Argument

Guo Wengui Is Sending Mobs After Chinese Dissidents

Steve Bannon’s billionaire funder claims to be a foe of the Chinese Communist Party, but his targets are fellow exiles.

Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon (right) greets fugitive Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui
Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon (right) greets fugitive Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui in France on July 3, 2018. Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images

A prominent Chinese dissident pulls his children from school and flees his Texas home. A California-based democracy activist faces days of threats and harassment from protesters gathered in his driveway. Both were targets on a hit list of dissidents released last month by the exiled Chinese businessman Guo Wengui, who has claimed without evidence they are spies from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

“Let’s eliminate traitors in the world,” a cigar-wielding Guo told his followers in a video posted online last month. “Let’s get started, let’s finish with these traitors first.”

In the days that followed, dozens of protesters have held daily demonstrations outside the Midland, Texas, home of Chinese pastor Bob Fu, a prominent figure among the evangelical Christians who make up a substantial number of U.S.-based Chinese dissidents. They have refused to say who they were or where they traveled from—one man outside Fu’s home identified himself to local media as “Texas Cowboy”—but have made it clear they are heeding Guo’s calls to go after the founder of the nonprofit ChinaAid, which provides legal assistance to Christians facing persecution in China.

The actions of Guo and his followers have drawn the attention of the FBI, rebukes from Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, and a flurry of suspicion as to what the billionaire real estate magnate is actually up to.

“I think this is a very well-funded, directed, orchestrated, sophisticated smear campaign,” Fu told me after he and his family were placed in protective custody. He now alleges the CCP itself is behind the attacks. “Guo Wengui thinks he’s the Robin Hood organizing a private militia to do justice,” he said.

Foreign Policy reached out to Guo for comment, but his team, after saying they would translate the questions for Guo, failed to respond to further requests.

Accusations that others are really working for the CCP are not unknown in the bitterly contentious world of Chinese dissidents. That’s not surprising, given that the CCP genuinely does spend considerable amounts of time, money, and energy targeting such organizations, which it sees as a deep threat to its rule. But it can also mean personal enmities become political paranoias.

And yet, Guo’s background and actions raise uncomfortable questions. Guo was once a prominent player in the intertangled network of Chinese business and politics. But he fled China in 2015 after his patron, Vice Minister of State Security Ma Jian, fell, leaving him dangerously exposed. Since then he has attempted to frame himself as a principled critic of the CCP. Upon arriving in the United States, he formed an alliance with former Trump strategist and far-right operative Steve Bannon, who was arrested by federal agents on fraud charges while on Guo’s yacht off the shore of Connecticut in August. The pair launched a self-proclaimed government in exile, the New Federal State of China, and the media company GTV Media Group, which is reportedly being investigated by the FBI and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

GTV’s outlets have served as mouthpieces for Guo and Bannon to spread disinformation about the origin of the coronavirus and publish conspiracy theories about presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden that have reportedly seeped into Trump’s inner circle and the newsroom of the New York Post. The outlets have also been used by Guo to smear dissidents such as Fu. In January, Guo’s GNews website published an article titled “About Bob Fu – A Fake Pastor” that meanders from severe allegations—unsubstantiated accusations of human trafficking and sexual harassment, which Fu denies—to screenshots of Texas properties allegedly owned by Fu’s relatives and critical Google reviews of a winery owned by Fu’s wife.

Fu still laughs at the absurdity of Guo’s claims, but he took them seriously. “That was the start of when I thought, he is doing something real to threaten our family,” he said.

Outside of one trespassing incident, the Midland protests have remained peaceful and law-abiding, and Guo has said he does not condone violence. But they have inflamed lingering doubts about whether Guo Wengui is who he says he is.

Adrian Zenz, a senior fellow in China studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation who has known Fu for years, was cautious not to draw definitive conclusions but said Guo’s recent behavior, to him, “looks like an influence operation.”

It’s not the first time Guo’s loyalties have been questioned. Strategic Vision, a consultancy firm hired in 2018 by a company affiliated with Guo, accused him in court filings of being a “dissident-hunter” after being asked to investigate people Guo said had ties to top CCP officials. A lawyer for Guo has denied the claims

“Sending people to his house, that’s like a Communist Party pressure tactic,” Zenz said. “It really raises the question of who is Guo Wengui? Is he a CCP spy?”

The protests outside Fu’s house caused a stir in Midland, a Permian Basin oil town known for high school football rather than battles between Chinese dissidents. Small groups began congregating in Fu’s driveway on Sept. 26, when the pastor was at a Washington prayer service on the National Mall. The crowd grew to around 50 people on the morning of Oct. 5 as Fu spoke from home at a virtual United Nations Human Rights Council event. He and his family were escorted by Midland police to a safe location that day, but Guo’s followers canvassed the neighborhood and distributed flyers condemning the pastor and ChinaAid.

The town has not taken kindly to the newcomers. “Midlanders don’t do well or put up well with people who make threats, literally terrorist threats, against our citizens,” Mayor Patrick Payton told reporters earlier this month. An incensed Guo responded by threatening Payton in an online video, telling his followers: “We must make him pay.”

Payton has since said Midland police have not been able to determine if the protesters are working directly for Guo or whether they have been paid.

Fu has not been the only target. Wu Jianmin, a Chinese democracy activist in Southern California, said supporters of Guo showed up at his family’s home four times between Sept. 23 and Oct. 6. “They would park themselves outside my house on the curb, shouting insulting obscenities while [livestreaming] on Twitter,” he told me.

Like Fu, Wu said he had no prior connections to Guo before the billionaire and his followers began their pressure campaigns, but he believes Chinese authorities are “very aggravated” by his popular anti-CCP YouTube channel. “Only the CCP and its agents would desire [the] silencing of my voice,” he said.

Guo’s supporters say they are avowed anti-communists. His bizarre antics may be more a habit than a sign of any CCP connection; the world of Beijing real estate is full of dirty tricks, some of which, like faking documents, Guo is accused of having used in the past. He may effectively see Fu and other anti-CCP activists as rivals for funding and government backing in the United States.

Whatever Guo’s motives, his actions have already had a chilling effect. Fu became more worried after Chinese Christians he assisted in coming to the United States told him they had been contacted by apparent supporters of Guo. ChinaAid closed its offices in early October due to the threats. “Their purpose,” Fu said, “is to make me shut up.”

Nick Aspinwall is a journalist based in Taipei and an editor-at-large at Ketagalan Media. Twitter: @Nick1Aspinwall

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