How a powerful tycoon kept a Chinese master spy in his pocket

Nectar Gan
Ma Jian and Guo Wengui

Handout

It sounds like the plot to a political thriller or a Hollywood spy film – in which a self-made business tycoon manipulates the country’s secretive state security agency for business gains and has a spy chief at his beck and call.

When the tycoon wants to get rid of a business rival, the state security agency helps have the rival thrown in jail; when he wants to acquire a securities brokerage house, the agency contacts sellers advising cooperation; and when a journalist writes “negative” reports about the tycoon, the agency threatens the journalist.

Such details are part of claims contained in a video posted online on Wednesday night that was said to be the confession of Ma Jian, a former vice-minister of State Security who is facing prosecution for corruption.

The video, said to be Ma Jian's confession

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 In the video, a man said to be Ma describes his involvement with Chinese tycoon Guo Wengui, who left China in 2013 but has come under the spotlight in recent months for revealing corrupt deals by high-ranking officials of the Communist Party.

“I supported and helped Guo Wengui to gain benefits, and in turn obtained benefits from him,” Ma, known as a political patron of Guo, said in the video. “In fact, Guo and I became an alliance of shared interests.”

Guo told the South China Morning Post in a phone interview in 2015 that he and Ma were “friends” and in a “working relationship”, adding that he “respected Ma very much”.

Dressed in a dark jacket, Ma describes for more than 20 minutes in the video how he helped Guo settle disputes and business deals from 2008 to 2014 by misusing the state security agency’s power, and his subsequent receipt of gifts worth 60 million yuan (US$837 million) from Guo, including properties, cash and other items.

The disgraced spy chief’s confession shed a light on how politically connected businessmen on the mainland are able to leverage political power and the extent of collusion between the rich and the powerful.

Although Ma’s claims could not be independently verified, some concurred with earlier investigative reports by prominent Chinese media outlets, including Caixin and Tencent’s Prism. Guo had previously denied those reports.

The video, edited with subtitles and a narrator, was uploaded online hours after China confirmed that Interpol had issued a red notice for Guo and coincided with Guo’s interview with the US-based Voice of America, which ended abruptly on Wednesday night. During the interview, Guo denied bribing Ma.

Guo's interview with Voice of America

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 The South China Morning Post was unable to reach Ma for comment. The Beijing News, which obtained the video before it was uploaded to YouTube, said the footage was of Ma testifying. Guo did not respond to requests for comments on Twitter.

The Beijing News reported ­on Thursday that two executives of Beijing Pangu Investment, which Guo is the controlling shareholder, were arrested for corruption and forging evidence. The executives are financial development director Xu Angyang and legal affairs director Ma Nan.

According to the video, Ma said he had sent people on his behalf with official letters from the Ministry of State Security to meet people with whom Guo had disputes with, or had called or met such people himself.

Ma told them that Guo was “in a working relationship” with China’s spy ministry and “had made contributions to state security”.

The officials Ma dealt with at Guo’s behest covered a wide spectrum of Chinese officialdom, including head of Hebei’s provincial political and legal affairs committee, Beijing’s deputy mayor in charge of urban planning, head of the Civil Aviation Administration of China, and a vice chairman of China’s securities regulator, according to the video.

Ma said the power he wielded including wiretapping the phone of one of Guo’s business rivals for a year, freezing a bank account, discouraging local police from investigating Guo and his company, deleting negative online media reports about Guo and threatening a journalist from writing about the businessman.

In return, Guo bought two flats for Ma in Hong Kong among other forms of gifts, the video confession said, totalling 200 square metres and costing more than HK$30 million for the two.

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