The Undoing of Guo Wengui, Billionaire Partner to Trump Allies
Luc Despins, a New York bankruptcy lawyer, typically took on difficult jobs: After the energy company Enron collapsed years ago, he helped thousands of victims recover some of their money.
But when Mr. Despins was appointed by a bankruptcy court last year to locate the assets of Guo Wengui, a Chinese property mogul and political provocateur who had failed to repay tens of millions of dollars to a hedge fund, the assignment presented very different challenges.
In November, protesters appeared outside his home and that of his ex-wife. Photographs of his daughters, along with their names and employers, were posted on Gettr, a social platform catering to the American right. A video online accused Mr. Despins of helping to build concentration camps on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party. Protesters even entered his office lobby, Mr. Despins testified in court.
“Partners of the firm have been chased up the escalator, with people running — screaming, you know, ‘C.C.P. dog,’” he said.
It would be among the last of many harassment campaigns carried out in Mr. Guo’s name by his global legion of followers. Mr. Guo may now be at the end of a remarkable trajectory, from billionaire Beijing insider to fugitive critic of the Chinese Communist Party and ally of Trump Republicans. That path, fueled by bravado, ruthlessness, a keen political antenna and alleged theft, has left lingering suspicion about his allegiances. And it has now taken him from his Manhattan penthouse to his new place of residence: the Brooklyn federal detention center.
This month, Mr. Guo was arrested in that 9,000-square-foot apartment, charged with defrauding thousands of investors in the United States and overseas of more than $1 billion. If convicted, he could face decades in prison. Mr. Guo pleaded not guilty in Manhattan federal court and was ordered detained at the request of prosecutors, who described him as a flight risk and a danger to the community.
“Guo Wengui is such a grifter, he just understands that whatever system you are in you have to learn how to play it,” said Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York, who met Mr. Guo in Beijing over a decade ago. “He had yachts, he had the whole panoply — he knew how to arrange things around him that created a sense of awe, success and invincibility.”
Mr. Guo’s lawyer, Stephen Cook, declined to comment.
Mr. Guo rose from poverty to control a nationwide property empire centered on a $1 billion office, retail, hotel and residential complex next to the site of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He lived in a sprawling lakeside courtyard compound in central Beijing valued at up to $230 million, with a separate barracks for his uniformed guards and a vast closet — as big as some homes — for his Brioni suits. By 2014 he ranked 74th among China’s richest people, with $2.6 billion.
Property empires in China rely on government connections and the free flow of cash, gifts and favors, and Mr. Guo’s links reached into the upper ranks of the country’s power structure, including Ma Jian, a senior intelligence official.
With Mr. Ma’s help, Mr. Guo, in the fashion of a Russian oligarch, obtained majority control of a securities business by buying out the share of a state-owned company, according to an investigation by Caixin, a Chinese newsmagazine, which also found numerous instances of Mr. Guo failing to repay large debts. Business associates who fell out with him landed in police custody. Mr. Ma subsequently said in a videotaped confession that he had accepted more than $8 million in gifts from Mr. Guo in exchange for interventions with other officials to eliminate roadblocks for his property projects, deter rivals and other strong-arming.
“He would get calls from Ma Jian almost hourly,” Mr. Schell recalled of Mr. Guo. “They’d be bro-ing it up as if they were in a start-up together.”
Mr. Guo’s wealth brought him in contact with foreign dignitaries whose names he could drop. In Beijing, he enjoyed showing visitors his photos with the former U.S. secretaries of state Henry A. Kissinger and George P. Shultz. Mr. Guo said he had met Kim Jong-un, leader of North Korea, on a trip there. He tweeted pictures of himself with the Dalai Lama; he later told The New York Times he had acted as an intermediary for the government.
Better Understand the Relations Between China and the U.S.
The two nations are jockeying for influence on the global stage, maneuvering for advantages on land, in the economy and in cyberspace.
But by early 2015, a Chinese anticorruption campaign, aimed at officials on the take from freewheeling billionaires, had ensnared Mr. Ma. In a country where the fall of a patron often puts his confidants in legal jeopardy, Mr. Guo fled before he too could be arrested, entering the United States on a tourist visa.
Finding Friends on the Right
Once in New York, Mr. Guo went silent. Among China watchers, speculating on what this well-connected businessman might be doing became a parlor game. Mr. Guo, whose age has been variously described as 52, 54 or 55, has said his feng shui master told him that 2015 was a bad year, and it was best to stay quiet until 2017.
But there was a more obvious reason for Mr. Guo to go public in 2017: It was uncertain whether his nemesis Wang Qishan, who oversaw the anticorruption campaign, would remain in high office after a Communist Party conclave that fall. Apparently trying to influence the outcome, Mr. Guo spoke out, first on Twitter, attracting hundreds of thousands of followers, and then on YouTube, posting daily stream-of-consciousness videos.
Among other claims, Mr. Guo alleged that Mr. Wang headed a corrupt family with secret stakes in a Chinese conglomerate. He provided tantalizing clues and documents, but like many of his other assertions, they were impossible to verify.
Mr. Guo, who also goes by Miles Kwok and several other names, held court at his $68 million residence at the Sherry-Netherland with sweeping Central Park views. While buying the apartment, he provided the building’s co-op board a recommendation from former Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain. “Miles is honest, forthright and has impeccable taste,” Mr. Blair wrote in the letter, unearthed by a British tabloid in 2021.
Mr. Blair had previously introduced Mr. Guo to Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, according to Caixin, which said Mr. Guo raised $3 billion from the emirate’s royal family. On Wednesday, prosecutors said in a court filing that the F.B.I. had found a copy of an expired United Arab Emirates passport at Mr. Guo’s New Jersey mansion, along with more than $394,000 in U.S. currency. Agents also found about 30 cellphones scattered among three of his residences, the filing said, including one under a mattress in his Manhattan apartment.
Mr. Guo became a hero to tens of thousands of people in the Chinese diaspora with his insider accounts of alleged corruption among top Communist Party officials.
He also began working to connect with America’s powerful. By 2017 he was a member of Mar-a-Lago, then-President Donald J. Trump’s Florida club. When in Washington, he booked rooms at the Trump International Hotel.
Mr. Guo needed friends. It was highly unusual for a prominent Chinese businessman who had been close to government officials to go on the attack. Angry that he was leveling explosive charges against leaders, Chinese officials said in April 2017 that Interpol had issued a “red notice” for his arrest.
China’s government also tapped the casino mogul Steve Wynn, who ran a resort in the Chinese territory of Macau and served as finance chairman of the Republican National Committee, along with a deputy finance chair, Elliott Broidy, to prod Mr. Trump to deport the billionaire. But the effort failed.
To fend off China, Mr. Guo applied for political asylum in September 2017 and moved closer into Trump circles, embracing views held by the president and the American far right. Mr. Guo soon won the support of influential Trump allies, and they won access to his money.
In late 2018 Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s onetime chief strategist, became chairman of the Rule of Law Fund, billed as a $100 million effort financed by Mr. Guo to disseminate information about Communist Party corruption and to help its victims.
“We both naturally despise the Chinese Communist Party,” Mr. Guo told The Times then. “That’s why we’ve become partners.” Mr. Bannon said of his new backer: “He really impressed me.” Their relationship deepened, with Mr. Guo lending Mr. Bannon $150,000 and later offering him a $1 million consulting contract, according to Axios.
Mr. Guo formed GTV Media Group, which spread news to a Chinese-speaking audience through a mobile app, in April 2020. He sold shares of it, raising about $452 million from more than 5,500 people. Soon after came G-Clubs, a concierge service promising access to trendy fashion (G-Fashion) and rights to buy GTV shares. This raised another $255 million. Guo-promoted cryptocurrencies took in $500 million, according to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
GTV carried Mr. Bannon’s “War Room” podcast, on which Mr. Guo was a frequent guest. The two promoted vaccine skepticism and pushed unsubstantiated theories about Covid’s origins.
In June 2020 Mr. Bannon and Mr. Guo announced the New Federal State of China, an idea for an alternative Chinese government. “We will completely overthrow the Chinese Communist Party!” Mr. Guo declared against a backdrop of the Statue of Liberty and a $37 million yacht that he called his “warship.” To emphasize his goal, he released a song a few months later called “Take Down the C.C.P.,” which briefly held the No. 1 spot on the iTunes chart.
But by then, Mr. Bannon had been arrested on Mr. Guo’s yacht, charged in Manhattan with defrauding hundreds of thousands of donors to an online campaign to help build a wall on the Mexican border, and of using large sums for personal expenses. Mr. Bannon pleaded not guilty and was later pardoned by Mr. Trump before trial.
Rallying a Base to Retaliate
While Mr. Guo was building an army of followers, he was also lashing out at perceived enemies. In Beijing, he had taken down a vice mayor blocking his flagship property development by obtaining a videotape showing the married official having sex with another woman. When a magazine was investigating Mr. Guo, he accused its publisher of having a child out of wedlock with another of his opponents.
In the United States, Mr. Guo’s vengeance took many forms: lawsuits, social media attacks, and the dispatching of supporters to targets’ homes and workplaces.
According to a prosecutors’ memo seeking his detention, several victims told the government that after they complained to him about mishandling their money, he accused them of spying for the Chinese Communist Party, “effectively directing the wrath” of his base against them.
He was especially harsh toward Chinese dissidents, like Teng Biao, a legal scholar and human rights activist who was imprisoned in China and later fled. Mr. Teng was an early critic of Mr. Guo, who sued him for defamation in 2018; the case was ultimately dismissed.
“After watching him for 20 minutes I realized that this guy is just a swindler,” Mr. Teng said of Mr. Guo. “He’s not somebody who wants to fight for democracy or freedom in China. He just wants to use his influence and his impact to cheat people for money.”
In December 2020, Guo supporters surrounded Mr. Teng’s home in Princeton Junction, N.J., cursing at his school-age daughters and carrying signs that accused Mr. Teng of spying for the Chinese Communist Party. Guo supporters also gathered outside the homes of several other prominent Chinese rights activists. The protesters stayed for two months, Mr. Teng recalled.
Mr. Guo’s actions against Chinese dissidents fueled speculation that he was somehow working in concert with the Chinese government.
At first, some Chinese activists in the United States, including Sasha Gong, a reporter, were taken with Mr. Guo’s message. But Ms. Gong later developed suspicions about his anti-Chinese Communist Party credentials because of his attacks on dissidents and the source of his funds. “I wrote Bannon that not a penny of Guo’s money was clean, don’t take a penny of it,” she said in an interview.
A Manhattan federal judge ruling in a civil case in which Ms. Gong testified reflected on how difficult it was to determine Mr. Guo’s loyalties. “The evidence at trial does not permit the court to decide whether Guo is, in fact, a dissident or a double agent,” the judge, Lewis J. Liman, wrote. If U.S. intelligence officials have any concerns, they haven’t resulted in charges.
Far less ambiguous was Mr. Guo’s strident support for Mr. Trump. During the run-up to to the 2020 presidential election, Mr. Guo’s media network sought to damage the campaign of the Democratic nominee, Joseph R. Biden, Jr., claiming to have material from his son Hunter Biden’s laptop, including sexually explicit images.
But Jack Maxey, a former “War Room” co-host who was working to disseminate information from the laptop, said several images posted by Mr. Guo’s network had been fabricated, and only distracted from what Mr. Maxey considered far more damaging material documenting Hunter Biden’s work with a Chinese private-equity fund.
“He took fake photographs and claimed they came from Hunter’s laptop,” Mr. Maxey said of Mr. Guo.
Mr. Guo endorsed Mr. Trump’s stolen election lie, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars so proponents of his anti-C.C.P. campaign could gather in Washington for the so-called Million MAGA March that November in support of the then-president, who was refusing to concede. Mr. Guo funded a court challenge to Mr. Biden’s election victory in Georgia, reported Mother Jones magazine. Mr. Guo also funded Gettr, the social media network set up in 2021 that until recently was headed by Jason Miller, Mr. Trump’s longtime campaign adviser and spokesman.
That September, the S.E.C. filed civil charges against three companies tied to Mr. Guo, alleging that the firms had conducted unlawful securities offerings for his media company, which had attracted more than 5,000 investors. The companies, without admitting to or denying the allegations, agreed to pay more than $539 million to settle.
The S.E.C.’s suit followed lawsuits by investors who claimed they had wired money for GTV shares but received no proof of purchase, and were not given refunds they requested. Government prosecutors said this month that Mr. Guo had defrauded thousands of investors.
A 60-year-old woman in the Seattle area who asked to be identified only by her last name, Chen, said she had been drawn to Mr. Guo in 2019 because of his support for pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. She grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution, and her parents, both academics, had suffered.
Ms. Chen said she first gave $2,500 to one of Mr. Guo’s organizations, believing the money would go to help Hong Kong students escape. In May 2020, she invested $125,000 in GTV. “At the time we thought we did the right thing,” she said. When she could not get her money back, she said, she contacted the authorities and joined other aggrieved investors in suing Mr. Guo.
It was one of many civil suits against Mr. Guo since his arrival in the United States. Another, festering since 2017, would bring Mr. Despins, the bankruptcy lawyer, into his orbit.
A Hong Kong-based hedge fund, the Pacific Alliance Asia Opportunity Fund, had sued Mr. Guo over a $30 million debt that had ballooned with interest. In February 2021, a court ordered Mr. Guo to pay $116.4 million. But he defied the order, and by February 2022, after being penalized $500,000 a day for moving his yacht out of the court’s jurisdiction, he was ordered to pay Pacific Alliance $134 million.
Days later, Mr. Guo filed for bankruptcy. That gave his followers new targets: Mr. Despins and his family. The alleged harassment they endured is detailed in court records; Mr. Despins declined to comment.
In recent months, Mr. Guo has abandoned the buzz cut and clean shave that he long paired with his Brioni suits. He has grown his hair, along with a salt-and-pepper beard. Last week, someone saying she was his daughter, Guo Mei, posted on his Gettr account that he was in high spirits at the pretrial detention center in Brooklyn. He was playing basketball to stay in shape.
Kenneth P. Vogel contributed reporting.