Chinese real estate tycoon Guo Wengui, one of the ruling Communist Party's most wanted exiles, has applied for political asylum in the United States, his lawyer said, in a move that could keep him out of Beijing's grasp for at least several more years.
Guo's asylum request poses a diplomatic quandary for the Trump administration, which must decide whether to expel a high-profile Chinese dissident or risk infuriating Beijing.
Guo's lawyer, Thomas Ragland, said Thursday the billionaire will stay "legally protected" in the U.S. while his application is being reviewed, a process that normally takes more than two years. If his request is denied, Guo could stay in the country while he exhausts his appeals, Ragland added.
Chinese officials told the AP in August that Guo is being investigated in at least 19 major criminal cases that involve bribery, kidnapping, fraud, money laundering and rape — allegations that Guo has denied.
Above all, Guo has attracted Beijing's ire by unleashing numerous allegations of high-level corruption within the Communist Party that have rocked Chinese politics. He has relentlessly targeted Wang Qishan, the party's anti-corruption czar and a key ally of President Xi Jinping, in a campaign that has raised doubts about Wang's political future just before a new slate of party leaders is set to be announced at a party congress in October.
Guo's challenge now is to demonstrate before U.S. officials that he is seeking to avoid "persecution, not prosecution," in China, his lawyer said.
"He has a fear of being returned to China based on his political statements that expose corruption among Chinese officials," Ragland said. "He's been a whistleblower."
Guo has previously said he was exposing high-level corruption for the good of his country. It was a high-stakes gambit, he said, to prove his loyalty to Xi and negotiate an eventual return to China.
But the asylum request could indicate that Guo's chances of reaching a truce with Beijing have petered out.
After fading from public view for several weeks, Wang, Guo's nemesis, reappeared in recent state media reports that were meant — according to Communist Party stagecraft — to signal his undiminished political strength.
Guo has also said in past interviews that he holds numerous other passports, which means he could potentially leave his $68 million apartment in Manhattan for another country. But he is concerned that other governments would not be able to resist China's demands to turn him over, Ragland said, adding that U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies will participate in the coming asylum review process.
The White House has not commented on the matter.