Spies, corrupt business deals, and sex scandals. Exiled billionaire whistleblower Guo Wengui lifts the lid on China's elite. But is he telling the truth? Lauren Hilgers reports
On a recent Saturday afternoon, an exiled Chinese billionaire named Guo Wengui was holding forth in his New York apartment, sipping tea while an assistant lingered quietly just outside the door, slipping in occasionally to keep Guo’s glass cup perfectly full.
The tycoon’s Twitter account had been suspended again — it was the fifth or sixth time, by Guo’s count — and he blamed the Communist Party of China.
“It’s not normal!” he said, about this cycle of blocking and reinstating. “But it doesn’t matter. I don’t need anyone.”
Guo’s New York apartment is a 9,000 sq ft residence along Central Park that he bought for $67.5m in 2015.
Guo likes to say that, as a Buddhist, he wants for nothing. If it were down to his own needs alone, he would have kept his profile low. But he has a higher purpose. He is going to save China.
Guo pitches himself as a former insider, a man who knows the secrets of a government that tightly controls the flow of information.
A man who, in 2017, did the unthinkable — tearing open the veil of secrecy that has long surrounded China’s political elite, lobbing accusations about corruption, extramarital affairs and murder plots over Facebook and Twitter.
His YouTube videos and tweets have drawn in farmers and shopkeepers, democracy activists, writers and businesspeople. In China, people have been arrested for chatting about Guo online and distributing T-shirts with one of his slogans printed on the front (‘This is only the beginning!’).
In New York, Guo has split a community of dissidents and democracy activists down the middle. Some support him. Others believe that Guo is a government spy.
When Guo left China in 2014, he fled in anticipation of corruption charges. A former business partner had been detained just days before, and his political patron would be detained a few days afterward.
In 2015, articles about corruption in Guo’s business dealings — stories that he claims are largely fabrications — started appearing in the media. He was accused of defrauding business partners and colluding with corrupt officials.
To hear Guo tell it, his political and business opponents used a national corruption campaign as a cover for a personal vendetta.
Whatever prompted Guo to take action, his campaign came during an important year for China’s president, Xi Jinping. In October, the Communist Party of China (CPC) convened its 19th National Congress, a twice-a-decade event that sets the contours of political power for the next five years.
The country is in the throes of a far-reaching anti-corruption campaign, and Xi has overseen a crackdown on dissidents and human rights activists while increasing investment in censorship and surveillance.
He believes his own efforts to change China will have global consequences.
“Like in an American movie,” he told me with unflinching self-confidence. “In the last minutes, we will save the world.”
Guo has become a thorn in China’s side at the precise moment the country is working to expand its influence, and its censorship programme overseas. At home, China’s government has been manipulating online conversations for over a decade.
“They create all kinds of confusion,” said Ha Jin, the National Book Award-winning American novelist born in China’s Liaoning Province, and a vocal supporter of Guo.
“You don’t know what information you have and whether it’s right. You don’t know who are the informers, who are the agents.”
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Domestically, China blocks access to most social media sites. Recently, however, the government has started spending hundreds of thousands quarterly to place advertising on Facebook, promoting a vision of a idyllic, harmonious country.
In addition, China’s government employs an army of commenters widely known as the 50-cent party; their activities are aimed at distracting the public and redirecting attention from sensitive issues.
In early 2017, Guo issued his first salvos against China’s ruling elite via traditional channels. He contacted a handful of Chinese-language media outlets based in the US.
He gave interviews to the Long Island-based publication Mingjing News and to Voice of America — a live event that was cut short by producers, leading to speculation that Voice of America had caved in to Chinese government pressure.
He called The New York Times and spoke with reporters at The Wall Street Journal. It was not long, however, before the billionaire turned to direct appeals through social media.
The accusations he made were explosive — he attacked Wang Qishan, Xi Jinping’s corruption czar, and Meng Jianzhu, the secretary of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, another prominent player in Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. He talked about Wang’s mistresses, his business interests and conflicts within the party.
To those who believe Guo’s claims, they expose a depth of corruption that would surprise even the most jaded opponent of the CPC.
“The corruption is on such a scale,” Ha Jin said. “Who could imagine that the czar of anti-corruption would himself be corrupt? It is extraordinary.”
Retaliation came quickly. A barrage of counteraccusations began pouring out against Guo, most published in the pages of the state-run Chinese media. Warrants for his arrest were issued on charges of corruption, bribery, and even rape.
China asked Interpol to issue a red notice calling for Guo’s arrest and extradition. He was running out of money, it was reported.
In September, Guo recorded a video during which he received what he said was a phone call from his fifth brother: Two of Guo’s former employees had been detained, and their family members were threatening suicide.
Guo quickly resumed posting videos and encouraging his followers. His accusations continued to accumulate throughout 2017, and he recently started his own YouTube channel (and has yet to divorce his wife).
Wang Qishan, Guo has claimed, is hiding the money he secretly earned in the Hainan-based conglomerate HNA Group, a company with an estimated $35bn worth of investments in the US. (HNA Group denies any ties to Wang and is suing Guo.)
He accused Wang of carrying on an affair with the actress Fan Bingbing. (Fan is reportedly suing Guo for defamation.) He told stories of petty arguments among officials and claimed that Chinese officials sabotaged Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared in 2014 en route to Beijing, in order to cover up an organ-harvesting scheme. Most of Guo’s accusations have proved nearly impossible to verify.
“This guy is just covered in question marks,” said Minxin Pei, a professor at Claremont McKenna who specialises in Chinese governance.
The questions that cover Guo have posed a problem for both the US government and the Western journalists who, in trying to write about him, have found themselves buffeted by the currents of propaganda, misinformation and the tight-lipped code of the CPC elite.
His claims have also divided a group of exiled dissidents and democracy activists — people who might seem like Guo’s natural allies.
Pei, the professor, warns not to take any of Guo’s accusations at face value. The reaction from the CPC has been so extreme, however, that Pei believes Guo must know something.
“He must mean something to the government,” he said. “They must be really bothered by this billionaire.”
In May, Chinese officials visited Guo on visas that did not allow them to conduct official business, causing a confrontation with the FBI. A few weeks later, according to The Washington Times, China’s calls for Guo’s extradition led to a White House showdown, during which Jeff Sessions threatened to resign if Guo was sent back to China.
The details of Guo’s life may be impossible to verify, but the broad strokes confirm a picture of a man whose fortunes have risen and fallen with the political climate in China.
To hear Guo tell it, he was born in Jilin Province, in a mining town where his parents were sent during the Cultural Revolution. Guo emphasises this history: He came from hardship. He pulled himself up.
The story continues into Guo’s pre-teenage years, when he moved back to his hometown in Shandong Province. He met his wife and married her when he was only 15, she 14.
They moved to Heilongjiang, where they started a small manufacturing operation, taking advantage of the early days of China’s economic rise, and then to Henan. Guo got his start in real estate in a city called Zhengzhou, where he founded the Zhengzhou Yuda Property Company and built the tallest building the city had seen so far, the Yuda International Trade Center. According to Guo, he was only 25 when he made this first deal.
The string of businesses and properties that Guo developed provide some of the confirmable scaffolding of his life. No one disputes that Guo went on to start both the Beijing Morgan Investment Company and Beijing Zenith Holdings.
Morgan Investment was responsible for building a cluster of office towers called the Pangu Plaza, the tallest of which has a wavy top that loosely resembles a dragon, or perhaps a precarious cone of soft-serve ice cream.
Guo is agrees with the Chinese media that, in buying the property for Pangu Plaza, he clashed with the deputy mayor of Beijing. The dispute ended when Guo turned in a lengthy sex tape capturing the deputy mayor in bed with his mistress.
There are other details in Guo’s biography, however, that vary from one source to the next. Guo says that he never took government loans; Caixin, a Beijing-based publication, quoted “sources close to the matter” in a 2015 article claiming that Guo took out 28 loans totalling 588m yuan, or about €89m.
Guo, according to Caixin, eventually defaulted. At some point in this story — the timeline varies — Guo became friends with the vice minister of China’s Ministry of State Security, Ma Jian.
The older master of spycraft and the young businessman struck up a friendship that would become a cornerstone in Guo’s claims of insider knowledge, and also possibly the reason for the businessman’s downfall in China.
Following the construction of Pangu Plaza in Beijing, Guo’s life story becomes increasingly hard to parse. He started a securities business with a man named Li You.
After a falling-out, Li was detained by the authorities. Guo’s company accused Li and his company of insider trading. According to the 2015 article in Caixin, Li then penned a letter to the authorities accusing Guo of “wrongdoing”.
As this dispute was going on, China’s anti-corruption operation was building a case against Ma Jian. In Guo’s telling, Ma had long been rumoured to be collecting intelligence on China’s leaders.
As the anti-corruption campaign gained speed and officials like Wang Qishan gained power, Ma’s well of intelligence started to look like a threat. It was Guo’s relationship with Ma, the tycoon maintains, that made officials nervous. Ma was detained by the authorities in January 2015, shortly after Guo fled the country.
Soon after Ma’s detention, accounts began appearing in China’s state-run media claiming that Ma had six Beijing villas, six mistresses, and at least two illegitimate sons.
In a 2015 article that ran in the party-run newspaper The China Daily, the writer added another detail: “The investigation also found that Ma had acted as an umbrella for the business ventures of Guo Wengui, a tycoon from Henan Province.”
In the mix of spies, corrupt business dealings, mistresses, and sex scandals, Guo has one more unbelievable story to tell about his past.
It is one reason, he says, that he was mentally prepared to confront the leaders of the Communist Party. It happened nearly 29 years ago, in the aftermath of the crackdown on Tiananmen Square.
According to Guo, he had donated money to the students protesting in the square, and so a group of local police officers came to find him at his home. An overzealous officer fired off a shot at Guo’s wife — at which point Guo’s younger brother jumped in front of the bullet, suffering a fatal wound.
“That was when I started my plan,” he said. “If your brother had been killed in front of your eyes, would you just forget it?”
Never mind the fact that it would take 28 years for him to take any public stand against the party that caused his brother’s death. Never mind that the leadership changed.
“I’m not saying everyone in the Communist Party is bad,” he said. “The system is bad. So what I need to oppose is the system.”
On an unusually warm Saturday afternoon in Flushing, Queens, a group of around 30 of Guo’s supporters met for a barbecue in Kissena Park. They laid out a spread of vegetables and skewers of shrimp and squid.
Some children toddled through the crowd, chewing on hot dogs and rolling around an unopened can of Coke. The adults fussed with a loudspeaker and a banner that featured the name that Guo goes by in English, Miles Kwok. “Miles Kwok, NY loves U,” it said, a heart standing in for the word “loves”. “Democracy, Justice, Liberty for China.” Someone else had carried in a life-size cutout of the billionaire.
In December, Guo’s brother was sentenced to three years and six months in prison for destroying accounting records. The lawsuits filed against Guo for defamation are piling up, and Guo claims to be amassing a “war chest” of $150m to cover his legal expenses.
In September, a new set of claims against Guo were made in a 49-page document circulated by a former business rival. For Ha Jin, Guo’s significance runs deeper than his soap-opera tales of scandal and corruption.
“The grand propaganda scheme is to suppress and control all the voices,” Jin said. “Now everybody knows that you can create your own voice. You can have your own show. That fact alone is historical.”
In the future, Jin predicts, there will be more rebels like Guo. “There is something very primitive about this, realising that this is a man, a regular citizen who can confront state power.”
At the barbecue, a supporter named Ye Rong tucked one of his children under his arm and acknowledged that Guo’s past life is riddled with holes. There was always the possibility that Guo used to be a thug, but Ye didn’t think it mattered.
The rules of the conflict had been set by the Communist Party. “You need all kinds of people to oppose the Chinese government,” Ye said.
“We need intellectuals; we also need thugs.” Guo, of course, has his own opinions about his legacy. He warned of dark times for Americans and for the world, if he doesn’t succeed in his mission to change China.
“I am trying to help,” he told me. “I am not joking with you.” He continued: “I will change China within the next three years. If I don’t change it, I won’t be able to survive.”
Lauren Hilgers is a writer whose book Patriot Number One will be published in March. Adapted from an article that originally appeared in The New York Times Magazine.
© 2018 The New York Times