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Guo Wengui — half a year in the media spotlight

A
SupChina editor’s notebook on how the biggest Chinese political story of 2017 — so far — has developed over the course of five months.
4 months ago
Lucas Niewenhuis
A screenshot of Guo’s most recent interview (in Chinese) with Mirror Media, on June 16, 2017.

The following is a compilation of everything SupChina has written, to date, about exiled billionaire Guo Wengui 郭文贵 since he hit the media spotlight earlier in 2017. This was released in conjunction with the June 29 Sinica Podcast with New York Times journalists Mike Forsythe and Alexandra Stevenson discussing the topic. In addition to this compilation and the podcast, SupChina also has a short video and written feature on who Guo Wengui is and why he matters.

As you can tell from the length and detail of the compilation, Guo sucks up a lot of media airspace. Stories about Guo have made the lead story on SupChina five times in as many months, starting from when we covered what we called a pair of “strange stories” concerning the reappearance of Guo and the disappearance of another Chinese billionaire, Xiao Jianhua 肖建华, on February 1.

But what was at first simply a strange story has turned into a spectacle. By late May, the New York Times had dubbed Guo “the biggest political story in China this year,” a formulation that has remained true. The explosive claims Guo makes, and the subsequent mobilization of the Chinese propaganda apparatus in response to him, have made him impossible to ignore. And if the erratic, tweeting former real estate developer — now, it is fair to say, the second most significant of those in our times — has anything to say about it, he will not be ignored in the second half of the year. As Mike Forsythe puts it in the podcast, “We’ve never seen a tweeting narcissistic Chinese billionaire before, so it’s kind of new territory.”

Note: Excerpts have been lightly edited to keep their focus on Guo and to remove some redundancies.


Lead story on February 1: A tale of two disappearing billionaires (Note: The other billionaire was Xiao Jianhua 肖建华)

The dangers of wealth and power in China

The Chinese New Year is usually a slow news week in China. But in the two days before the Year of the Rooster began at midnight on Friday, two strange stories broke in Hong Kong and overseas Chinese media:

Tycoon makes online video two years after disappearing

Guo Wengui 郭文贵 is a well-connected Chinese businessmen who vanished from public view in January 2015 after apparently being taken into custody by the police, and media reports about his disputes with other powerful tycoons. Last Thursday, he reappeared in a video carried by Mingjing, a Chinese news and political gossip website based in the U.S. In the video, Guo alleges misconduct by a senior Chinese police official, and says that his battles against business rivals were part of a larger political struggle. Despite his two-year disappearance, Guo was still ranked at 132 on the 2016 Hurun list of China’s richest people, with an estimated fortune of nearly $2.7 billion. At the time of writing this newsletter, Mingjing’s website was not accessible, but there is a South China Morning Post (SCMP) story about the video here. In addition, you can read a 2015 Bloomberg report about Guo’s detention and business disputes here.


Lead story on April 5: Exiled Chinese billionaire is member of Trump’s private club

Could a billionaire fugitive from China make trouble for Xi at Mar-a-Lago?

As Chinese president Xi Jinping wraps up his state visit to Finland (where he agreed to send a pair of pandas) and prepares to fly to Florida for a meeting with Donald Trump, North Korea test-fired a missile into the sea, and the political commentariat is reaching peak frenzy.

[One] of the more interesting pieces on the upcoming meeting at Mar-a-Lago [is] in the New York Times:

  • The Times says (paywall) that one of the members of Trump’s private club is Miles Kwok, aka Guo Wengui 郭文贵, a well-connected Chinese billionaire who vanished from public view in 2015, and was reported by some media organizations to have been taken into custody by the police. He subsequently fled to the U.S. In February this year, he reappeared in an online video, and has since been active on Twitter (in Chinese), where he has been badmouthing the Chinese government and attacking Hu Shuli 胡舒立, editor of Caixin magazine, which published a muckraking article (in Chinese) on his business dealings around the time of his disappearance. The Times article quotes Christopher K. Johnson, a former senior China analyst at the C.I.A., on the possibility that Guo might make an appearance during the Xi-Trump meeting: “Guo would certainly be a very disruptive wild card at Mar-a-Lago.”

Politics and Current Affairs section on April 17: Fugitive billionaire’s corruption claim of questionable significance

The New York Times has investigated (paywall) claims made by Miles Kwok — aka Guo Wengui 郭文贵, the billionaire fugitive from China currently living in the U.S. — that high-level corruption in China extends to the very top of the last Politburo Standing Committee, but was unable to confirm Guo’s claims, which were provided without evidence. See Times reporter Mike Forsythe’s description of how he looked into Guo’s accusations here on Twitter. Guo disappeared from public view in 2015 after a series of business disputes, only to emerge earlier this year in a three-hour-long interview with U.S.-based Chinese media site Mingjing. In the interview, he alleged that He Jintao 贺锦涛, the son of He Guoqiang 贺国强, who led China’s anti-corruption operations from 2007 to 2012, had abused his position of power in a business dealing with Guo, but gave no specifics.

The Chinese political observation blog Politics from the Provinces had a well-laid-out and cynical response to the accusations. It says, in part, “If He ends up under investigation, would his takedown mean anything in present Chinese politics? … Chinese officials already know that the anti-corruption campaign is real and that it’s been targeting every level of officialdom. Local officials in particular spend almost as much time looking over their shoulders for inspection teams as they do trying to make policy.” It is no secret, the blog argues, that elite politicians have used their power for personal benefit in China, and furthermore, it has already been shown that the anti-corruption drive is more than just politically motivated: “Every official is vulnerable,” including those in the He family.


Lead story on April 19: A billionaire on the run (Note: This story also discussed the case of Xiao Jianhua 肖建华)

Billionaires in trouble

…In the U.S., another businessman, Guo Wengui 郭文贵, aka Miles Kwok, who had vanished from public view in January 2015 after apparently being taken into custody by the police, reappeared in a video carried by Mingjing, a Chinese news and political gossip website based in the U.S. In the video, Guo alleged misconduct by a senior Chinese police official, and said that his battles against business rivals were part of a larger political struggle…

…Guo Wengui has, as we noted on Monday, been furiously giving interviews and posting to Twitter about high-level corruption, which he says extends to the top levels of the Politburo.

In the Sinocism newsletter, respected China-watcher Bill Bishop says that “Guo had promised even more explosive charges in an interview scheduled for three hours this morning with VOA. Beijing, clearly worried about Guo’s accusations, requested Interpol issue a ‘red notice’ for him.” Bishop also notes that “in spite of his earlier claims that he supported Wang Qishan, Guo today claimed that Wang Qishan’s nephew on his wife’s side was a shareholder in the mysterious and powerful HNA Group.” HNA owns Hainan Airlines, and has recently been engaged in what the Economist calls (paywall) a “global shopping spree,” investing in Hilton Hotels and Deutsche Bank, among many other companies.

Guo did not get to broadcast his allegations in VOA: The state-owned American radio station terminated the interview without explanation. But the exiled billionaire remains active on Twitter, where he continues to discuss high-level corruption and stream videos of his gym routine (in Chinese). If the Interpol “red notice” has any teeth, being able to run fast will be useful.


Politics and Current Affairs section on April 20: A propaganda campaign against exiled businessman Guo Wengui

China has launched an “unusually sophisticated publicity war” against Guo Wengui 郭文贵, the billionaire residing in the U.S. making explosive allegations about corruption in the Chinese Communist Party, the South China Morning Post reported. In addition to a “red notice” from the international police organization Interpol at the request of the Chinese government, the campaign now includes a YouTube channel called “The truth about Guo Wengui” (郭文贵 真相), featuring video confessions of a man claiming to be disgraced top spy Ma Jian 马建, who makes his own bombshell accusations against Guo.

As SCMP summarizes, the man on video claims that Guo bribed him with more than 60 million yuan ($8.7 million) in gifts in exchange for “wiretapping the phone of one of Guo’s business rivals for a year, freezing a bank account, discouraging local police from investigating Guo and his company, deleting negative online media reports about Guo, and threatening a journalist from writing about the businessman.”

Other parts of the expansive propaganda campaign against Guo, Bill Bishop notes in his Sinocism newsletter, now include three pieces in the Beijing News on Guo’s alleged ties to a number of corrupt officials, plus a piece in Caixin that includes further claims of Guo and Ma’s collusion.


One of the top stories on April 21: Count your days

We have been covering news about exiled tycoon Guo Wengui 郭文贵 since January. His allegations of high level corruption in China — more than two years after stories of his own corrupt activities were published in China — have been met with further counter-accusations in the form of an Interpol “red notice” for him requested by the Chinese government, and a video confession of a man claiming to be disgraced top spy Ma Jian 马建, who makes his own accusations against Guo.

The latest battle in the war of words across the Pacific is an article by Caixin magazine, whose editor Guo has previously accused — on Twitter — of improper collaboration with the Chinese government. Caixin says that it has seen “a report to the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection” which shows evidence of Guo’s involvement in various corrupt schemes. When one of the men involved in those schemes was detained by police, Caixin says that Guo warned him by saying “You dare to report me, count your days.”


One of the top stories on April 26: Exiled billionaire suspended from Twitter

Guo Wengui 郭文贵 is an exiled Chinese billionaire residing in the U.S. making explosive allegations — on Twitter and on U.S.-based Chinese news sites — about corruption in the Communist Party, and being accused in turn by Beijing of misconduct. On April 26, New York Times reporter Mike Forsythe tweeted “Whoah. Twitter suspends Guo Wengui’s account.” According to the Times, Guo’s Facebook account was briefly suspended on April 21. A Facebook spokesperson said that “automated systems had erroneously suspended” Guo’s account. Twitter has not yet commented on its suspension.


One of the top stories on April 27: China vs. Guo Wengui: No ceasefire

The New York Times has looked into (paywall) the brief suspension of the Twitter account of Guo Wengui 郭文贵, a exiled Chinese billionaire residing in the U.S. who is publicizing allegations of corruption at the highest levels of the Communist Party. Twitter declined to comment, but the Times article quotes Rebecca MacKinnon, who studies internet companies’ policies and practices affecting users’ freedom of expression and privacy. She says that some authoritarian governments monitor “accounts of critics and opponents for apparent violations of the companies’ own terms of service, then flag them through the companies’ abuse-reporting channels.”

On the other side of the Pacific, Chinese state media has fired back at Guo with a new article in the China Daily about crimes that Guo is said to have committed, including taking out “a fraudulent loan of 3.2 billion yuan ($464 million) from the Agricultural Bank of China using forged official seals, counterfeit contracts and fake invoices.”


On May 2, we made a short note of two stories related to censorship of Guo in China:


On May 22, we made a short note of a Financial Times article titled “New world of Chinese palace intrigue.” We explained:

Guo Wengui 郭文贵, the exiled billionaire tweeting allegations of corruption in China from his Manhattan penthouse and waging a war of words with Chinese state propaganda organizations, is an emblem of what the FT calls “the new world of Chinese palace intrigue.” The article says that “factional struggles once waged behind closed doors now increasingly play out in public and online, with rival factions apparently using news media and surrogates like Mr. Guo as proxies… Chinese elite politics have always been cutthroat, but rarely have outside observers been able to see the long knives glinting.”

See also China Digital Timestranslation of a Next Media interview with Guo.


One of the top stories on May 24: VOA editor on canceled Guo Wengui interview

In the Wall Street Journal, Sasha Gong — the Mandarin Service Chief of Voice of America (VOA) — writes (paywall) about how the Chinese foreign ministry pressured the U.S. state-owned radio station into stopping the broadcast of an interview with Guo Wengui 郭文贵. Guo is an exiled billionaire tweeting allegations of corruption in China from his Manhattan penthouse and waging a war of words against Chinese state propaganda organizations, with both sides accusing each other of corruption.

VOA had scheduled a three-hour-long live interview with Guo. Gong had intended to ask Guo about his claims that he had worked “closely for years with Chinese intelligence services” and “even financed their operations.” Gong says, “Ultimately, we broadcast live with Mr. Guo for one hour and 19 minutes before Washington pulled the plug.” She attributes cancellation of the planned broadcast to pressure from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and urges “reputable news organizations” not to shy away from Guo’s story “for fear of reprisal by the Chinese secret police.”


Lead story on May 25: Tony Blair’s private planes and Guo Wengui

Tony Blair, a private plane to Abu Dhabi, and Guo Wengui

Another day, another round of fire in the war of words between exiled billionaire Guo Wengui 郭文贵 against his former business associates, parts of the government, and Caixin magazine. Guo has been tweeting allegations of corruption by various people in China from his Manhattan penthouse. The latest salvo is an exposé in Caixin, which first published a muckraking article on Guo in 2015, before he fled China; it states that Guo paid for a private jet and accompanied former British prime minister Tony Blair on a trip to Abu Dhabi. Caixin says that Blair introduced Guo to various people, “including the Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan,” and that Guo then “raised $3 billion from Abu Dhabi’s royal family to fund an attempt to take control of China’s second-largest brokerage house, Haitong Securities.”


One of the top stories on May 31: Guo Wengui just won’t go away

Guo Wengui 郭文贵 is an exiled Chinese billionaire engaged in a war of words on the internet with his former business partners, Chinese state media, and Caixin magazine. Last week’s main development in the Guo saga was a report in Caixin that alleges Guo paid for a private jet and accompanied former British prime minister Tony Blair on a trip to Abu Dhabi in order to raise investment from Abu Dhabi’s royal family.

This week, the New York Times has published a profile (paywall) of Guo that calls him “the biggest political story in China” for hurling “political grenades at the Chinese Communist Party for months, accusing senior leaders of graft using Twitter as his loudspeaker.” The Times says that the Chinese government has “eased up on its attacks against Mr. Guo,” and that “the about-face suggested that the Communist Party’s top leadership may not agree on how to deal with him, according to Victor Shih,” a well-regarded scholar of Chinese politics, finance, and economics. The Times also says that “there’s no sign that Mr. Guo is letting up,” and that he plans “a live event, perhaps from Lincoln Center, that will focus on Chinese corruption” to coincide with the upcoming 19th Communist Party Congress this fall. “I want it to be carnival-style with a big screen,” he said.


Politics and Current Affairs section on June 9: Guo Wengui’s associates go to (live-streamed!) trial

The Financial Times reports (paywall) that three of exiled billionaire Guo Wengui’s 郭文贵 former colleagues at the Beijing Pangu Investment Company went on trial in the northeastern port city of Dalian on June 9. Reflecting the high profile of the case, authorities released dozens of live video clips and transcript pieces (in Chinese) from the trial on the social media platform Weibo — only two high-profile corruption cases had ever been covered live before, FT notes: those of former Chongqing mayor Bo Xilai 薄熙来 and a former national economic planner, Liu Tienan 刘铁男.

The South China Morning Post says, “At issue is a 3.2 billion yuan loan ($470 million) that Pangu secured from the Agricultural Bank of China between 2009 and 2010.” The loan was “ostensibly to be used to fund interior finishing work at Pangu Plaza,” Guo’s unmissable dragon-shaped building overlooking the Olympic Park in Beijing, but prosecutors argued that the invoice was faked and the money was misused.

These are far from the only accusations brought against Guo in retaliation for his outspoken criticism of top Chinese government officials, which markedly heated up earlier this year. In April, China launched an “unusually sophisticated publicity war” against Guo, which included an accusation of 60 million yuan ($8.7 million) in bribes and the securing of an international “red notice” for Guo’s arrest from the international police organization Interpol. Most recently, Australian resident Yuge Bromley is “exploring a potential defamation lawsuit” against Guo for his claim that she is the illegitimate daughter of Wang Qishan, the Communist Party’s top anti-graft official, according to the South China Morning Post.


Lead story on June 16: The Chinese Donald Trump?

Who will rid me of this turbulent, tweeting exiled billionaire?  

Guo Wengui 郭文贵 — the exiled real estate and financial tycoon who has been in a war of words with parts of the Chinese government, Wang Qishan 王岐山, Hainan Airlines, real estate developer Pan Shiyi 潘石屹, Caixin magazine, and many of his former business partners — loves the limelight.

On the morning of June 16, Mingjing magazine live-streamed (in Chinese) its third interview with him, promising explosive allegations about the government. The live stream went down several times, possibly because it was hacked. We did not have enough time to closely watch the whole three-hour interview before sending this newsletter, but Guo does not seem to have revealed anything substantial that he has not previously mentioned.

He takes the opportunity to throw some mud at the recently detained chairman of Anbang. He attacks his usual enemies. He waves some papers at the camera and says that they prove that some of his various enemies had transferred money for nefarious purposes, but there does not seem to be any substantial evidence. Rather, it seems Guo is perfecting a Donald Trumpish act: Wearing a white suit and referring to himself in the third person, he hints at crimes of which he says he has evidence that he will not yet reveal, and says he is on the side of the people.

Meanwhile, in China, ABC reports that the Dalian Xigang People’s Court announced prison terms and fines for three of Guo’s former employees who “prosecutors said were ordered by Guo to falsify financial documents” to obtain loans from a state bank. Guo’s real estate firm Beijing Pangu Investment Company was also fined $36 million.

By Lucas Niewenhuis
Lucas Niewenhuis is an associate editor at SupChina who helps curate daily news and produce the company's newsletter, app, and website content. Previously, Lucas researched China-Africa relations at the Social Science Research Council and interned at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. He has studied Chinese language and culture in Shanghai and Beijing, and is a graduate of the University of Michigan.
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