Chinese tycoon Guo Wengui stole US$1 billion to fund luxury lifestyle, court told

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Chinese tycoon Guo Wengui stole US$1 billion to fund luxury lifestyle, court told

Exiled Chinese businessman Guo Wengui scammed his followers out of more than US$1 billion after Chinese authorities seized his property, a federal prosecutor said on Friday as Guo’s fraud trial began in New York.

Assistant US Attorney Micah Fergenson told jurors that Guo, who was a real estate developer in China and moved to New York, amassed an online following through videos criticising the Chinese government.

After authorities in China and Hong Kong seized his assets in response, Guo started pitching fraudulent investments to his followers, Fergenson said.

“Miles Guo ran a simple con on a grand scale. He lived a billionaire’s lifestyle using money he stole from people he tricked and cheated,” Fergenson said, using one of the other names the tycoon is known by.

Guo Wengui’s Twitter page is seen on a computer screen in Beijing in August 2017. Photo: AP

The Manhattan jury of 12 will weigh allegations that Guo used his prolific online presence and hundreds of thousands of followers to bring in funds he spent on himself and his family.

Guo, who is known by several names including Miles Kwok and Ho Wan Kwok, has been jailed in Brooklyn since his March 2023 arrest.

Guo’s lawyer Sabrina Shroff said in her opening statement that his businesses were legitimate, and that his aim was to build a movement against the Chinese Communist Party.

“It was not a bet, it was not a scheme. It was not a con. It was none of those things,” she said.

Many of Guo’s actions, such as owning multiple phones and bank accounts, were common-sense protections as the Chinese government continued to try to disrupt his work in the US, Shroff said.

The defence lawyer also urged jurors not to judge Guo for the way he spent the huge fortune he had amassed through real estate.

Starting in 2018, prosecutors say Guo touted financial opportunities in Mandarin-language online videos, offering investments in his media company, a purported cryptocurrency venture, and a farm loan programme, as well as membership in what was billed as an exclusive club offering concierge services.

Prosecutors said Guo stole from the funds to buy a New Jersey mansion, a yacht, several luxury cars and other extravagances, including two US$36,000 mattresses.

Guo Wengui (seated centre) appears in federal court in New York in March 2023. Courtroom sketch: Elizabeth Williams via AP

Guo faces 12 counts of fraud, racketeering, conspiracy and money laundering. The trial before US District Judge Analisa Torres could stretch into July.

The Beijing critic has been a business associate of former US president Donald Trump’s one-time adviser Steve Bannon.

It was on Guo’s US$37 million yacht, the Lady May, where Bannon was arrested in 2020 in a separate fraud case. That case ended when Trump pardoned Bannon in the waning hours of his presidency. Bannon had pleaded not guilty.

Guo left China in 2014 during an anti-corruption crackdown under President Xi Jinping. Officials there accused Guo of bribery, money laundering and other crimes, which he has denied.

After moving to the United States, Guo bought a home in the luxury Sherry-Netherland building on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, and drew ardent fans through his criticism of China’s government, including by accusing leaders of corruption.

At Beijing’s request, the global police organisation Interpol in April 2017 issued a “red notice” for Guo’s arrest.

Shroff said in court on Friday that the notice was an attempt to silence Guo after he gave an interview with US government-backed Voice of America.

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