threatened with trouble if it bothers the police). The neighbours? A shoulder shrug. The man’s employers? No one will meet the enquiring eye.

It is now that the hidden purpose of Nacht und Nebel begins to appear. Who informed on X? Is there anything that family and friends can do to help him – or themselves? A small section of society has been neutered.

An atmosphere of fear combined with uncertainty is thus craftily created, month by month by year. For no one will retaliate. No one dare complain or take a stand. All are cowed…

In China there is actually an old saying about this strategy, “Kill the chicken to scare the monkey”.

The Second World War had many lessons

I am relating this psychological (as well as physical) torture, of course, in the context of the Second World War and the determined ministrations of the SS and the Gestapo.

Their trade was, ultimately, execution, destruction and ruin.

I do not associate their murderous policies with those of the Chinese Government. Indeed, there have been eccentric sightings of many of the recent Chinese disappeared. There is silence for months, before popping up in an unusual setting, saying nothing of any import, and disappearing again. Eccentric – maybe? Sinister? Yes indeed.

Did Jack Ma go into the Fog?

Did Jack Ma disappear in the 'Night and Fog'
Did Jack Ma disappear in the ‘Night and Fog’

The most prominent of the recent disappeared is Jack Ma, co-founder of Alibaba, once the nation’s richest man and the best known of all China’s billionaires.

In October 2020 he was preparing for the IPO of a very successful Fintech Company called the Ant Group. This would have been the largest ever public offering in the world. It would be a major prestige coup for him and for the nation.  Ma however made a significant speech in October 2020 that was critical of the traditional Chinese financial sector. This was five days before the planned launch. Just three days later Beijing cancelled the IPO…

…And Jack Ma has not made a genuine public appearance since! However, as George Calhoun of Forbes magazine explained in October 2021, there have been “a half dozen bizarre ‘Jack-sightings’ over the past year”

‘Sightings’ of Ma

Ma was filmed in January 2021 supposedly speaking to a group of rural elementary school teachers… two months later Bloomberg reported that he had been seen by someone (no name!) playing golf on Hainan Island… stranger than all that, he appeared, lower left, on a Zoom-style video screen listening to a meeting of the Russian Geographical Society (?) listening to its Chairman Vladimir Putin!

Calhoun catches the moment to perfection: “Ma sits, bored and unacknowledged, for 90 minutes, as a lethally genial Putin holds court. Ma looks like one of the saints arrayed around the central image of the Emperor in a Byzantine mosaic, silent and immobile.”

The Spanish ‘sighting’

The most recent “sighting” occurred during a staged trip where Jack Ma (without his (family) flew to Spain and was photographed leaving a yacht and hitting a golf ball surrounded by security people. He was then whisked off to the Netherlands for a tour of nursery. Despite being missing for over half a year, during which he lost billions in net worth and stock value for the company he founded, there was no press conference or issued statement aside from an inane press release about a new interest in horticulture.

Is this a happy if weird cooperation with the authorities – or a person with one hand wrenched behind his back? It is clear that unspecified elements among the Chinese authorities are following the same fundamental playbook as the Nazis with select, prominent citizens who displease it.

Please note my choice of ‘displease’. For none of the people listed in this article have been accused of a crime. No charges have been laid in any court. No official has even been named as the originator of any disappearance. Where are the missing thousands holed out? At home? In a palatial jail? The few Asian writers who have mentioned the issue will not speculate.

Recent Famous Disappearances

Peng Shuai
Peng Shuai’s disappearance has caused much controversy in recent months.

The disappearance of Peng Shuai

For example, no one has forgotten recent stories about prominent tennis player Peng Shuai.

She was widely criticised in China after posting a detailed account of sexual abuse by former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli. The post was swiftly deleted and she apparently went missing. Weeks later she reappeared in Beijing and interacted with IOC President Thomas Bach via a video call. At the beginning of December 2021 the EU said it wants China to release “verifiable proof” that she is safe – as well as a transparent investigation into her allegations.

The disappearance of Chen Qiushi

Other prominent “disappeareds” include Chen Qiushi  who was filming on the ground reality around Wuhan for social media. He was not seen for 600 days, about which he later “could not comment”.

The disappearance of Whitney Duang

Strangest of all, perhaps, is the tale of how Whitney Duang “disappeared into the dark hole of the Chinese security state” as Richard Lloyd Parry wrote in the London Times on December 11 2021.

Duang fell in love with an oil painting Praying Hands by Zeng Fanzhi back in 2017, and she paid $5million for it. Thereafter, she too joined the ranks of the disappeared: Parry says that her family didn’t know either how or where she was.

Suddenly, Praying Hands appeared at a Beijing auction, where it sold for $5.2 million. Her by then ex-husband Desmond Shum had moved to England when he finally heard from Whitney. She phoned him out of nowhere with just one request: “Please withdraw your book.” Today, at least she is allowed to call her son in London once a week.

Council on Foreign Relations Analyst Jerome Cohen summed up: “The Chinese Government has developed this technique for silencing people into an art form.”

Home Truths for your Backup Plan

So what are the implications for law-abiding Chinese HNW families when they read these frightening tales in the local and national Chinese media about the victims of China’s own Nacht und Nabel policy?

It is critical that they have a serious detailed Back-Up Plan to protect their family’s well-being and wealth. While many already have some type of plan, upon review and “stress testing” it is quickly discovered that they are fundamentally flawed and will collapse in times of crisis.

Some serious home truths about an effective Backup Plan for Chinese HNW families:

  1. Playing tough: Firstly, come to grips with the fact that the Chinese Government plays tough and plays for keeps. Your Backup Plan is only as effective as its weakest element;
  2. Integrate Asset and Citizenship/Residence Planning: It will give you no comfort that your money is safely abroad if you are being held in an undisclosed location in Central China. Likewise, physically escaping but leaving all or most of your assets in China is a sub-optimal result.
  3. Your Backup Plan needs to protect everyone that the government could use as leverage. The Chinese government has an established history of putting exit bans upon family members or other people that are important to the family. For example, it is worth noting that Jack Ma was NOT accompanied by any family members during his recent European trip.
  4. An effective Backup Plan requires experienced professionals working together to design, maintain and execute. This is not a “Do it yourself” project or one that relies on the advice of commission-driven salespeople one meets at a property trade convention. You need an Architect and a skilled team of builders….not a brick salesman.
  5. Discretion is key to maintaining effectiveness. Even the best-designed plan is compromised if not kept within a “need to know” group.

Be prepared before it is too late

In closing, HNW Chinese families need to review, stress test and upgrade their existing Backup Plans BEFORE they become targets. As Sun Tzu said “Plan for what it is difficult while it is easy, do what is great while it is small.”

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