How an interview with one Chinese billionaire threw a US broadcaster into turmoil

Key Points
  • Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui alleges corruption among top Chinese officials.
  • Taxpayer-funded Voice of America cut short a live interview with Guo in April.
  • Five journalists were put on administrative leave after the broadcast.
Guo Wengui
Source: Wikipedia

A dispute over why Voice of America abruptly shut down an interview with a vocal critic of Beijing is raising questions about whether Chinese leadership influenced the U.S. broadcaster.

On April 19, taxpayer-funded Voice of America cut short a live interview with Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui — and subsequently put five of its own journalists on administrative leave.

"I suspect somebody caved in to the Chinese government's demand, because the timing itself was very suspicious," one of those journalists, Mandarin Service Chief Sasha Gong, told CNBC last week. "Someone very, very powerful must be very, very afraid of this. Otherwise, nothing makes sense."

Gong said Chinese authorities met with Voice of America's Beijing correspondent two days ahead of the April 19 interview and asked for its cancellation. Voice of America management then asked Gong to cancel the interview, or at least to shorten it to 15 minutes, she said.

Gong said management declined to cancel the interview in writing before it began, but then abruptly pulled the plug one hour and 19 minutes into the live conversation.

Why was the interview stopped while it was going on? You send a message to the audience that's watching.
Robert Reilly
former director, Voice of America

Two of the other reporters on administrative leave, who did not wish to be identified, concurred with Gong's account.

Voice of America, however, disputes Gong's version.

"At no time was there any management consideration of not doing the interview, nor of cutting short an ongoing interview for any reason," the broadcaster said in a statement to CNBC. Voice of America confirmed that it put Gong and four other department employees on administrative leave.

Voice of America Director Amanda Bennett denied that Beijing influenced VOA's decision.

"It was not caused by the Chinese involvement. It was caused by our own recognition at a news meeting that an unusual interview had been scheduled," she told CNBC, arguing that Guo was making allegations that could not be verified. "It wasn't miscommunication, and the instructions were clear."

The Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees Voice of America, appointed James McGregor, chairman of greater China for a public relations firm called Apco Worldwide, to investigate any influence from Beijing.

Gong characterized McGregor's role as "crisis management PR." Bennett said McGregor is "probably as neutral and respected and ethical as anybody in the field."

McGregor did not respond to a CNBC request for comment.

A law firm and the Broadcasting Board of Governors' internal security department are conducting two separate investigations, Bennett said.

Mission to encourage a free press

Voice of America was founded in 1942 to encourage freedom of the press beyond U.S. borders. The organization received $218 million in funding from Congress in fiscal 2016.

Bennett became director in 2016. She led the projects and investigations unit of Bloomberg when it came under fire from Beijing for a report on the wealth of Xi Jinping's relatives in 2012, just before he became Chinese president.

Bennett resigned from Bloomberg in 2013. She told CNBC she is "exceptionally proud" of the report on Xi and that it "was extremely controversial and at various times during the project we faced strong pressure from China not to publish."

This April when Voice of America began promoting its Mandarin-language interview with Guo, Chinese officials told the news organization that the planned program "was interfering with China's internal affairs," Gong said, noting the broadcaster has two visas for work in Beijing.

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Among the billionaire Guo's allegations is that Wang Qishan, leader of Beijing's anti-corruption efforts, is himself tainted by corruption. CNBC was unable to reach the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs early Saturday morning Beijing time for comment.

Guo is believed to have fled China for the United States in 2014.

The tycoon's deep involvement in Chinese government and business affairs has apparently given Guo plenty of inside material, which he disseminates to his more than 200,000 Twitter followers. A New York Times profile of him last week noted that while "some of his claims have been outlandish and easily debunked," others "have turned out to be accurate."

Guo did not respond to CNBC requests for comment.

Voice of America's Gong said her reporting and live interview with Guo would have shed light on how much the Communist Chinese government is spending to monitor and intimidate dissidents — practices she said are on the scale of what was seen in the Soviet Union.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry has called Guo a "criminal." On the day of the Voice of America broadcast, the ministry confirmed that it had asked Interpol to issue a "red notice" for Guo's arrest.

At 9 a.m. ET that day, the live interview in Mandarin began as scheduled before stopping shortly after an hour. The program had been planned as a one-hour televised broadcast, followed by two hours of internet livestreaming. The initial hour of the televised broadcast is still available on Voice of America's Mandarin Service YouTube channel.

"As I understand it, there were several members of senior management who were viewing this as it was taking place," Robert Reilly, who served as Voice of America director until 2002, told CNBC. "Why was the interview stopped while it was going on? You send a message to the audience that's watching."

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