Real Estate

The billionaire gadfly in exile who stared down Beijing

Michael Forsythe & Alexandra Stevenson
Guo Wengui
James Estrin | The New York Times

The biggest political story in China this year isn't in Beijing. It isn't even in China. It's centered at a $68 million apartment overlooking Central Park in Manhattan.

That's where Guo Wengui, a billionaire in self-imposed exile, has hurled political grenades at the Chinese Communist Party for months, accusing senior leaders of graft using Twitter as his loudspeaker. He escalated his attack by claiming that members of the family of China's second most powerful official, who oversees the country's anticorruption effort, secretly own a large stake in a major Chinese conglomerate.

The Chinese government responded by unleashing the state-controlled media to enumerate Mr. Guo's alleged frauds, and asking Interpol to put out a global warrant for his arrest.

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But then something unexpected happened. China stood down. The state media campaign against him tapered off. In mid-May, Mr. Guo announced on Twitter that his wife and daughter — previously barred from leaving China — had been allowed to visit him in New York.

"We need to root out some of the robbers of this country," Mr. Guo, referring to China, told two New York Times reporters this month at his apartment. To emphasize the point, he wrote it out in Chinese in a notebook. "We are against using corruption to root out corruption."

Mr. Guo's allegations are unproved, and some of his claims have been outlandish and easily debunked. Yet amid his barrage of charges about China's powerful and wealthy are claims that have turned out to be accurate. And the government's treatment of Mr. Guo, whose former political patron was one of China's highest-ranking intelligence officials, suggests he may be taken seriously, perhaps even supported, by some officials in Beijing.

Mr. Guo's most recent claims have reverberated across China and fed unease on Wall Street about doing business there. The assertions, if substantiated, could upend politics in China, the world's second-biggest economy, possibly driving a wedge between President Xi Jinping and Wang Qishan, the anticorruption czar.

Mr. Wang, the focus of Mr. Guo's allegations, has close ties to Wall Street, with enormous influence over China's financial sector. Mr. Guo's assertions come just months before a Communist Party meeting that will decide whether Mr. Wang, recently the focus of speculation that he may become China's next prime minister, will remain on the party's elite Politburo Standing Committee.

Mr. Guo's Twitter broadsides have continued, and his ability to stare down the world's most powerful authoritarian nation has underscored the mystery, in China and abroad, about how he acquired his billions, what he knows and who, if anyone, is backing him.

Ruthless, or a hero?

Mr. Guo's ambitions, like his personality, are big and sometimes baffling. He says he has a plan to exorcise graft from the party, bring rule of law to China and put ties with America on a stable track by ending decades of Chinese skulduggery on trade. At other times, he explains his corruption allegations as an act of vengeance for a long-ago death. He could just be a man feeling pressure, his assets frozen in China, and bad investments and lawsuits chipping away at his fortune.

No one better represents the marriage of the party and money than Mr. Guo, known as Miles Kwok outside China, who parlayed relationships with some of China's most powerful officials to help build a global portfolio including hotels, office buildings and securities brokerage firms.

Show Mr. Guo a spreadsheet listing the shareholders of the giant Chinese company HNA, which has been buying up businesses in the West, and he'll rattle off the names of the prominent families that he claims really control their stakes. Ask him to map out family trees for those names, the key to tracking ill-gotten wealth in China, and he'll do it from memory, down to the sisters, the cousins and the aunts.

"The allegations with regard to HNA simply aren't true," a spokesperson for HNA said.

Over a decade ago, the Chinese Communist Party welcomed businessmen into its ranks. In turn, those tycoons helped make the sons and daughters of the revolution rich while helping the country show spectacular growth rates. Now, armed with information, one of them has strayed.

"These people have power and influence and knowledge," said William C. Kirby, a professor at Harvard Business School. "Many of them are easily controlled. But others go off the reservation."

Mr. Guo has gone farther than anyone else. When the party retaliated against him, the state-controlled Beijing News reported that he was suspected of obtaining a "fraudulent loan" worth 3.2 billion renminbi ($466 million) from one state-owned bank. Another publication, Caixin, referring to documents from Mr. Wang's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, said that Mr. Guo had arranged for $299 million of client funds at a securities firm he controlled to be illegally transferred out of it.

The government's most potent weapon was the release in April of a videotaped confession by Ma Jian, a former spymaster and political patron to Mr. Guo. He said he had accepted more than $8.7 million in gifts from Mr. Guo in exchange for favors, including frequent interventions with officials to short-circuit any obstacles to his property projects. "Guo Wengui, to ingratiate himself with me, to thank me, and to maintain his relationship with me, gave me a huge amount of benefits," Mr. Ma said in the video. Mr. Guo did not respond to requests for comment.

Mr. Guo's presence in the United States poses a dilemma for the Trump administration, which is seeking China's cooperation to rein in North Korea's nuclear ambitions. In recent years Mr. Guo provided Washington with insights into Chinese politics through his visits with embassy officials in Beijing, according to a former senior administration official.

Mr. Guo, who is a member of Mar-a-Lago, President Trump's private Palm Beach club, is eager to get close to the powerful. On Tuesday, he wrote on Twitter that he flew to Washington for meetings at the Trump International Hotel. He contributed to charitable work by Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, who calls him a friend.

When the Times reporters visited Mr. Guo's apartment at the Sherry-Netherland hotel in late April, he stepped away to take a phone call in another room, with the speakerphone on. His assistant explained that a top aide to Mr. Xi was on the line. The implication was obvious: Despite his unprecedented public tirades against some top officials, Mr. Guo was communicating with the one who matters most.

As with many of Mr. Guo's claims, it wasn't possible to verify who was on the other end of the call, but the episode was fully in keeping with Mr. Guo's showman personality. That flair for the dramatic is typical of him, said one longtime acquaintance who was present when he took calls from Mr. Ma, the former intelligence official.

Many Chinese dissidents and journalists working outside the state media umbrella cast Mr. Guo as a hero for his outspoken criticism. Some who know him, though, say that he can be ruthless. A Beijing vice mayor who once stood in the way of his securing property rights for an elaborate plaza at the 2008 Olympic Games park was ousted and given a suspended death sentence for bribery after Mr. Guo obtained a tape showing the official having sex with a mistress.

Mr. Guo also takes aim at news organizations that write unflattering articles about him. In 2015, Caixin wrote an investigative article about his business and political connections. In response, Mr. Guo accused its editor of having an affair and a child with his former business partner. Caixin is suing Mr. Guo for libel.

His public attacks against the leadership of the country he fled two years ago began in January. Through Twitter, and in a televised interview last month on Voice of America, Mr. Guo said a top police official, at the behest of Mr. Xi, had asked him several years ago to look into Mr. Wang's family finances.

When the Chinese government eased up on its attacks against Mr. Guo, 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 professor at the University of California, San Diego, who studies finance and politics in China.

"If the party were unified in opposing Guo Wengui, his family would have had much harsher treatment," he said.

Seeking revenge

Away from his homeland, Mr. Guo still enjoys the high life. On Twitter, where his profile page portrays him as a male version of the Mockingjay from the "Hunger Games" series, he showed off his new private Airbus jet. When giving a tour of his 18th-floor New York apartment — shared with a bichon frisé puppy — he pointed out the Lalique crystal chandelier, Louis XVI furniture and an ancient Chinese watercolor painting. The monthly maintenance fees alone for the apartment are $58,000.

Mr. Guo boasts of multiple residences around the world, including in Beijing, London, Tokyo, Abu Dhabi and Hong Kong. His oceanside home there, with sweeping views of Repulse Bay, sits on two lots that Mr. Guo's son bought for 880 million Hong Kong dollars ($113 million) in 2011, according to property records.

His lakeside property in Beijing is modeled on a traditional one-story courtyard home but is far more elaborate, with multiple levels, a cavernous closet with hundreds of identical suits, and a pool, in a complex of more than 86,000 square feet. One real estate agent in Beijing estimated its value at about $230 million.

Mr. Guo took Mr. Kirby, then a Harvard dean, on a two-hour tour of the property in 2004. The group was ushered into a private theater, the lights dimmed, and Johann Strauss Sr.'s "Radetzky March" began to play as Mr. Guo made a videotaped introduction to a development he planned near the site of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. He and a Beijing vice mayor then asked Harvard to locate a campus on the complex, Mr. Kirby recalled.

At dinner, he pressed his case, all the while watching a Chinese soap opera on a tiny television screen. "It was, still to this day, the most bizarre evening I have ever spent in China," Mr. Kirby said. (Harvard did not take Mr. Guo up on his offer.)

Mr. Guo says the motivation for his corruption allegations is simple: He claims the state shot one of his brothers in 1989 and he has been plotting his revenge ever since. The circumstances of the death are murky, though, like much of Mr. Guo's story.

Mr. Guo says that during the 1989 Tiananmen student protests, he was arrested for giving money to the student movement and jailed for two years. But an overseas Chinese website, citing court documents, says that Mr. Guo had been arrested in a fraud involving oil sales and that his brother was killed when he and Mr. Guo attacked police officers.

He says he was born in May 1970, one of 10 boys in a family with ties to the Chinese Army from a small town in eastern China's Shandong Province. (Legal documents say he was born in February 1967.) In prison, Mr. Guo, who has only a middle-school education, learned about Chinese history and other topics from educated inmates, he said.

After his release in 1991, Mr. Guo met a prominent businesswoman who introduced him to wealthy investors. Soon after he built a hotel in the central Chinese city of Zhengzhou, which became a meeting spot for government officials.

Those contacts and relationships with other officials, including Mr. Ma, the spy chief, helped Mr. Guo build his empire. He expanded into finance, acquiring a large stake in a securities brokerage firm. In 2014, the Hurun Report, which tracks the fortunes of China's elite, estimated his wealth at $2.3 billion. But that same year, Mr. Guo's ambition to take control of one of China's biggest brokerage firms fell apart and he had a dispute with his business partner, who was later jailed.

Since then, he has lived abroad and his assets in China — he claims 120 billion renminbi ($17.4 billion) in all — have been frozen. Mr. Guo is facing financial pressures.

One hedge fund in Hong Kong, the Pacific Alliance Asia Opportunity Fund, recently sued him in New York, saying that he owes $88 million, a sum that includes millions of dollars in interest in loans from 2008. The fund wants to seize his New York apartment.

Last year, he sued the Swiss bank UBS, arguing that he was misled in a series of transactions that resulted in a $500 million loss for him, but the suit was dismissed. Caixin published an article last week saying that Mr. Blair had introduced Mr. Guo to Abu Dhabi's crown prince. Mr. Guo later used money from Abu Dhabi to finance a failed takeover of a Chinese securities firm, which resulted in the loss, Caixin reported.

A representative for Mr. Blair did not address whether Mr. Blair had made introductions for Mr. Guo. Mr. Guo said the article was groundless.

One claim Mr. Guo made in March regarding the hidden wealth of a prominent Chinese family could be substantiated by company documents, The Times reported in April. Going after Mr. Wang, though, is particularly risky.

Mr. Wang, 68, has a reputation for being a problem solver who has worked closely with American executives, including Henry M. Paulson, the former chief executive of Goldman Sachs and Treasury secretary. His many protégés are in influential positions throughout China's government.

Mr. Wang did not respond to faxed questions sent to the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection in Beijing.

"Wang Qishan has been the model of clean and competent, and all but untouchable," said William Zarit, the chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China. "Should his star fall, business and government players should be concerned about their own safety."

There's no sign that Mr. Guo is letting up. Before the Communist Party meets this fall to pick a slate of top leaders, Mr. Guo plans his most dramatic assault of all: a live event, perhaps from Lincoln Center, that will focus on Chinese corruption.

"I want it to be carnival-style with a big screen," he said. "We will sing. We will cry and we will talk about the world."

Christopher Buckley and David Barboza contributed reporting. Kiki Zhao contributed research.