If anyone thought that what happens in the Chinese Communist party stays in the Chinese Communist party, a determined gadfly ensconced in New York has proven them wrong.
This week’s five-yearly party congress will reveal which top officials will serve President Xi Jinping during his second term, who will in turn become contenders for the next generation to take power in China — a process usually cloaked in stilted rituals and turgid slogans.
Enter Guo Wengui, the cheerfully tweeting star of this year’s political drama. For months, the Chinese businessman in exile has offered his 500,000 followers a salacious glimpse into corruption and bare-knuckle politics in China.
China’s choreographed politics is not designed for public participation or questioning. But Mr Guo’s determined assault has questioned the reputation of Wang Qishan, the second-most powerful politician, and cast doubt on the integrity of the anti-corruption purge that Beijing claims is a success.
“In a country of 1.4bn, only my voice stands out. My greatest impact has been to allow Chinese to hear a different voice,” he says.
That voice has accused anti-corruption investigators of shaking down people for money or sexually assaulting women in their custody while politicians sire illegitimate children and sock away wealth in trusts and houses overseas.
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Mr Guo says he garnered such knowledge through his years as an insider in China’s seamy mix of politics and business, as a property developer who worked in partnership with the country’s dreaded state security forces.
Social media have allowed Mr Guo an unfiltered platform, although Facebook or YouTube have on occasion cut off his feeds. Western journalists have been frustrated with inconsistencies or lack of evidence for some of his claims — a concern shared by few among Mr Guo’s fascinated Chinese audience. Mr Guo, for his part, declares himself frustrated with such journalists.
“If you see a duck, then it’s a duck! That doesn’t mean that when I see a duck, you ask me for evidence that it’s a duck. Without evidence, is there no duck?” he says, complaining that journalists would rather question him than the Chinese state. “That’s why social media will bury traditional media.”
Mr Guo’s chief target has been Mr Wang, Mr Xi’s powerful whip, who has spearheaded the anti-corruption purge on Mr Xi’s behalf. Over the past two decades Mr Wang has served as Wall Street’s primary point of contact in the Chinese hierarchy. Although he has reached the party’s formal retirement age, he could emerge from this year’s congress with some senior role.
With many in the financial sector supporting Mr Wang, Mr Guo began firing off allegations that some of Mr Wang’s in-laws improperly benefited from indirect stakes in HNA Group, the airline-to-financing conglomerate that controls $146bn in assets worldwide. Mr Wang has not publicly responded to the allegations, and the Financial Times has been unable to verify many of the claims.
Provable or not, the effect of the tweets has been real. Investigations into HNA’s true ownership by the FT and others, have triggered regulatory reviews.
Conspiracy theorists question Mr Guo’s motives. Is he acting on behalf of security organs under pressure from purges carried out by Mr Wang? Or is he an agent for Mr Xi, to force the retirement of a partner who had become too powerful?
In the US, Mr Guo has attracted demoralised overseas dissidents and China hawks — including Steve Bannon, the former White House adviser — to his flag. Meanwhile, lawsuits filed by HNA, former business partners and other allies of Mr Wang that Mr Guo has attacked are wending their way through the US court system.
“The danger is that important American institutions get themselves wound around political axes that have nothing to do with the American public,” says Pamela Kyle Crossley, who teaches Chinese history at Dartmouth College. While the Chinese combatants might seek the legitimacy of American media and courts, “the danger is for American institutions that are getting co-opted and distorted”, she adds.
One of those institutions is Voice of America, whose Chinese team arranged for a three-hour live interview with Mr Guo in April only to have management pull the plug after an hour, saying that the broadcast violated journalistic principles. Months of fallout have included public rifts in the VOA, accusations the broadcaster bowed to Chinese pressure and criticism from friend and foe in Washington.
Another is the conservative Hudson Institute, which invited and then abruptly disinvited Mr Guo. He attributes the think-tank’s change of heart to the influence of the Communist party in Washington. His talk was ultimately hosted elsewhere. The Hudson Institute did not respond to a request for comment.
Mr Guo left China years ago after a battle for control over one of the country’s leading securities groups, and lived quietly in exile until bursting on the scene in January with his allegations about corruption and abuse of power.
He peppers his social media posts with videos of himself exercising, to show that he is not only alive but thriving in his New York exile. But his reality may be more precarious than he likes to let on.
He is applying for asylum in the US, while his sources of funding are drying up. Mr Guo’s biggest test will be whether he can survive the truce in Chinese factional fighting once the party congress is over.
Additional reporting by Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington