The New York Times published a lengthy profile on renegade Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui on Wednesday that paints a very odd portrait of a man who might be either the Communist Party’s worst nightmare, a sharp businessman using global politics to make a few bucks, or an eccentric with an appetite for media attention.
Actually, none of those possibilities is exclusive, so he might be all three.
Guo arrives in a Western media environment that has an insatiable appetite for oddball billionaires with extravagant lifestyles. He gave his interview to Lauren Hilgers of the New York Times while sitting beneath “an angry-looking monkey” wearing a Soviet hat and smoking a cigarette. He owns luxury apartments across the world and has a yacht docked along the Hudson. Dissidents in China wear T-shirts emblazoned with his face. His biography is fluid; no one is entirely sure when he was born, or what his real name is. He throws away his underwear after wearing them. He’s an exceptionally lively interview subject, brimming with anecdotes that may or may not be true.
What makes Guo more significant than the average gregarious zillionaire with unusual habits is that he is pretty much at war with the Chinese Communist Party, the dominant force in the world’s rising superpower. He cranks out social media posts slamming the Chinese government for corruption and oppression. The regime has, in turn, accused him of corruption on a breathtaking scale, and seemed on the verge of throwing him in jail for it when he left China in 2014. He says he was framed. The Chinese government says his allegations are baseless fabrications.
Guo made a point of cautioning his New York Times interviewer about China’s growing political and media influence around the world, a matter that has captured much greater attention in the United States and allied governments after a huge political influence scandal in Australia.
Guo says he is using his own money and media influence to beat them at their own game. In fact, he maintains one of the reasons he became so prolific on social media is that China’s government can exert pressure on American media organizations to distort his message or squelch his interviews. He even accuses Beijing of successfully pressuring him into biting his tongue by threatening his family and employees. Last summer, he was reportedly saved from extradition to China when Attorney General Jeff Sessions threatened to resign.
“Like in an American movie, in the last minutes, we will save the world,” he declared.
Guo is an intriguingly divisive figure even among exiled dissidents and staunch critics of the Chinese government. Some of them worry he is sucking away media oxygen from more serious critics of the regime, or even that he is a Chinese government plant intended to discredit dissidents by throwing around wild charges and making them look foolish. Others see him as their best chance to make themselves heard, thanks to his wealth, celebrity, and network of connections.
In the interests of full disclosure, one of those connections is with former Breitbart News Executive Chairman Steve Bannon. In another interview from the same Central Park penthouse published by AFP yesterday, Guo said Bannon is “one of the best international political experts I have ever seen,” and “one of the few Westerners who really understands Asia.” Guo added that he has prepared “lots of money” for a new venture Bannon will be involved with.
In the AFP interview, he made a case that will sound very familiar to American ears: only a billionaire like himself can effectively fight corruption because he is already rich and does not need more money.
Guo went on to explain that he wants to “change the evil regime” in Beijing because he is a Buddhist and wants to “be kind to other people,” because he fears all successful businessmen in China will eventually be attacked by the regime, and because his family’s imprisonment after the Tiananmen Square protest in 1989 opened his eyes to the “inhumane, not democratic, unlawful” Chinese system.
On the other hand, Guo spoke surprisingly well of Chinese President Xi Jinping, calling him “the most human, most emotional person out of all the officials.” He seemed optimistic that Xi, who has become powerful beyond any Chinese leader since Mao, can create “a kind of rule-of-law society under one-party rule that is friendly to the Western world.”
That is the kind of statement that brings some Chinese dissidents and human-rights advocates up short because one-party control is fundamentally incompatible with the rule of law. Authoritarian uniparty governments talk about the law a great deal, but that is very different from respecting the law as a force which transcends and binds the government.
A more realistic hope would be that Xi can move China a few steps closer to the end of authoritarian tyranny, but frankly he has not shown much inclination for doing so. On the contrary, he is gearing China up for global ideological warfare behind the notion of centralized control by an enlightened elite as superior to free-market capitalism and representative democracy.
Guo has been accused of conducting the kind of lawfare he criticizes the Chinese Communists of perpetrating when they use anti-corruption crusades to get rid of political opponents. One of his harshest critics is former business partner Qu Long, who essentially accuses him of using a blizzard of anti-government activism to hide unscrupulous business activities, portraying himself as an activist crusader instead of a fugitive from justice.
Guo’s lawyer, in turn, insisted these charges amount to “further persecution of Guo in order to silence his speech,” and the most damning testimony against him was coerced by the Chinese government.
The controversy over Guo could be summed up by the difference between Chinese quoted in these various interviews who say they will believe him until one of his major allegations against Beijing is proven false, versus those who refuse to take him seriously until his charges are definitively proven true. That is how everything works in the Information Age, isn’t it?
China’s government has worked hard to prepare for ideological combat in the age of information overload and perpetual uncertainty, where the weapons of choice are glimmers of truth and shadows of doubt. If Guo is not a genuine adversary committed to fighting on those terms, the real deal will look a great deal like him.