Guo Wengui: How a Chinese tycoon built a pro-Trump money machine

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Mr Guo and Mr Bannon pictured unneurotic  successful  2018Image source, Getty Images

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Mr Guo and Mr Bannon pictured unneurotic successful 2018

By Mike Wendling & Grace Tsoi

BBC News

When Chinese tycoon and notable dissident Guo Wengui was charged with masterminding a $1bn fraud, it was lone the latest section successful the saga of a antheral with connections to almighty radical successful China, the US and the UK.

In aboriginal June 2020, astatine the process extremity of the city's archetypal Covid lockdown, a fleet of tiny planes baffled New Yorkers.

They circled overhead towing banners that read: "Congratulations to the New Federal State of China" and flew an unfamiliar-looking bluish flag.

Was it a prank? A stunt? Weird propaganda?

The enigma was solved a fewer days aboriginal erstwhile Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui and erstwhile White House main strategist Stephen Bannon appeared unrecorded online.

Together connected a vessel adjacent the Statue of Liberty, with the aforesaid bluish emblem successful the background, they awkwardly took turns speaking to the camera.

"We indispensable destruct Marxism-Leninism, the pariah and totalitarian authorities of the Chinese Communist Party," Mr Guo declared.

It was the latest collaboration betwixt the 2 men, who built ample networks of online followers based connected their shared obsessions: absorption to China's rulers, fealty to the Trump helping of the Republican Party, and conspiracy theories astir Covid and vaccines.

Image source, Youtube

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A screenshot from the video featuring Mr Bannon and Mr Guo

The wealth trail

According to prosecutors, however, Mr Guo utilized his connections and online power to defraud his supporters.

Thousands of Chinese dissidents - astir surviving overseas - sent money, reasoning they were buying shares successful his businesses and cryptocurrency.

But alternatively of being invested, authorities say, the wealth was utilized by Mr Guo and a London-based concern partner, Kin Ming Je, to money extravagant purchases - including costly properties, a yacht, sports cars, risky hedge money investments, $1 cardinal worthy of rugs and a $140,000 piano.

The BBC spoke to respective followers who accidental they gave thousands of dollars to Mr Guo's organisations.

"I watched his livestreams each day," said Coco, a Chinese migrant who has been surviving successful the US for a decade. We are not utilizing her afloat sanction due to the fact that she fears retribution from Mr Guo's followers.

"The videos are precise sensational… and we trust[ed] him completely," she said.

Like galore of his followers, Coco was drawn successful by Mr Guo's absorption to the Chinese Communist Party, and his claims to person entree to ungraded connected elder Chinese officials.

She became suspicious aft investing successful GTV, a media institution founded by Mr Guo and Mr Bannon. She got invited to a WhatsApp radical promising exclusive entree to the tycoon, and joined protests extracurricular the location of 1 of Mr Guo's opponents. She says the protesters were meant to get paid, but ne'er did.

"We dilatory discovered that helium ne'er fulfilled his promises," she said.

Image source, US Justice Department

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Prosecutors accidental that among different things, funds were utilized to bargain this custom-built Bugatti sports car, worthy astir $4.4 million

Coco says she invested $6,000. One of her friends seemingly gave much than $100,000 successful bid to go a "chair" - a subordinate of Mr Guo's interior circle.

Prosecutors said victims were promised immense returns connected their investments.

Despite the immense sums of wealth pumped into Mr Guo's companies and foundations, helium declared bankruptcy past year, claiming little than $100,000 to his name.

Rags to riches

By each accounts, Mr Guo knows what it's similar to beryllium broke. Born successful 1970, helium grew up successful poorness arsenic 1 of 8 children successful China's north-eastern Shandong Province, according to a illustration published successful The New Yorker past year.

He spent clip successful prison, past embarked connected a vocation successful spot improvement which made him 1 of China's richest people. By his ain admission, helium cultivated contacts successful the country's quality services.

Mr Guo would aboriginal accidental that his wealthiness and connections gave him wrong knowledge. But those aforesaid connections person led detractors to impeach him - including successful a US tribunal - of being a treble cause moving for the Chinese government.

Image source, Getty Images

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Pangu Plaza, a torch-shaped gathering successful Beijing developed by Guo Wengui, pictured successful 2017

In 2014, aft a concern quality and the apprehension of 1 of his quality contacts, Mr Guo fled China for London, past New York.

In some cities helium fell successful with important people. In 2015, helium donated £2.1 cardinal ($2.5 million) to a instauration tally by Tony Blair. The erstwhile premier curate aboriginal wrote him a missive of proposal arsenic portion of Mr Guo's exertion to bargain the penthouse of an exclusive Manhattan flat gathering - the aforesaid flat that FBI agents raided this month.

Unlike different dissidents surviving abroad, Mr Guo was not contented to support a debased profile. He became an outspoken professional of China's rulers, accusing respective apical officials of corruption.

The sick feeling was mutual. Chinese officials accused him of bribery, kidnapping, fraud, wealth laundering and rape, and sent a "red notice" seeking his apprehension though Interpol.

In 2017, Mr Guo started a Twitter relationship and steadily built up a pursuing connected a fig of societal media platforms. He claimed governmental asylum successful the United States, alleging persecution by Chinese authorities.

Later that twelvemonth helium met Mr Bannon, who had conscionable been shunted retired of his White House post. The brace recovered communal ground, and started often appearing connected each other's podcasts and online videos.

According to leaked documents, 1 Mr Guo's businesses paid Mr Bannon $1 cardinal successful consulting fees. They aboriginal co-founded GTV.

Image source, Getty Images

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Mr Guo owns the penthouse of this luxury flat gathering successful Manhattan

Kyle Weiss, a elder expert astatine Graphika, a societal media analytics company, authored a 2021 study connected however Mr Guo's online beingness blossomed into a movement, supported by a blitz of contented connected societal media.

"When helium began speaking retired successful 2017 and granted interviews to media outlets, helium was rapidly capable to physique a pursuing by spilling the beverage connected the Chinese Communist Party," Weiss says. "That's surely compelling and thing you don't spot a batch of."

That investigation was backed up by BBC interviews with Mr Guo's erstwhile supporters.

"He has won the hearts of galore due to the fact that helium was calling connected the extremity of the Chinese Communist Party," said Sarah, a Chinese immigrant, who did not privation to usage her afloat name. She lives successful the US and says she gave astir $50,000.

'Punishing the traitors'

The Bannon-inspired contented accumulation look worked, and thousands of Mr Guo's fans took action, online and off.

At the utmost end, immoderate of his followers rallied extracurricular the homes of Mr Guo's enemies. Most of those enemies were themselves dissidents, who had someway crossed the tycoon, prompting him to impeach them of being Chinese spies.

Although helium has denied encouraging violence, Mr Guo launched what helium called a "punishing the traitors" campaign.

Several of those targeted allegedly received decease threats. At slightest 1 was beaten by Mr Guo's followers.

Teng Biao, a dissident who fled China and is simply a visiting prof astatine the University of Chicago, was 1 of the radical targeted successful the "traitors" campaign. He said that helium began penning astir Mr Guo successful 2017, believing that the businessman was discrediting the enactment of Chinese dissidents.

Mr Guo sued Mr Teng for defamation, but the lawsuit was dismissed.

That did not halt the attacks.

For 2 months starting successful precocious 2021, up to 30 activists rallied each time extracurricular of his location successful New Jersey, Mr Teng told the BBC.

"They were lasting successful beforehand of my location and holding banners and signs calling maine a [Chinese Communist Party] spy and they kept filming my house, livestreaming, and cursing maine and my children and my family," Mr Teng said. "His followers sent maine decease threats."

Coco, the capitalist who has since turned against Mr Guo, said she participated successful a rally extracurricular the location of different Chinese dissident, Bob Fu.

Fu is simply a pastor and spiritual state activistic who near China successful the 1990s. Mr Guo accused him of being a Chinese spy.

"I regret joining these actions precise much," Coco said. "Those radical are not Chinese Communist Party spies arsenic Guo said."

Another erstwhile follower who worked for Mr Guo arsenic a unpaid translator, but did not privation to beryllium named for fearfulness of retribution, told the BBC that his companies collected idiosyncratic accusation connected followers who gave money, claiming they were "know your customer" checks similar those regularly utilized by banks.

"He has each their idiosyncratic information, passport, individuality cards, address, email, telephone numbers, you sanction it," she said.

The result, she alleged, is that galore followers - particularly those inactive surviving successful China - are acrophobic of speaking retired due to the fact that they interest this accusation volition beryllium leaked.

Fraud allegations

But Mr Guo's web came crashing down past week erstwhile US authorities charged him with orchestrating a billion-dollar fraud.

According to the indictment, 5,500 investors sunk a full of $452 cardinal into GTV, which Mr Guo claimed was worthy $2 billion. In reality, it is alleged, it was a caller concern and had nary revenue.

Image source, US Justice Department

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Authorities accidental that wealth was spent connected luxury goods and services, including $2.3 cardinal connected attraction of this luxury yacht

Possible signs that things were unravelling day backmost each the mode to August 2020, erstwhile Mr Bannon was arrested aboard a yacht owned by Mr Guo, accused of defrauding donors to a not-for-profit institution which aimed to physique a partition connected the US-Mexico border. He pleaded not guilty.

As Mr Guo and Mr Bannon were cementing their concern successful the New Federal State project, US authorities had begun investigating their concern activities.

It led to Mr Guo's companies facing allegations of misleading investors, forcing him to wage $539 cardinal to settee a suit by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the US fiscal regulator.

The SEC alleged that Mr Guo illegally sold cryptocurrency and banal successful GTV to investors.

It was not the extremity of his ineligible and fiscal troubles, however, and culminated successful the apprehension past week for ligament fraud, securities fraud, slope fraud and wealth laundering.

In a connection issued done Mr Guo's foundations, his representatives called the allegations against him "fabricated and unwarranted" and accused the US justness strategy of being controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, without providing evidence. They did not respond to further questions and declined an interrogation request.

A lawyer for Mr Je - Mr Guo's concern spouse - says helium vehemently denies the allegations.

Mr Bannon was not named successful the indictment, and did not respond to messages seeking comment.

In the days aft the FBI raid, helium covered a scope of topics connected his podcasts - including Covid, the 2020 election, and China.

But Mr Guo's apprehension was not 1 of them.

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