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Journalist traces the peculiar story of Steve Bannon's enigmatic Chinese benefactor

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.

In June of 2020, conservative broadcaster and Donald Trump acolyte Steve Bannon stood on a boat in New York Harbor with a wealthy Chinese businessman for an unusual livestreamed news conference. Bannon and Guo Wengui announced the formation of an alternative government for the people of China, called the New Federal State of China. The news conference ended with Guo enthusiastically chanting a slogan condemning the Chinese Communist Party and planting a kiss on Bannon's cheek. Bannon's embrace of the project was likely fueled by Guo Wengui's generous financial backing of Bannon and Trump supporters' efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

Our guest, New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos, has a new article about the curious journey of this business tycoon, who fled China in 2015 after a mutually beneficial relationship with a Chinese intelligence official got him into trouble. Osnos' article examines Guo's strange career, how he made his way into Trump's inner circle and what it says about American politics in the Trump era and our changing relationship with China. Evan Osnos has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2008. He spent eight years reporting in China and is the author of the book "Age Of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, And Faith In The New China." Osnos' new article in The New Yorker is titled "How A Tycoon Linked To Chinese Intelligence Became A Darling Of Trump Republicans."

Evan Osnos, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

EVAN OSNOS: Thanks, Dave. Glad to be with you.

DAVIES: This is such an odd story, and it gets really interesting when this character, Guo Wengui, gets mixed up with the Trump folks. But let's begin with his origins in China - humble background, right? Where did he grow up?

OSNOS: That's right. He grew up in a village called Xicaoying out in a rural stretch of Shandong Province. It's a farming area. And he was one of eight children, without much of anything. And he was born, really, with the gift of gab, as it's known in Chinese. He had a long, tireless tongue. But he didn't have a whole lot else. He dropped out of school at the age of 13, and he started selling things, like clothes and electronics. And a teacher who was interviewed by Chinese reporters later remembered him as having been, as she put it, less often in class than he was out of it. She said he ran with a group that was fighting and gambling and chasing girls. And before long, he ended up in jail.

DAVIES: Right. He was jailed in 1989, which was the year of the Tiananmen Square massacre, I think, right?

OSNOS: Mmm hmm.

DAVIES: Is it clear why he was jailed?

OSNOS: Well, he tells a story that is a heroic narrative in which he says that he was inspired by the students at Tiananmen Square far away in Beijing and that he sold his motorcycle and sent them money and that, for that, he was arrested. And - but the verdict in his case doesn't mention any political activism. It describes the offenses as having been a local oil scheme - basically, bilking local oil buyers out of a few thousand dollars. And Guo has said that those charges had been falsified. But that really was a turning point in his life. He's quite clear about that, as he says that the people that he met in jail were some of the people that launched the whole world that eventually opened up to him.

DAVIES: Right. And I guess we should note, when we talk about what Guo says, that's not to you directly, right? He never granted you a interview.

OSNOS: Correct.

DAVIES: Right. But he's left a long trail of documentation and other material, right?

OSNOS: That's right. Yeah. He declined to talk to us for this article. He has made a lot of statements and videos and legal pronouncements over the years, and they tell his story, as he sees it.

DAVIES: So he gets involved in business and works for a wealthy woman who had a company, got involved in construction projects and then gets involved in, you know, the intersection of private entrepreneurs and government officials. What - he became what's called a white glove. Explain this.

OSNOS: Yeah. This is an interesting feature of Chinese life over the last generation. And there is a realm of people in China who have built close relationships with government officials. They help them do business. It's become known as being a white glove because you help the officials keep their hands clean. And what it means, in effect, is that you figure out ways that can help them profit or help them get an investment and a lucrative deal. All of this is done behind closed doors. And there was a white glove named Desmond Shum who eventually fled China, and he later described his experience as having been like one of the tiny fish that cleans the teeth of a crocodile.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

OSNOS: And it was a very risky way to live but also very lucrative. If you got in with the right people, you could end up making a fortune. I should say, you know, it's not clear if Guo would accept or deny the characterization of being a white glove, but it's the realm of Chinese business and government that was a key piece of how many people made their fortunes at that time.

DAVIES: So doing this work, I guess, you know, it involves gifts and flattery, courting of the connected. And he eventually got to Beijing where, you know, the numbers were bigger. The stakes were bigger. The officials were more important. There's a story you tell of him giving a sports car to somebody. What happened here?

OSNOS: Yeah. Guo denies bribing officials in the government. And it's also the case that he became - gained a reputation for a form of generosity. There was a story - it said that a government regulator walked out of his house and found a sports car in front of it with the glove box containing a gift card with hundreds of thousands of dollars on it.

And there was a way in which others who met Guo in this period really were struck by how visibly ostentatious he was about his wealth, which in the Chinese political culture is a signal to people that you have backing because the only way that you acquire that kind of money and the only way you can be generous is because you have people who will protect you. And so he would bring people to his house and very often treat them to these dramatic, extravagant dinners and then take them down and show them a garage full of Maseratis and Lamborghinis and Ferraris. And it was the kind of lifestyle that was, in Chinese political terms, a clear sign that he had powerful people supporting him.

DAVIES: To have a Lamborghini sounds to me like the kind of income that would go beyond being somebody's fixer. Was he an entrepreneur in his own right? Did he own companies?

OSNOS: Certainly. Yeah. He was building buildings in the capital. He was somebody who thrived within this very Chinese realm of the intersection between government power and the surging free market because the two sides needed each other after all. I mean, the people in government wanted to show - in order to earn their promotions in their own system, they wanted to show that buildings were being built, that roads were going in, that railways were going in.

And, of course, the entrepreneurs wanted the access to coveted pieces of land. They needed permits. They needed all the kinds of things that you needed in order to build. And so there was this mutual benefit that grew up around China's go-go years in which entrepreneurs and government officials all benefited mightily.

DAVIES: So there were stories of Guo Wengui being generous with gifts. There were also stories of him playing rough if somebody didn't give him what he wanted, right?

OSNOS: Yeah, very rough. In one particular case, which he has talked about, there was a piece of land that he needed right near the Olympic stadiums in Beijing, which was a very important, very lucrative piece of property because he wanted to build a high-rise there. And there was a vice mayor of Beijing who was standing in the way of that permit named Liu Zhihua. And Guo has talked about working with government agencies to get a surveillance tape of Liu in bed with his mistress. That tape was then - he gave it to anti-corruption authorities. Liu was arrested and eventually given a suspended death sentence. And Guo got his permit back. And he's acknowledged that kind of dealing because it was, in his mind, a rough-and-tumble place, and he was going to figure out a way to thrive in it.

DAVIES: Right. So in this world, you know, he would use whatever leverage he can get. And it appears that there was a relationship with a high-ranking intelligence official that provided him leverage, right?

OSNOS: That's right. He has talked about the fact that he became very close to a man named Ma Jian, who was the head of Chinese counterintelligence inside the Ministry of State Security, which is an immensely powerful position. This is the guy who's not only in charge of finding foreign spies on Chinese soil, but also in charge of ferreting out who among his colleagues and comrades might be a traitor, might be cooperating with a foreign intelligence agency.

And at first, when this began to become public, Guo said, well, you know, Ma and I were just - we had a working relationship. We had a shared interest in architecture, he said. But then, later, actually, after a couple years, Guo became more explicit. And he'd said, no, you know, we had - he said, I was, as Guo put it, an affiliate of the Ministry of State Security, and they had this long-running relationship in which they did business together. And according to Chinese reports, Ma Jian would use his political power in order to blunt investigations and push away competitors and scrutiny that allowed Guo's business to thrive.

DAVIES: It kind of reminds you of the stories we used to hear about J. Edgar Hoover always having intelligence on somebody else. Is this akin to that kind of thing?

OSNOS: Yeah. It's very similar. In fact, a former diplomat told me that Ma Jian was known as the guy with a safe full of papers because he had files on everybody in the Chinese government. Partly, it was his job and partly because it was a way of getting an edge. I mean, in Chinese, the expression is to (speaking Mandarin), which means to grab somebody by the handle, which means to get information that can be used ultimately to prevail over them.

DAVIES: So Guo Wengui begins to meet some U.S. diplomats and another fellow, Orville Schell, who was a journalist who heads the Center on U.S.-China Relations. What sort of impression did he make on these Westerners who he came in contact with?

OSNOS: Yeah, Orville had an extraordinary encounter with him that - at first, it seemed like Guo Wengui was just another very wealthy Chinese entrepreneur. And he would host you at the top of his high-rise in kind of high style. He seemed to be able to get everybody at his table, as Orville put it, Henry Kissinger and all the high-powered political and business figures from around Asia. And then, something really interesting happened, which is that Orville was having trouble getting a visa application because he'd written about human rights abuses in China. And when Guo Wengui heard that, he said, well, I can help you with that. I'm going to fix it for you, but you have to talk to some people. And Orville thought, who are these people?

And over the course of the next few months and years, Guo introduced Orville to government officials of sort of indeterminate portfolio. It was never clear who they worked for. As Orville says, I never really could figure out which part of the government they worked for, but they always wanted to talk about U.S.-China relations. And he concluded, quite rapidly, that they were intelligence officials and that they were trying, as he put it, to flip him. They wanted him to try to give information about the United States and about American politics and any insider information.

And as he said, you know, the truth was I didn't have any classified information, so I wasn't worried about that. And what I was getting in the course of this contact was this unbelievable insight, this window into the thinking of the Chinese government all these years I'd been trying to get as a journalist. He said, here it was. They were sitting down in these tea houses and, in a sense, opening themselves up to a level of inspection that I'd never had before. And that was all because of their contact with Guo Wengui. And Orville watched as Guo would constantly be on the phone, as he put it, with Ma Jian, the chief of counterintelligence at the Ministry of State Security.

DAVIES: So this businessman kind of has his ear on the inside of the inside of the Chinese power structure. He has dinner with Henry Kissinger. He traveled to North Korea at one point - a remarkably connected man.

OSNOS: Yeah. He even went overseas on behalf of the Ministry of State Security to meet with the Dalai Lama. I mean, this is the person, of course, who the Chinese government regards as a separatist. There are very few and very carefully calculated contacts between the government and the Dalai Lama. And they - in effect, they tasked Guo Wengui to go out and act as what intelligence experts call a cutout, meaning a civilian who operates on behalf of the government, drawing less scrutiny, but can go and convey messages back-and-forth. And the Dalai Lama's office has said that they had no idea that he was acting in that capacity and - but he did indeed have these meetings. Guo has said that the government actually offered him rewards for his service in that capacity, and he turned the awards down.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Evan Osnos. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker. His new article is titled "How A Tycoon Linked To Chinese Intelligence Became A Darling Of Trump Republicans." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEXANDRE DESPLAT'S "SPY MEETING")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos. He has a new article about a wealthy businessman who fled China in 2015 and became a backer of Steve Bannon and some other Trump Republicans. The article is titled "How A Tycoon Linked To Chinese Intelligence Became A Darling Of Trump Republicans." So Guo Wengui has wealth and leverage and contacts in China. He's quite successful in what he's doing. But in 2015, it appears he has to leave. Why? What happened?

OSNOS: It was a business dispute that tumbled into public view. These kinds of big, high-powered fights are happening all the time among Chinese tycoons and government officials. It's kind of the activity behind the curtain is how it's described in Chinese. And every once in a while, something will burst through. And in this case, he was having a big fight with another major tycoon. And that fight, which began to bubble up in rumors published in overseas Chinese media, eventually burst out into the open.

And it was - there were reports in the Chinese press about his relationship with this powerful Chinese spymaster, Ma Jian. And Ma Jian was arrested in January of 2015. At that point, Guo had to leave. A former intelligence official tells me that the Communist Party came very close to arresting Guo as well. But a senior aide to Ma Jian called him and said, you have to leave now. And so Guo went to the U.K. and eventually made his way to New York, where he began a new life.

DAVIES: So Guo flees China, eventually ends up in New York, where you say people like him will be of interest to, you know, people in the FBI and U.S. intelligence. And they spoke to him. Do you have a sense of what they learned?

OSNOS: Yeah. According to people who were involved in the arrangement, Guo spoke to the FBI repeatedly. He was quite knowledgeable about Chinese leaders' financial lives and personal lives. One example that a former bureau official mentioned is that Guo knew about Xi Jinping's daughter, who was studying in the United States under a pseudonym and could provide information about that. As this former bureau official put it, talking to Guo could save you three or four months of analytical work because he knew where everybody's money was hiding. As this person said he knew who had girlfriends and who had boyfriends. And so he became, in that sense, a valuable person to talk to when it came to the FBI trying to understand what was happening in China.

DAVIES: You know, I'm picturing Guo kind of making his way in the United States. And he might want to pursue business enterprises. Why would he be talking to American intelligence and the FBI?

OSNOS: In some ways, this is the world that he knew. I'm really struck, Dave, that he imported some of the tools and the techniques that had served him well in China. In China, he had developed a relationship with people in power. He had figured out ways to build his businesses and his public profile around these hidden relationships with powerful government figures, particularly in the intelligence community.

And so in some ways, it's - there's a kind of natural logic that when he came to the United States, one of the first things he did is he figured out, all right, who can help me? Who can help provide protection? Who might be able to go in on a transaction of information and refuge that will serve me down the line?

DAVIES: Right. And I don't typically think of the FBI as a place where you're going to get connections that are going to make you money. Maybe I'm wrong.

OSNOS: It's not so much about making money as it is about protecting yourself from this increasingly - and he was right about that - complicated set of pressures that were coming to prevail on him. He knew that the Chinese government was going to make efforts to try to get him back to China. And whether or not the U.S. government was going to cooperate with that wasn't clear. And by building out relationships with the FBI, he was beginning to develop a kind of infrastructure of some impunity that would protect him in the event that either prosecutors or a foreign government might try to go after him.

DAVIES: You know, one other little detail as Guo Wengui gets settled in New York - you want to just describe the home he bought on Fifth Avenue in New York?

OSNOS: (Laughter) Yeah. He did not exactly settle in quietly. He bought the most expensive penthouse in a classic landmark in New York City on the Upper East Side, a building called the Sherry-Netherland, which is what's known in real estate circles as a white glove co-op because it's the kind of place where the elevator attendants will wear white gloves. You know, there's an ironic callback to the idea of white gloves in China.

But he found himself in this new white glove environment. And he sort of appeared out of the blue. He didn't know anybody in the building. But he arrived with these very high-powered lawyers at big firms in New York and Washington. And they said, our client wants to spend $67.5 million on this penthouse. And he doesn't need a mortgage. He'll pay for it in cash. And he had these endorsements, kind of extraordinary letters of reference, one from UBS, the Swiss bank, which called him a modest gentleman.

And also, what really caught people's attention was that he had won from Tony Blair, the former prime minister of Great Britain, who said that Miles was honest and forthright and has impeccable taste. And so the building, the co-op board, which - you know, New York co-op boards are famously difficult to get through - they almost immediately approved his application. And he moved into the building and began this new life in New York City.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We're going to take another break here. We are speaking with Evan Osnos. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker. His new article is "How A Tycoon Linked To Chinese Intelligence Became A Darling Of Trump Republicans." He'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF FAREED HAQUE AND KAIA STRING QUARTET'S "CANYENGUE")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.

We're speaking with New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos. He has a new article about a wealthy businessman who fled China in 2015 and became a backer of Steve Bannon and the movement to overturn the results of the 2020 election. His article is titled "How A Tycoon Linked To Chinese Intelligence Became A Darling Of Trump Republicans."

He makes his way into the MAGA world, and I love this one sentence you have here. The politics of Beijing had prepared Guo well for navigating Trump's Washington, another realm where money bought influence, business mixed with government and the truth merged with fiction. He meets Bannon through another contact, and in 2017, you write, when he kind of connects with him, Bannon needed some new allies, too, as what - explain why.

OSNOS: Bannon at that point had just left the White House, and he'd had a dispute with Donald Trump. They eventually made up, of course, but he was looking for his next act, and he was thinking about starting a media company. And his former backers, the Mercer family, had very publicly said they weren't going to be backing Steve Bannon anymore, so he needed new funding, and there was this kind of mutual meeting of the minds. I mean, Bannon actually was aware of Guo Wengui all the way back in his Beijing days. He'd heard about this guy, this kind of flamboyant real estate developer, and Bannon had actually said he seems like the Donald Trump of Beijing.

And so when he left the White House, a mutual friend introduced them, and they had this long six-hour dinner, by Bannon's recollection, at the Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington in which they began to dream up these ideas for collaboration, and one of them was that they eventually started a media network together called GTV, which would be a kind of alternative platform for video and news and so on. And it would fill a space that had been left behind, because Twitter and Facebook in the years since 2016 had stopped allowing as much what they described as election disinformation onto their platforms. And so this new network was a way for Bannon and Guo to start getting more of the pro-Trump messages out there that they wanted to, and I should say, according to a contract that was later released, Bannon was paid $1,000,000 for a year of consulting with Guo's new company.

DAVIES: You mentioned that he - that Bannon knew of Guo from his China days, his days in Beijing. What were those? What was Bannon doing there?

OSNOS: Well, Bannon had this interest in China that went back a long way. He'd been a naval officer early in his life and had been in the South China Sea, had later worked, of course, at Goldman Sachs as a banker, and then had actually run a gaming company that had offices in Shanghai and Hong Kong. And so he developed a whole theory of China as this existential threat to the United States, and he was determined to try to make opposition to the Chinese Communist Party a central plank of his form of conservative politics. And so one of the things that was happening as he was coming out of the White House was that he was looking for the financing and the right kind of language, the right figurehead, the right person who would advance this way of making a more belligerent approach to China a central plank of Republican politics. And that brought these two together.

DAVIES: Right, and that certainly influenced Donald Trump's - or synced well with Donald Trump's approach to China. You know, I mentioned in the introduction this news conference in New York Harbor, Steve Bannon and Guo Wengui on a boat. Tell us about this. It's quite a remarkable moment.

OSNOS: It is. It's kind of a surreal scene. You know, these two figures who are just very different visually. I mean, Guo is a very carefully attired, kind of trim-cut wearing Brioni suits, and Bannon is, as many Americans would recognize, is a kind of more informal figure. And the two of them sitting side by side on this little boat in front of the Statue of Liberty had engineered a scene that was designed to communicate this new partnership, these two ideas, the sort of pro-Trump movement against, as Bannon would put it, elites and against the Chinese government, and then Guo Wengui's movement against the Chinese Communist Party.

And there's this moment when Guo is chanting in Chinese, take down the Chinese Communist Party, the CCP, and then Bannon joins him in it. But it's - you see on their faces, it's this kind of union of calculated interests, these two people who have found themselves together not quite naturally, but productively. And that really was the beginning. They formed what they described as a government in exile that was mostly online, but it was a symbol of how they were setting themselves out to try to build out a movement around themselves.

DAVIES: So there's this chanting in Mandarin, and then it finishes in English. And then Guo plants a kiss on Bannon's cheek and says, love you. Right?

OSNOS: Right. Yeah. And Bannon says thank you, and then he asks if the video is still on. There's - and then at one point, Guo signs a declaration of principles in his own blood, and Bannon skipped that part. But there's a way in which these two figures were beginning to form a new kind of power center that could attract other former Trump officials and aides and campaign supporters, and that would merge these ideas of opposing the 2020 election result, of opposing the vaccine. All of these things were finding a home not on Twitter and Facebook, but actually on Guo Wengui's network, his media network. And Guo's network started to dub Bannon's podcast into Mandarin and play it on there, and so kind of in this way that you never might have imagined or expected, Bannon was finding this avenue of amplification through this Chinese businessman who had previously acknowledged a long relationship with Chinese intelligence.

DAVIES: You know, I just have to ask, when Guo signs this declaration of principles in his own blood, did he happened to bring a vial or did he cut himself there?

OSNOS: No. He did it right there at the scene. I mean, that is - Guo is very conscious of stage management and of creating these visuals. In some ways, he and Bannon have something in common. I mean, Bannon, even people who consider him to be a terrible figure in American politics acknowledge that he has figured out ways of generating and attracting attention and causing effects, having reverberations that people I think never would have expected.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you again. We are speaking with Evan Osnos. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker. His new article is "How A Tycoon Linked To Chinese Intelligence Became A Darling Of Trump Republicans." We'll continue our conversation after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOAN JEANRENAUD'S "DERVISH")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos. He has a new article about a wealthy Chinese businessman who fled China in 2015 and became a backer of Trump Republicans. The article is titled "How A Tycoon Linked To Chinese Intelligence Became A Darling Of Trump Republicans."

So this media platform that Guo built, GTV Media Group - a lot of live streaming stuff. And you said there was misinformation about COVID vaccines and, you know, other elements of Trump information in there. He also promoted his own businesses, right? He had, like, a cybercurrency and all kinds of stuff, right?

OSNOS: Yeah, cryptocurrency would be the term. Yeah.

DAVIES: Cryptocurrency. Right.

OSNOS: Yeah. You know, it became this - there was this moment when Guo essentially went back into business in the United States. And he began to build out these multiple businesses, I mean, things as far afield as a fashion brand that was selling shirts with the word ivermectin on it and things like that for thousands of dollars, actually, and then also selling shares and selling cryptocurrency. And it was all complicated financial arrangements with shell companies and things like that. It was this kind of fusion of his business interests and Bannon's political interests, that these businesses were creating a whole network of financial and media - of media work that was putting out messages and amplifying ideas from the Trump world while also generating, in some cases, hundreds of millions of dollars.

DAVIES: And was the messaging targeted at the Chinese expatriate community? Or were they English-language messages as well?

OSNOS: It was mostly targeted at the Chinese expatriate community. And then, some of these things would filter back-and-forth. You'd have ideas that began, for instance, in Guo's media network and then would eventually get picked up by people on the English-language side. And somebody like Rudy Giuliani might take one of those messages and begin to talk about it. So it became an alternative engine for pro-Trump propaganda.

DAVIES: You know, you mentioned Guo kind of combining his political advocacy with business efforts. You know, Bannon was certainly accused of that, too. I mean, you know, he was charged with - I hope I can state this right - bilking some of the people who contributed to a nonprofit to support the building of the wall. He was actually - when he was arrested, he was on Guo's yacht, the Lady May, at the time, right? We should...

OSNOS: Yeah, they were really building out their own projects in unison and often, quite literally, together. I mean, he was - Bannon was, in effect, living on Guo's yacht in 2020 for many months at a time. And at one point, when federal agents came to arrest Bannon for this alleged involvement in a scheme to defraud people about the building of a wall, they found him on the boat. And Bannon was later pardoned by President Trump in his final moments in office. He's now facing similar charges in state court, which he denies. But there was a way in which these businesses and these political messages were kind of fused and intermingled and almost indistinguishable.

DAVIES: Do you have a sense of the reach and influence of the GTV network, Guo's media network? I mean, it was some - obviously a pet project of his. Did it really get - did it have impact?

OSNOS: Well, it can be hard to know because the numbers are proprietary. But there are some indications that in - there were some videos that generated millions and millions of views. There were other cases in which they would have tens of thousands of people online at any one time engaging with some of their live streams. And then, the ideas would kind of filter through the media network and would sometimes cross that barrier into the English-speaking world, and you would begin to see some of their ideas showing up there. But what began as this kind of obscure network appealing just to Chinese-speaking readers and viewers ultimately also had a big English-language component. They were translating into Chinese some of the messages that described the people attacking the Capitol as patriots, and they carried live streams of the violence.

DAVIES: This Chinese businessman, Guo Wengui, was very involved with Steve Bannon and some other allies of Trump and their political agenda. He also had - you know, was attacking the Chinese Communist Party and started getting funding from Chinese expatriates. Did this amount to significant money? Do we know?

OSNOS: It did. It generated kind of a surprising fortune. It ultimately amounted to more than half a billion dollars that he had pulled in in investments in just a matter of a few months, which is also a sign of his reach and how far these media messages were getting. And eventually, the Securities and Exchange Commission decided that these were illegal fundraising ventures. And Guo's companies were charged and settled and agreed to give up more than half a billion dollars in restitution and penalties. They didn't admit or deny any wrongdoing. But as a result, GTV, the media network, shut down.

DAVIES: You know, his messages of hatred against the Chinese Communist Party found expression in live stream stuff that he did even after his network GTV was closed after the SEC investigation. But he had a hip-hop song called "The Hero." I thought we would listen to just a little bit of this. The words are in Mandarin, so we won't follow them. But you'll just get a little bit of the flavor. And then, I'm - I'll ask you about it. Let's listen to a bit of this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE HERO")

MILES GUO: (Rapping in Mandarin).

DAVIES: Certainly some aggressive sounds there. Tell us what the words are and what the images show here of Guo Wengui.

OSNOS: Well, it's - I mean, it's an obviously and unusual departure for somebody whose background was in real estate development and had this involvement with the Chinese Ministry of State Security. But he became this kind of a pop culture figure. I mean, he put out videos. This was not the only one in which it was him - in that case, that video called "The Hero" has him, for instance, you know, on top of a white horse and kind of wielding a light saber, and he's dancing with backup dancers in front of limos and a private jet.

And he's saying things like, to die on the battlefield is my honor. And all of it is building towards this sense of this mission, as he puts it in the video, to take down the CCP. And I think, David, it's honestly kind of bewildering. I mean, you have this figure from China, from Chinese politics and business, who's made his way into the United States and is generating this profile that is all mixed up. I think it just kind of gives people - in some ways, I came to believe, David, Guo is this very modern figure, almost a post-modern figure, who kind of moves between the Chinese and the American systems, between business and government and intelligence and politics. And it's not at all clear, ultimately, what the motive is.

DAVIES: Well, you know, there's another video where he's shouting these slogans about bringing down the Chinese Communist Party. And part of them are him kind of taking boxing poses while he's on the deck of his yacht. And then, it shows him in this immaculate white suit in sunglasses, smoking a big cigar on the deck of his yacht. And I'm just not quite sure how this is all supposed to work together.

OSNOS: You know, I think partly what's going on is he's borrowed some of the imagery and the iconography of sort of a classic American hip-hop music video. Here I am with all the money in the world and kind of relaxing on my boat. But he's grafted it onto these very political - very high-stakes political messages about the United States opposing China and the Communist Party and, in some cases, also grafted onto his role in the anti-vaccine, pro-Trump movement, election denial and so on. And it's a bit of a mismatch, but it is one that has left these deep impressions in politics and in the media.

DAVIES: All right. To further complicate things, you have this - you know, this phenomenon where he has a lot of supporters among the Chinese expatriate community. He tells them, we're going to take down the Chinese Communist Party. I have a government in exile. And then, when some of them are a little skeptical, he ends up really attacking them, right?

OSNOS: Yeah. This is something that began to generate a lot of questions about what he was doing because he essentially launched a public campaign against very prominent American dissidents. These are people who have spent decades, in many cases, criticizing China's human rights abuses, criticizing the government. And one would think, well, here he is presenting himself in the United States as a dissident. Well, he would be in league with them trying to support what they're doing.

But in fact, he was adamantly opposed. In fact, his followers started going to the homes of some of these dissidents and protesting for weeks and months at a time, creating a big public scene, accusing them, in fact, of being CCP spies. And he would call them traitors and rats and running dogs and things like that. These are all images come out of old classic Communist Party rhetoric. But it began to make it very clear to some people that this person is not actually joining the ranks of dissidents in the United States who have been fighting against the Chinese government for a long time. He seems to be doing something else on his own.

DAVIES: Right. Actually condemning those who have been fighting the Chinese government.

OSNOS: Yeah. Making them his declared enemies.

DAVIES: And then, you write there's this strange letter that he releases publicly in - when was it? - 2017 in which he kind of tells the Chinese Communist Party he can help. He wants to - he asked them for an assignment to atone for his past mistakes?

OSNOS: That's right. Yeah. He talked about this letter at the time. It was really in the midst of this period when he was trying to negotiate some kind of possible return to China. And he put out a letter in which he, in effect, said that he could use his, as he put it, influence and resources on behalf of the party. He said, assign me a clear, targeted task so that I can atone for my past mistakes and demonstrate my patriotism and support for President Xi. And I think the way people have come to understand this is that there was this period when Guo was trying to figure out a way if he could come back to China. And this was part of an effort to see if there was a deal to be had. And when that didn't work out, you see in the years since then that he's turned more of his focus and public profile to dealing with issues in the United States, often very divisive issues on which he's taken a very bold stand.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you again. We are speaking with Evan Osnos. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker. His new article is "How A Tycoon Linked To Chinese Intelligence Became A Darling Of Trump Republicans." We'll continue our conversation after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos. He has a new article about a wealthy Chinese businessman who fled China in 2015 and became a backer of Trump Republicans. The article is titled "How A Tycoon Linked To Chinese Intelligence Became A Darling Of Trump Republicans."

So what do we make of this guy? I mean, he flees China, hates the Chinese government, asked for their forgiveness and, you know, persecutes Chinese dissidents. How do you understand him?

OSNOS: I have to tell you, Dave, you know, I've written a lot of stories over the years, and some are more confounding than others. This one I find completely fascinating and bewildering. It reminds me of a term that has floated around the American intelligence community for many years. The chief of U.S. counterintelligence in the '50s and '60s was a man named James Angleton, who used to describe his work as what he called a wilderness of mirrors in which you could never really know who was true and who was not, who was declaring themselves a defector and who was, in fact, still working for the government they left behind - and who was seeking, as he put it, to confuse the West.

And I think that there is a degree to which it becomes very hard to know what Guo Wengui's ultimate goals are, his project in this country. But it's gotten to the point now where it's visible enough. And he has built enough relationships with people in Trump's orbit that we can begin to describe it on paper using many of his own words and the trail that he has left behind.

DAVIES: Well, you know, it occurred to me when you look at him, you look at this swashbuckling business career, he makes a ton of money. But he also gets sued a lot. He gets into trouble with regulators. He files for bankruptcy, has all these nasty fights with his political rivals. Kind of reminds you of Donald Trump, doesn't it?

OSNOS: Yeah, and not just us. I mean, Steve Bannon at one point said Guo Wengui really does seem like the Donald Trump of Beijing. And it's kind of interesting that Guo, when he came to the United States, one of the first things that he had done was join Mar-a-Lago, Trump's club in Florida. It was almost as if he was perfectly suited to harvest this moment in American political and public life and found people who, in the Trump world, wanted to benefit from him and wanted to help him succeed.

DAVIES: So you think the MAGA movement was fertile ground for somebody like this?

OSNOS: Yeah. Look, there are people, Dave, who have watched Guo's case, people in the U.S. national security community, who say that looking at the pattern of disruption that he has generated in this country since coming here, it appears that he is still operating on behalf, according to this view, of some portion of the Chinese power structure, whether it's opponents of Xi Jinping who have fallen out or people who are trying to generate chaos in America's politics because they think, ultimately, it would be for China's benefit. That is a view.

And at one point a couple of years ago, when Guo was in a lawsuit, the company that he was suing accused him of being, as they put it, a dissident hunter, a propagandist and an agent in service of the People's Republic of China. Guo denied that accusation. But the judge in that case in a federal court concluded that it wasn't clear, ultimately. As the judge put it, it wasn't clear whether Guo was, in fact, a dissident or a double agent. The judge wrote, others will have to determine who the true Guo is.

DAVIES: Evan Osnos, thanks so much for speaking with us again.

OSNOS: My pleasure. Thanks, Dave.

DAVIES: Evan Osnos is a staff writer for The New Yorker. His new article is "How A Tycoon Linked To Chinese Intelligence Became A Darling Of Trump Republicans." If you'd like to catch up on interviews you've missed, like our conversation with Chelsea Manning or with New Yorker staff writer and culture critic Hua Hsu, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. And for a peek behind the scenes at FRESH AIR, subscribe to our new newsletter. You'll find bonus material about the interviews, staff recommendations and highlights from the archives. You can subscribe at our website, freshair.npr.org.

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DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF OMER AVITAL'S "IT'S ALL GOOD (LATE 90S)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.