Billionaire shakes China's elite with online theatrics


Beijing (AFP)

Perched in his opulent Manhattan apartment, a flamboyant Chinese billionaire armed with a smartphone has used social media to rattle the Communist-ruled political system back in his homeland.

With a keen sense of drama, real estate tycoon Guo Wengui has spent the last three months waging a one-man guerrilla war against China's elite with explosive accusations of corruption among the powerful.

While his posts and videos appear on websites banned in China, they have angered party officials as they prepare for their twice a decade congress later this year.

The major meeting is expected to firmly consolidate President Xi Jinping's grip on power by filling top leadership posts with his allies.

But Guo's verbal grenades have threatened to derail the carefully orchestrated plans, creating what political commentator Liang Jing has called the "biggest Chinese political black swan of 2017".

"What's notable is how much attention (Guo) has gotten both from the party itself and from politically aware Chinese people," said Trey McArver, founder of Beijing-based research firm Trivium China.

"It's not so much what he's done, but the potential for what he could do."

Authorities have fired back, seeking his arrest and putting executives from a company linked to Guo on trial last week.

He is also in legal trouble in the United States, where a lawyer announced this week that he faced a lawsuit by nine creditors demanding $50 million for outstanding debts.

Guo is not the only billionaire who has run into legal trouble as the authorities crack down on corruption and risky investments in the corporate world.

Just on Wednesday, the chairman of Anbang Insurance Group, Wu Xiaohui, stepped aside following a report that he was taken away by authorities.

- Hard to ignore -

Guo's saga burst into view in April, when the billionaire sat for an interview with the US government-funded news outlet Voice of America (VOA) that was cut short amid accusations of pressure from China's embassy in Washington.

But Guo, who fled China in 2014, has proven hard to ignore.

He maintains a larger-than-life social media presence, posting photos of his palatial living quarters, updates on his workout routine, selfies with his white puppy and an image of him frolicking at US President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.

But it is his unsubstantiated allegations about China's rich and powerful that have infuriated the authorities while earning him supporters on Twitter who offer him dubious tips on official corruption.

One of China's most powerful real estate developers, Pan Shiyi, and the editor-in-chief of the hard-charging investigative magazine Caixin, Hu Shuli, have threatened to take him to court over his accusations.

Some of Guo's own real estate deals have been tainted by corruption allegations, including that he bought off top Chinese officials.

- 'To the death' -

In the lead-up to Guo's VOA appearance, China announced it had requested a non-binding Interpol warrant for his arrest.

An expose into Guo by the state-controlled Beijing News and a video of a former top spy chief confessing to accepting bribes from Guo appeared on YouTube around the same time.

Then, last Friday, former employees of a Chinese company linked to Guo confessed in court to fraudulently obtaining loans at his direction.

The following day the HNA Group issued a statement denying Guo's accusations that the conglomerate was partly owned by relatives of Wang Qishan, the powerful head of China's anti-corruption watchdog, who has acted as Xi's top enforcer.

The terse statement came almost two months after Guo first accused the company of an improper relationship with Wang, tipped to be the country's next premier.

That same day the Global Times, a Communist Party-controlled tabloid, published a lacerating editorial accusing Guo of "political slander".

"His dirty tricks which aim to challenge China's strict legal proceedings will only make his crimes even more serious and worsen his legal case in China," it said.

Guo is not backing down, vowing to make more revelations in a press conference this autumn. The timing suggests he may want to influence the outcome of the upcoming party congress.

The unfolding battle poses a "conundrum" for China's politicians, said David Kelly, research director of Beijing-based consulting firm China Policy.

"You cannot deal with him without revealing the power of informal politics," Kelly said.

"How it plays out is too hard to predict," he said. But, he added, "it is really gloves off and it's to the death."