When news broke that a “Chinese business tycoon” had been arrested in the United States for a $1 billion fraud conspiracy, many readers probably concluded from a first glance at the headline that it was another corruption scandal stemming from China – just another example of the continuous stream of negative news about China presented by Western media day in and day out. However, the headline featured a bizarre element: the Chinese business tycoon was a “Bannon ally.”
Guo Wengui, also known as Miles Guo and Miles Kwok, left China in 2014 as a consequence of the Xi Jinping-led anti-corruption crackdown. Guo requested asylum in the United States, claiming that he was being persecuted for political reasons. Then he entered Trumpist power circles, serving as a crutch for the antagonism toward China that informed then-President Donald Trump’s discursive strategy.
Guo became particularly close to Steve Bannon, a close ally of Trump’s who served as the president’s chief strategist at the beginning of his term. In November 2018, he and Bannon jointly announced the founding of two purportedly non-profit organizations – the Rule of Law Society and the Rule of Law Foundation – supposed to both investigate alleged crimes on the part of the Chinese Communist Party and, in Guo’s words, “bring justice and righteousness to those millions of afflicted and those being cruelly killed.”
However, according to the charges brought by the U.S. Justice Department, Guo actually used the two organizations “to amass followers who were aligned with his purported policy objectives in China” – in other words, his anti-CCP narrative – build up trust based on that shared cause, and then mislead them into bogus investment schemes.
Due to the existing polarization between China and the West, people like Guo are often readily accepted in the West as credible and potential allies solely based on their criticism of the CCP. In the current climate, being “anti-CCP” inherently lends legitimacy to their accusations.
Guo Wengui’s Rise and Fall
Although he arrived in the United States in 2014, it was only in 2017 that Guo sprang into the public eye. That was when Guo began to hurl harsh accusations against the Chinese government, spouting allegations of corruption, harassment, and colorful anecdotes such as government officials having illegitimate children. Guo demonstrated great creativity in promoting these conspiracies and accusing the CCP of every wrongdoing – no matter how unbelievable. One of Guo’s claims, for instance, was that the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 “was the work of Chinese officials seeking to hide an organ-harvesting operation.”
During the height of Guo’s accusations, Voice of America (VOA), which is funded by the U.S. government and is commonly accused by China of being a propaganda tool (in much the same way as the U.S. government views Chinese state media), interviewed Guo and gave him the opportunity to present his case live and unedited. In fact, VOA presented Guo as a “prominent Communist Party critic,” leaving out that Guo faced criminal charges within China and instead giving prominence to his role as a dissident-in-exile.
In an article in The Washington Post, media critic Erik Wemple broke down the controversial interview, which was promoted by VOA promising “nuclear explosion-level” revelations. Sasha Gong, the chief of VOA’s Mandarin Service, who briefly served on the board of the Rule of Law Society, ended up being fired for offering Guo a live interview that failed to do any vetting of his explosive (and often demonstrably false) claims. By contrast, the BBC told Wemple it had refused to broadcast an hour-long interview with Guo “because of the unsubstantiated allegations it contained.”
(Ironically, Gong herself would later be targeted by Guo’s smear campaign, and she signed an open letter accusing Bannon and Guo of “threats” and “financial fraud” in September 2020.)
Although Western media have sometimes questioned Guo’s claim as well as his own behavior, his arguments have also been reproduced by the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, the BBC, and the Financial Times, casting an aura of legitimacy over the alleged fraudster – and operating from an assumption that the Chinese accusations against him were illegitimate.
Yan Li-Meng and the “Lab Leak” Claim
Guo’s case is reminiscent of Yan Li-Meng, the bogus COVID-19 expert whose false claims were spread by dozens of Western media outlets in 2020. Yan, a Chinese scientist, fled to the United States, claiming to be a whistleblower who dared to reveal that COVID-19 had been created in a lab – and she said she had proof. In fact, both cases are connected: Yan’s flight from Hong Kong to the United States was funded by Guo’s Rule of Law organizations.
Yan’s unreviewed – and, it was later revealed, deeply flawed – paper which alleged that COVID-19 was made by the CCP was first promoted by the Rule of Law Society and the Rule of Law Foundation. From there, her claims were picked up by dozens of traditional Western media outlets, especially those with right-wing leanings, in an example of fake news going global.
She broke into the mainstream when she appeared on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” and Fox News, but that was just the beginning. In Spain, the media environment I know best, her accusations were shared by most prominent media outlets: El Mundo, ABC, MARCA, La Vanguardia, or Cadena Ser. Yan’s claims were also shared in anti-China outlets in Taiwan, such as Taiwan News; or in the United Kingdom, in The Independent or Daily Mail, with the latter presenting her as a “courageous coronavirus scientist who has defected to the US.” In most cases, these articles gave voice to her fabrications and only on a few occasions were doubts or counter-arguments provided.
Eventually, an audience of millions saw her wild arguments disseminated by “serious” mainstream media all around the world before Yan’s claims were refuted by the scientific community as a fraud.
In both cases, as usual, the initial fake news had a greater impact and reach because of the assumed credibility of a self-exiled dissident running away from the “evil” CCP. Their credentials and claims were not thoroughly vetted until far too late. Anti-China news has come to be digested with gusto by Western audiences. Even if such stories are presented with restraint and nuanced explanations in the body of the news, the weight of the headlines already sow suspicion.
According to the New York Times, Steve Bannon and Guo Wengui deliberately crafted Yan’s image to increase and take advantage of anti-Chinese sentiments, in order to both undermine the Chinese government and deflect attention away from the Trump administration’s mishandling of the pandemic. These fake news stories still resonate today. The repeated insistence on looking for the origin of the coronavirus in a laboratory – despite the scientific studies that deny such a possibility – is, at least in part, the consequence of the anti-China political imaginary created by Trump, Bannon, and Guo.
Anti-China Bias Creates a Blind Spot
People like Guo and Yan – self-framed as courageous dissidents speaking truth to power at great personal risk – make useful tools for polarizing discourse. In the uncritical climate of opinion existing today when it comes to China, their arguments are automatically beatified.
This contrasts, for example, with the lack of coverage of Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh’s report on the alleged U.S. operation to destroy Russian gas pipelines. Unlike in the cases of Guo and Yan, Hersh’s claim has been deeply questioned the few times it has been reproduced in mainstream media, always giving primacy to the White House’s denials. For instance, Politico covered the news with the headline “John Kirby denies U.S. sabotaged Nord Stream pipelines.”
Because Hersh’s salacious and largely unsourced story doesn’t fit with the prior assumptions of mainstream Western media outlets, it received the necessary vetting to debunk its claims before the story went viral. Not so with the juicy anti-CCP allegations from Guo and Yan, where the badly needed fact checks were too little, too late.
The cases of Guo and Yan are just the tip of the iceberg. The way China is presented in Western media commonly suffers from exaggerations, oversimplifications, and double standards. This is not to say that China does nothing wrong, but rather that its actions are examined under different standards than those of “friendly” countries.
Chandran Nair, in a recent article in The Diplomat, criticized that the anti-China rhetoric, fuelled by the biases ingrained in the world’s most influential media organizations, has reached unprecedented levels. This mental framework risks a further increase in Sinophobia in Western societies. It also raises the risk many professionals embedded in this imaginary consciously or unconsciously guide their analysis to match with the preconceptions and expectations of the public.
In today’s polarized environment, described as a conflict between “democracy” and “autocracy” – where, needless to say, the former is tacitly interiorized in the West as superior to the latter – those on “our side” become a priori legitimized, and those on the “other side” are treated as enemies. Thus, the resulting hegemonic imaginary becomes a challenge for a plural and well-informed (i.e. democratic) public debate. Individuals who speak ill against China can easily garner headlines and be cited by major media outlets as a credible source of information, regardless of any suspicious underlying interests.
In an environment where advancing the anti-China narrative can bring notoriety or political support, there is a vast incentive to lie, manipulate, or misrepresent as much as necessary; the reward is well worth it.
Of course, this is not to say that all people who bring attention to China’s many real abuses and wrongdoings are lying or have illegitimate agendas. My point is that, even if we feel an unconscious urgency to believe people who speak out against the CCP, we must treat their claims under the same standards that we use to examine those that come from the “other” side. A proper vetting of Guo and his sensational (and often nakedly self-promoting) stories might have prevented at least some of the losses before he allegedly defrauded a gullible public of $1 billion.
The “enemy of my enemy” is not automatically a saint; nor does China invariably lie and spread sheer propaganda. It is essential to emphasize how the current climate of a “new Cold War” risks distorting out assessment of facts and the way we perceive or feel about different issues. Understanding that world affairs are not a Manichean story of good versus evil would contribute to better journalism, more professional scholarly work, and less radicalized public opinion (both in China and the West). It would also engender more successful diplomacy and well-informed policy by government officials.