Six months ago, who would ever have imagined that social media would be able to bring upheaval to China’s leadership succession at the 19th Party Congress? Yet this scenario is more likely now than at any time in the last five years, all because of an exiled Chinese tycoon who lives in a lavish apartment in Manhattan.
Guo Wengui, a billionaire who had developed close ties to both civilian and military intelligence services, fled China in 2015, shortly before the regime arrested his family and employees. The billionaire attempted a futile rescue for three years, then finally broke with the regime this January.
Turning to a posture of deterrence, Guo unleashed a torrent of corruption allegations against senior Chinese leaders on Twitter and YouTube. His main target is Wang Qishan, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee. As the commander-in-chief of President Xi Jinping’s anti-graft campaign, Wang is seen as the second-most powerful figure in China.
A showman by nature, Guo proved his talent by throwing incendiary allegations, often cheerfully, at those on high. Through live broadcasts, Guo claimed that Wang’s family had amassed staggering wealth through an extensive network of companies linked to HNA, a Chinese conglomerate worth $3 trillion. Guo also claimed that Wang’s family owns dozens of real estate properties in the United States. Other sensational charges against Wang include his involvement in money laundering, human rights abuses, and sex scandals with top Chinese movie stars.
Though outlandish, the tycoon’s charges have won him thousands of supporters overseas in a short time, and his allegations quickly found their way back into the walled-off Chinese internet. Despite the official ban on Twitter and YouTube, more and more Chinese have “jumped over” the Great Firewall to watch Guo talk.
This prompted Beijing to silence him. On April 19, a Voice of America (VOA) interview with Guo was reportedly cut short due to threats made by the Chinese Foreign Ministry. One day before, the government issued a red notice targeting Guo through Interpol, currently chaired by the Chinese vice minister of public security.
Yet from that day, the average search interest in Guo on the internet began to surpass that of Xi Jinping and Wang Qishan combined, as data from Google Trends indicates. Though a demonized figure in official Chinese media, Guo is increasingly hailed as an anti-Communist hero among Chinese netizens and dissident domestic groups. Now, Guo portrays himself as a defender of Xi, while accusing Wang of subversive attempts to undermine the president; Guo has vowed to destroy the corrupt system through a three-year whistleblowing campaign that will also target other senior leaders.
Guo’s weak point lies in the thin evidence backing the charges, despite his promise to disclose a large amount of evidence in a global press conference in the near future. This is also what his critics, including some overseas political activists, point to. But that seems to have had little impact on how supporters view the credibility of his leaks.
Many believers were convinced because of Beijing’s highly unusual responses. After another explosive interview on Mingjing, a news website banned in China, on June 16, the regime retaliated with stepped up campaigns to discredit Guo. A district court in Dalian sentenced three senior employees from Guo’s Beijing Pangu Investment to prison for fraudulently obtaining bank loans.
Even the Xinhua news agency and CCTV joined the effort in early July to portray Guo as a fraud who made up stories about Wang’s private Boeing 787 and sex scandals involving his relatives. Yet both of their reports inadvertently confirmed that Guo had obtained confidential client data from HNA airline staff.
“I don’t believe that the Party state would ever react to baseless rumors like confronting their grave enemies,” said Bao Tong, the former policy secretary to the dismissed Premier Zhao Ziyang, who is watching the regime’s countermeasures.
Viewers of Guo’s broadcasts have also reported an increasing amount of interruptions from suspected hacking attempts since the VOA incident. On June 16, while Guo was giving the Mingjing interview on YouTube, severe cyber attacks paralyzed the website just a minute into his talk.
Yet Guo’s offensive has, surprisingly, won concessions from Beijing. In late May, the regime freed Guo’s wife and daughter, flying them to New York for a reunion. Following that, two senior officials from the Chinese Ministry of Public Security traveled to the United States and reportedly pressured Guo to keep silent in exchange for his frozen assets in China. According to the Washington Free Beacon, one of the officials was arrested by the FBI for violating visa rules before he was allowed to leave for China.
So far, observers have been divided on the motives driving Guo’s behavior. Some view his leaks as means to hurt the authority of Xi and Wang, who are believed to jointly struggle against the faction of retired President Jiang Zemin. Discrediting the anti-graft campaign, therefore, is in line with Jiang’s interest to contain Xi’s power at the 19th Party Congress. Others say that the Xi-Jiang rivalry is just a myth for outsiders; Guo is simply driving a wedge in the not-very-cozy relationship between Xi and Wang.
Recent events, however, defy a simplified view of the ongoing factional conflicts. Guo clearly does not limit his attacks to the Wang faction. Allegations were also thrown at Meng Jianzhu, the head of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, and Wang Enge, a former chancellor of Beijing University. Both are proteges of the Jiang family.
Echoes to Guo’s campaign have also been heard from other Communist Party “mountain tops.” Xinjing, a newspaper backed by the Central Propaganda Department whose head, Liu Yunshan, sits in the Politburo Standing Committee, quickly picked up on the financial problems of HNA following the disrupted VOA interview. Meanwhile, Wu Xiaohui, the chairman of insurance giant Anbang and a grandson-in-law of Deng Xiaoping, began to cross swords with Caixin, the media group that always spearheads Wang’s anti-graft campaign.
Wang Qishan disappeared from media coverage for 40 days following a May 11 broadcast charging real estate corruption in Beijing, where he served as the mayor from 2004. Insiders later revealed that he was hospitalized. Yet the return of Wang to the spotlight preceded the arrests of Wan Sanyun, a protege of the former President Hu Jintao, and Sun Zhengcai, who was previously seen as a promising candidate for the next Politburo Standing Committee. Sun was an important aide to Liu Qi, the former Party boss of Beijing and Wang’s long-term rival.
As Guo is frank about the existence of his backchannels to anonymous Party leaders, including current Politburo Standing Committee members, this development may reflect the intensity of infighting between his domestic allies and the Wang faction. But from a different perspective, it may instead testify to the success of Guo’s strategies to pit the enemies of Wang against him, as well as the latter’s deteriorating sense of security.
Rumors even have it that the Central Discipline Department headed by Wang is going to take on two more Politburo members before the Party Congress; other rumors say Wang was already compelled to hand over more power to Xi in exchange for the president’s protection.
The CPC was previously known for its politics of weaponizing leaks — that is, using overseas media to publicize incriminating charges against one’s political opponents. While many people believe that Guo Wengui is simply another player of this old game, they may miss the unique twist this time.
What makes Guo’s leaks so different is the extensive use of social media. Through the last six months, Twitter and YouTube have proven to be low-cost but highly efficient tools in making and spreading political news, compared to the official Chinese media. The latter is ill-prepared for the speedy manner in which a propaganda war is waged on social media.
Moreover, social media has unexpectedly added to the reliability of Guo’s charges by providing fast third-party checks. Many Chinese Twitter users volunteered to verify the information that Guo disclosed, such as the U.S. citizenship of Wang’s wife and the existence family-owned properties. By early July, these netizens already claimed to have confirmed a network of Wang’s relatives in the United States as well as the family’s ownership over 14 properties worth $30 million in total. On several occasions, some even dug out fresh supporting evidence.
While the success of this social media campaign may be visible in a series of governmental crackdowns on VPNs following Guo’s leaks, it is still unclear that to what extent his campaign will impact the agenda of the 19th Party Congress. However, one thing of high certainty is that China’s power succession is entering an increasingly tumultuous episode in the months to come.
Mingde Wang is a Marie Curie fellow in the University of Oxford.