Chinese influence operations in the United States are pervasive and include the use of covert operations to support the objectives of the Communist Party of China in silencing critics of the regime in Beijing. China’s targeting of billionaire Chinese dissident Guo Wengui is a case study in the use of these covert methods.
A conspiracy was launched by the People’s Republic of China that involved a $3 billion scheme to lobby the Trump administration to force Guo’s return to China. The operation involved Malaysian businessman Low Taek Jho, known as Jho Low, and rapper Prakazrel “Pras” Michel, who also is a record producer, songwriter, and actor and one of the founding members of the hip-hop group, the Fugees.
Operating through still undisclosed contacts in the Chinese government, Low and Michel hatched a scheme to convince the Trump administration to give up Guo. The plan was revealed in the hacked emails of Elliott Broidy, who at one time was a senior Republican Party finance official. To carry out the plan, the two men worked together with Broidy and his wife, who were plugged in to the highest reaches of the Trump administration.
Broidy is a Los Angeles-based venture capitalist, and one of the high-rolling political donors who supported the Trump presidential bid early on in its campaign. After Trump’s election in November 2016, Broidy became deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee, a position that gave him access to some of the most senior administration officials including White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
In addition to the hacked emails, the Chinese government-backed scheme to repatriate Guo was outlined in court papers in the case of a Justice Department official, George Higginbotham, who pleaded guilty to helping launder tens of millions of dollars of Chinese money for the secret influence campaign launched by Low and Michel. In November 2017, the Justice Department issued a forfeiture notice for nearly $74 million to U.S. banks Morgan Stanley, Wells Fargo, and Citibank in a bid to recover the money.
Guo was astonished at the secret plan and noted the plot was evidence of what he wryly called “my $3 billion life.”
“Few people in the world have price tags on their lives,” Guo said after the scheme was first exposed in emails Broidy has said were obtained by hackers working for the government of the Persian Gulf state of Qatar. “Even fewer have price tags worth billions offered by the most powerful dictatorship in human history. I am one of those few.”
The Chinese repatriation scheme was a derivative of a Malaysian scheme to fund Broidy and use his connections within the Trump administration to end a US money-laundering probe into 1Malaysia Development Berhad, known as 1MDB. The strategic investment and development company is owned by the Malaysian government through the Ministry of Finance.
Low and others were being investigated for laundering hundreds of millions of dollars in stolen 1MDB funds into the United States. More than $1 billion of the laundered money was used to buy luxury real estate, including a Beverly Hills hotel, a jet aircraft, and jewelry, in addition to financing Hollywood motion pictures, including The Wolf of Wall Street. The funds also were used to pay bribes.
Low, a fugitive who would be indicted in October 2018 and charged with making bribes under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, initially approached Michel in 2016 and sought the entertainer’s help in working out a deal with the 1MDB investigation. According to court papers in the Higginbotham plea, Michel then contacted Robin Rosenzweig, Broidy’s wife, who recommended that Michel retain her law firm, Colfax Law Office, of which she was the chief operating officer. Low approved, then both Brody and Rosenzweig met with Michel.
During the meeting, Broidy agreed to work with the two men but insisted that payments not come directly from Low. He wanted $15 million, but the price was negotiated down to $8 million. By March, the Broidys had worked out an agreement where in exchange for lobbying for the Justice Department to end the 1MDB probe, Low would pay an additional $75 million if the case was dropped in six months, or $50 million if it took a year.
Broidy and his lawyers declined to discuss the matter. According to Higginbotham, in May 2017, Michel told him that Low had made a second lobbying request involving the Trump administration, separate from the Malaysian 1MDB case. The effort was described as “potentially more lucrative” than the money Malaysia was offering to pay in the 1MDB matter.
Michel explained that Low wanted Guo Wengui, whom he described as a former resident of China living in the United States on a temporary visa and who has publicly criticized China’s leadership, to be removed from the United States and sent back to China. He further said that Broidy and others would use their political connections to lobby U.S. government officials to have Guo sent back.
Two months later, Michel told Higgenbotham to meet with Chinese Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai as part of the Guo repatriation scheme, and the meeting took place at the Chinese Embassy on July 16, 2017. Higginbotham told the ambassador he was meeting with him at the embassy as a private citizen and not as a Justice Department official.
The official then said he had a specific message for him from Low: U.S. government officials were working on the Guo matter, and there would be additional information in the future concerning the logistics of repatriating Guo back to China. After the meeting, Higginbotham reported to Michel what was discussed, and Michel later reported back to Low that he was satisfied with the embassy meeting. Between May and September 2017, “tens of millions of dollars” were transferred by a foreign Chinese company to bank accounts controlled by Michel, the court filing states. The money was to be used by Broidy and others to lobby the Trump administration to resolve the 1MDB case—and to have Guo forcibly repatriated.
Higginbotham was a Justice Department congressional affairs official and pleaded guilty of conspiracy to deceive U.S. banks about the source of the funds to use in lobbying on behalf of China and Low. Low disappeared and is believed to be residing in Shanghai. He is wanted for embezzling millions from 1MDB. Michel was indicted by a federal grand jury in April 2019 on four counts of conspiring with Low to make and conceal foreign campaign contributions. Prosecutors said Low directed that more than $21.6 million be transferred from foreign entities to Michel’s bank accounts in order to funnel money into a 2012 presidential election candidate who was not identified by name. Both Low and Michel denied the charges.
An email dated May 6, 2017, from Broidy to his wife outlined the plan regarding Guo. According to Broidy, the Malaysians “offered a lucrative opportunity: China wants to extradite from the U.S. Guo Wengui who is very critical of President Xi Jinping and now [lives] as a fugitive in NYC.”
Broidy said that Guo had defrauded investors of $3 billion in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. “I believe a negotiation can take place, which includes Abu Dhabi receiving its $3 billion back and Abu Dhabi extraditing Guo from the U.S. to Abu Dhabi,” Broidy said.
Later, Abu Dhabi would extradite Guo to China. “I was told that China would pay us and if the facts are indeed correct, I assume Abu Dhabi would feel obliged to pay a fee as well.”
Broidy then explained Malaysia recently gave Abu Dhabi $1.2 billion to repay a debt and Malaysia is receiving assistance from China—including the settlement payment to Abu Dhabi. Malaysia wanted Broidy to assist China and China had an additional deal for him. “I told them USA first and I cannot and will not do defense or Intel biz with China,” he stated. “They told me to get involved on Guo, which is not sensitive to national security of the U.S.”
Both were wrong. Guo is a valued resource to U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies and also a major target for Chinese intelligence that wants to silence him. Guo called the plan an astonishing story and part of a Chinese government plot to pay $3 billion for his life plus $100 million in fees for those involved in the conspiracy. “According to their plan, I would be shipped from the United States via multiple countries to China, where prison, torture, and death would be awaiting me,” he said. “I only avoided such misery because of the help and protection from the great America.”
“I know for a fact that Low Taek Jho has a very special relationship with some top leaders in China,” Guo said.
Guo said Low was a young man, who did not come from substantial wealth, and seemed to have real deep pockets since his early twenties. He controls billions in real estate in New York and Los Angeles and plays the big shot in Hollywood. Low’s expensive lifestyle earned him the nickname “the Whale.” He once spent $1.8 million to hold a lavish party for Hollywood socialite Paris Hilton.
Guo denied Broidy’s claim he defrauded Abu Dhabi. “The Abu Dhabi government never accused me of any wrongdoing. The Chinese made up lots of allegations simply because I spoke out. Clearly, keeping me quiet was the priority,” he said.
One person involved in assisting the Chinese scheme was identified in the emails as Nickie Lum Davis who took part in Low’s lobbying operation as a consultant. The hacked emails show that Davis, who co-owns the Hawaii-based financial firm LNS Capital with her husband, signed a contract with Low and served as a consultant to Robin Rosenzweig and her law firm. Davis was well connected to China as indicated by her obtaining an internal list of criminal allegations from the Chinese government against Guo—a list that was to be used in lobbying the Trump administration.
According to the hacked emails, Davis also was in contact with then-attorney general Jeff Sessions and exchanged letters with him. In one, Sessions regretted he was unable to meet with Sun Lijun—a Public Security Ministry official who had traveled illegally to New York and threatened Guo in a bid to silence him. Sun holds the rank of lieutenant general and is in charge of “political defense” and international espionage operations.
In a response to Davis written May 28, 2017, Sessions wrote that if he had met with Sun he would have voiced his concerns about illicit Chinese activities in the United States. “We have received reports that Chinese law enforcement teams have continued to travel to the U.S. in order to persuade a fugitive to return to China in a manner of U.S. law and in a manner contrary to US law,” he stated, referring to the New York incident with Guo.
At around the same time, Steve Wynn, the Las Vegas gambling tycoon and chairman of the Republican National Committee finance committee, gave President Trump a letter from Chinese President Xi Jinping asking for Guo’s extradition. Wynn, despite a denial by his spokesman, is believed to have been pressured into delivering the letter based on his Macao casino ownership, which relies on the Chinese-controlled local government for permission to operate.
Davis, according to a reply email to Sessions, suggested she was in contact with the Chinese government. “The issues are quite important and I have timely reported them to Beijing and Beijing will take them seriously,” she stated in a May 26 email headed “Dear atty general sessions.” She noted the vice minister, Sun, has “brought important messages on the issues that you are concerned about. He hopes to brief you in person and deliver to you in person a letter from mr. Guo shengkun—state counselor and min of public security.”
Davis also relayed that planned meetings with FBI and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officials for that morning were canceled. “Thank u again for your letter I look forward to working with you more closely to turn our presidents’ dialogue at mar lago into reality and to ensure the successful law enforcement and cyber security dialogue,” Davis concluded.
The meeting between Sessions and Guo Shengkun would take place the same week of a canceled public Hudson Institute meeting with Guo in October 2017, and Sessions used the opportunity to criticize China for its hack of Hudson’s computer network that was part of a pressure campaign by Beijing that forced the institute to cancel the Guo appearance. The meeting was called off the day it was to be held.
A month after the exchange of letters between Davis and Sessions, China stepped up efforts to force the extradition of Guo. Davis emailed the Broidys a Hong Kong government document listing Guo and his wife, son, and daughter as targets of a Hong Kong request for extradition falsely accusing the dissident of using false documents to obtain U.S. visas. China also promised to return two American prisoners being held in China if Guo were repatriated.
“Thanks to the U.S. government and the American legal system, the Chinese failed to have me extradited,” Guo said. “My political asylum application is now being processed in court. Much of the information I obtained, especially that related to China’s attempt to corrupt American society, has been provided [to] and processed by American authorities. Nevertheless, Americans should be alarmed by the long arm of the Chinese government and take the necessary steps to protect American interests and national security.”
The case of Guo Wengui and China’s attempts to lobby, coerce, and hack the United States into returning a dissident show the extent to which Beijing will go to influence American society. China’s influence goals are specific and strategic: The highest priority is to maintain the dictatorial and near totalitarian control of the Communist Party of China. Aligned with these objectives are to modernize China as the most powerful country in the world and to seize the island of Taiwan.