[Mr. Guo’s newly public persona — more akin to a dissident Russian oligarch and highly unusual in Chinese politics — comes at an awkward time, just before China’s president, Xi Jinping, and Mr. Trump are to meet at the resort for their first summit meeting. The Chinese billionaire’s ties to the club are a new twist in how President Trump’s business interests can complicate diplomacy, in this case with arguably the world’s most important bilateral relationship.]
By Michael Forsythe
Guo Wengui was in London recently at the prestigious Mark’s Club in Mayfair,
which requires men to wear jackets “at all times.” He said he was a member
of the club. Credit Andrew Testa for The New York Times
He is a billionaire who made his fortune in real estate. He has been called a narcissist. He posts to Twitter — incessantly — about politics and his battles against the media. Lately, he has been spending time at a Florida resort named Mar-a-Lago.
Mr. Guo is a Chinese property magnate who has been living outside the country for more than two years. In recent weeks, he has launched a broadside — in television interviews and on Twitter — criticizing the effectiveness of the Communist Party’s fight against corruption, all from the safety of financial capitals like London and New York. He is also a member at President Trump’s resort in Palm Beach, and posted photos of himself on the grounds last month with Mar-a-Lago’s managing director.
Mr. Guo’s newly public persona — more akin to a dissident Russian oligarch and highly unusual in Chinese politics — comes at an awkward time, just before China’s president, Xi Jinping, and Mr. Trump are to meet at the resort for their first summit meeting. The Chinese billionaire’s ties to the club are a new twist in how President Trump’s business interests can complicate diplomacy, in this case with arguably the world’s most important bilateral relationship.
At Mar-a-Lago, moneymaking, socializing and statecraft converged in February, when Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, conferred with Mr. Trump over a North Korean missile test in full view of the club’s members. Entry into Mar-a-Lago will be more strict this time than during Mr. Abe’s visit, said a United States official with knowledge of the preparations for the meeting, who was aware of Mr. Guo’s remarks, but could offer no details about the security protocols.
At the very least, it would be embarrassing if Mr. Guo, who is also known as Miles Kwok, were to show up at the seaside resort during the meeting Thursday and Friday. At worst, his presence could incense Mr. Xi and the Chinese delegation. Mr. Guo left China during a corruption scandal linked to the jailing of his political patron, a top security official. Mr. Guo said his assets in China — he puts the figure at more than $17 billion — were seized.
“Guo would certainly be a very disruptive wild card at Mar-a-Lago,” said Christopher K. Johnson, a former senior China analyst at the C.I.A. who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Mr. Johnson said in an interview that China considered Mr. Guo a criminal and sought his return, although there is no public record of him being charged with a crime.
During Mr. Abe’s visit, club members and guests were permitted to enter without undergoing all the stringent security protocols imposed at the White House. The United States official, who was not authorized to speak to the news media and asked for anonymity, did not know if members would be barred from the grounds during the Xi-Trump meeting.
Mr. Guo, when asked, would not say whether he intended to show up for the summit. Even if he is kept out, the vetting of a president’s paying guests before a major summit meeting presents a staffing challenge that no previous administration has faced. The allure of rubbing shoulders with the rich and powerful is an attraction of Mar-a-Lago, which recently doubled its initiation fee to $200,000. Mr. Trump has called it the “Southern White House.”
Mr. Guo’s membership could be especially sensitive because of the lengths China’s leaders go to stamp out any political discussion that deviates from the Communist Party line, particularly remarks about the wealth of top leaders. Mr. Guo has leveled specific accusations against a former top party leader.
In two recent Chinese-language interviews and on Twitter, Mr. Guo, while highly critical of many current and former Chinese leaders, has praised Mr. Xi, or at least refrained from directly criticizing him.
“I pray that President Xi’s visit is smooth, for relations between the peoples of the United States and China to start a great new era,” Mr. Guo said in a text message in response to questions from The New York Times.
Mr. Guo is not the first Chinese tycoon to leave the country in a cloud of controversy and decamp to the United States or another Western country. Mr. Johnson said he was most likely second on a list of prominent business executives Beijing was seeking to repatriate, behind the younger brother of a top official who held a post equivalent to the White House chief of staff. That man, Ling Wancheng, left China for the United States about three years ago before the arrest of his brother, who is now serving a life sentence for graft.
But Mr. Ling has stayed quiet and kept his whereabouts secret. For the first two years of his exile, Mr. Guo did the same.
That all changed in late January, when he activated his Twitter account and gave the first of two rambling interviews with the Mirror Media Group, a Chinese-language news company based on Long Island.
China has more billionaires than any other country with the possible exception of the United States, but none as outspoken and flamboyant as Mr. Guo. He has a penchant for posting photos of himself in workout tights and camouflage, performing planks and other exercises. He sips vintage French wine in front of a picture of an aviator glasses-wearing, cigarette-smoking chimpanzee in his London office and likes to show off the private jets he uses for his frequent trans-Atlantic flights. One American who met with him described him as affable.
But Mr. Guo is anything but happy-go-lucky. He built a fortune in the Darwinian world of Chinese real estate, and people who crossed him soon rued the day. In 2006, he handed to the police a sex tape of a Beijing deputy mayor who had disputed one of his land deals. The official was imprisoned and Mr. Guo got the property, building the torch-shaped Pangu Plaza next to Beijing’s Olympic Green, a landmark during the 2008 Summer Games.
He kept his extensive car collection in a vast underground parking lot, arranging the dozens of Ferraris, Rolls-Royces, Bentleys and Bugattis in petal shapes to show to visitors, said one person who knows him.
He is in a long-running public battle with China’s most prominent journalist, Hu Shuli, whose newsmagazine, Caixin, reported in 2015 that Mr. Guo used his ties to Ma Jian, a former vice minister in the country’s spy agency, to further his business interests. Mr. Ma was expelled from the Communist Party and is being prosecuted on graft charges. Mr. Guo accused Ms. Hu of being corrupt and working for a “behind the scenes” power broker. Caixin sued Mr. Guo, saying he defamed Ms. Hu.
Mr. Guo claims that he was the victim of corruption that went to the highest level of Chinese politics, the elite standing committee of the Communist Party’s Politburo, but that the official in question — now retired — has not been prosecuted. Mirror Media says its Chinese audience reaches the hundreds of millions, making Mr. Guo’s assertions particularly sensitive for Mr. Xi, who is trying to consolidate power before a major Communist Party leadership meeting later this year.
“We have all been used as tools,” Mr. Guo said in a March 8 interview.
Mr. Guo named names. His most eye-popping statement is that his former business partner, now in jail, was backed by the son of the Communist Party’s former top discipline official, He Guoqiang. He also described an audiotape he obtained, which detailed threats his erstwhile business partners were planning. “They said that they would beat Guo Wengui to death, and to put Guo Wengui to death,” Mr. Guo said during the Mirror Media interview.
Chinese billionaires living abroad are not immune to the long reach of Beijing’s security apparatus. The day after Mr. Guo’s first public broadcast in late January, another prominent billionaire, Xiao Jianhua, was apparently abducted from his apartment at the Four Seasons Hotel in Hong Kong, whisked across the border and taken into custody in mainland China. Mr. Guo says he knows Mr. Xiao, and they have something in common: business ties that intersect with top Chinese leaders.
Mr. Guo was in London last week at the prestigious Mark’s Club in Mayfair, which requires men to wear jackets “at all times.” He said he was a member there.
Earlier in March, he was at Mar-a-Lago, posing for pictures. He posted photographs of himself with Bernd Lembcke, the club’s managing director. During his stay, he also visited Bethesda-by-the-Sea, an Episcopal church that the Trumps attend, and spent some time at an elegant beachside home, decorated with an Asian motif and featured in Architectural Digest that is now owned by a limited liability company tied to Victor Vargas, a Venezuelan banker. Mr. Guo, posting on Twitter in Chinese, said he had done business at the club, convening a meeting of his limited partnership company there. Mr. Guo, in a Twitter message to The New York Times, said he was a member, which was confirmed by a person briefed on the matter.
“Over the years, there have been many memorable moments here,” Mr. Guo wrote of Mar-a-Lago. “I’m feeling a lot of emotion. In the last few months a controversial businessman became the American president. Why he wanted to become president I just don’t understand. But I admire his persistent character. Don’t give up!”
Mark Landler contributed reporting, and Kiki Zhao contributed research.