Photo: Courtesy of author.
On the morning of December 1, 2020, I was at home teaching an online class for Hunter College students. The subject was how the Chinese government extended its suppression of freedom abroad. Suddenly, outside on the sidewalk in front of my house, a dozen or so masked people appeared, each holding signs that read “CCP (the Chinese Communist Party) spy Teng Biao” or “CCP virus.” My family was terrified, and my class was interrupted several times, though I managed to complete the lecture. While the neighbors might have been baffled, I immediately knew who had sent these protesters.
Harassment by a similar group towards Benson Gao, a Chinese dissident who lives in Vancouver, lasted 75 days and ended only five days before when his friend, human rights activist Huang Ningyu, was physically attacked, resulting in a knocked-out tooth and fractures under his right eye. Such protests have also taken place in Texas, Los Angeles, New York, Hawaii, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, and Germany.
Both the harassers and their victims are Chinese. The victims have one thing in common: they have been critical of the billionaire Guo Wengui. Beginning in late September 2020, Guo called on his fanatic supporters to protest at the homes of his opponents in what he called a “global campaign to eliminate traitors.” He repeatedly named more than 20 targets, insisting that they must pay the price and “stop attacking Guo Wengui, the Whistle-blower Revolution, and the New Federal State of China, and that they must delete their posts and close their Twitter accounts.” Seventeen of these targets have been or are being harassed, including two journalists, a pastor, and two victims of Guo’s financial scam.
The number of protesters against me ranged from 16 to as many as 29. According to the private investigators I hired, the protesters met every morning in the municipal parking lot, where the team leader distributed banners and signs. They did not wear masks or maintain social distance until arriving in front of my house around 10:30 a.m.; they left at around 4:30 p.m, usually after a prayer. The entire duration of the protest in front of my residence was videotaped and broadcast live on GTV, Guo’s media outlet. In addition to chanting “Teng Biao, CCP spy and deserves to die,” they spent most of the time insulting me and my family, attacking me for criticizing Guo and Yan Limeng, who claimed that the coronavirus was a biological weapon created by China. I could hear them from my room, and my children were disturbed during their online classes. These people also bad-mouthed my neighbors and my supporters, and attempted to physically attack a Washington Post photographer. A local Chinese friend said, “I’ve never heard such filthy language in my 57 years of life.” The harassers even made a snowman in my driveway, with Chinese characters spelling out “Incest Biao, Chinese Agent” arranged on it (Guo called his enemies various insulting nicknames, and “Incest Biao” was what he had for me.)
Those people appear to live in a completely different reality: they seem to believe that the CCP would collapse within a matter of months, that Guo was the hero who would overthrow the CCP, and that I and those who oppose him were CCP agents. Many of them also believe in election fraud, the bizarre conspiracy theories of QAnon, and that Trump is America’s savior. During the Capital riot on Jan. 6, Guo’s supporters formed a group to attend the rally and tried to storm the Capital after curfew. Most of the Chinese-speaking Trump supporters went so far as to argue that those who breached the Capitol were defending American democracy rather than subverting it.
The harassment of Chinese dissidents by Guo and his supporters is one more frightening example of how disinformation can influence perceptions, which in turn can lead to harmful actions. At any given moment, enormous amounts of disinformation are being spread, potentially inciting horrific violence such as that which happened on January 6 and threatens American democracy. Such disinformation has created “alternative facts” in the minds of some people, tearing the American society further apart. As the nation is suffering multiple wounds—Covid, racial injustice, unemployment, and threats to the democratic institutions—President Biden, in his victory speech, declared “Now is the time to heal.” But I fear that of all the wounds inflicted, those caused by the destruction of truth are the most difficult to heal.
Online and offline harassment targeting me has been going on since 2017. Why does it happen?
Guo Wengui, who became a billionaire through collusion with the CCP’s Ministry of Security and other high-ranking officials, fled to the United States in 2015 when his high-level conspirators were arrested and convicted of corruption, his assets frozen, and some of his family and employees imprisoned for their criminal activities. In his own words, Guo vowed to “fight for life, for money, and for revenge.” Although he initially claimed he was “not anti-President Xi” and only opposed a few corrupt “traitors,” he quickly set off a storm on the internet. As many Chinese strongly opposed corruption they immediately saw the tycoon, who ironically was deeply corrupt himself, as an anti-corruption hero, and placed their hope for overthrowing the CCP dictatorship on Guo, a former state security agent. A good storyteller who makes explosive claims and uses inflammatory language, Guo commands a large audience, some of whom enthusiastically tuned in around the clock and helped spread his “whistleblowing information.” To his fans, Guo, who seems to have wealth, CCP high-level insider information, a strong anti-CCP stance, and endorsement by American political operative Steve Bannon and many prominent Chinese dissidents, appears to be a warrior-god against the regime.
Almost anyone who questioned or opposed Guo has been attacked by him and millions of his fans through disinformation, slander, threats and defamation lawsuits. Two media professionals in New York were stalked and harassed by people hired by Guo, and a Chinese-language dissident website was hacked by Guo. Twice, his underlings tweeted death threats at me. Over time, he launched lawsuits against more than forty of his critics, including CNN and the Wall Street Journal. From the beginning I understood he is a habitual liar who speaks in extreme, absurd, and obscene terms. His lies were constantly debunked: photos used as evidence of sex scandals of senior Chinese officials were actually movie screenshots, his so-called “top secret documents” were paid forgeries, and an official he claimed conducted a lurid act at his wife’s funeral turned out to have died years before his wife. While he was being interviewed by a New York Times reporter, Guo appeared to dramatically and conveniently receive a phone call from “Xi Jinping’s office.” So I wrote a long article to expose Guo and to analyze the phenomenon of his followers, which made him so furious that he immediately filed a lawsuit against me.
Guo saw a huge opportunity to make money from his large number of supporters. He brainwashed his followers day in and day out, making predictions that the CCP would soon be brought down, first within three months and then within three years. He also claimed that the Chinese yuan would be completely worthless, that the U.S. dollar and Hong Kong dollar would be like scrap paper, that the stock market would collapse and only his financial products would retain value, and that money invested in his venture would appreciate a hundred or thousand times after the downfall of the CCP. Towards the end of 2018, he launched “Rule of Law Fund” and “Rule of Law Society,” enlisting Trump’s former advisor Steve Bannon as its chairman, and soliciting millions of dollars in donations. Afterwards, he began a series of enterprises: G Media, Home of Fellow Fighters, GTV, G Dollar, G Club, G Fashion, and more recently “Himalayan Farm” and “New Federal State of China,” all of which are set up for the purpose of frantically attracting investments.
To outsiders, those enterprises are obviously scams. But Guo’s investors did not doubt they were being offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a fortune while promoting democracy in China. It requires a strict vetting process to be accepted into his teams, and only those with proven “pro-Guo experience” can become volunteers or formal staff. By his rule, only loyal followers who “support the revolution” and who participate in the “extermination of traitors” are eligible to invest in his G series.
Some people never heard from Guo again after sending money to him. Some of his investors were arrested in China when their identities were leaked and, therefore, many were afraid to speak up for fear of persecution. By the time it was reported that the FBI and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) started to investigate the scam, Guo had collected at least $300 million. After some of his victims filed complaints , he launched the “Campaign to Exterminate Traitors.” According to Guo, “the global campaign to punish traitors is to test our fellow fighters’ loyalty to the whistleblower revolution and to the New Federal State of China.” This means that if Guo’s investors didn’t want to participate in harassing people like Benson and I, they would not be able to get their money back. He also claimed that the elimination of CCP spies was part of the elimination of the CCP, and only with the elimination of the CCP could the investors get a hundred-fold return. Many protesters have invested in the G series and believed that Guo’s opponents, like me, were preventing them from getting rich. In addition, Guo promised to help seek political asylum for anyone who invested in his schemes or participated in protests he organized. This is another reason why protesters were willing to stand outside my house in the biting wind.
The incidents in front of my house drew close attention from the FBI, to whom I provided information about a series of harassment staged by Guo, and about possible visa fraud involving the harassers. Civil rights lawyers and local activists provided me with great support. After January 10, protesters stopped coming to my house – the group moved on to New York to do the same to journalist Wei Shi and his family. They came back again on Feb. 8.
In the past four years, the most explosive and far-reaching controversy on the Chinese web and in Chinese intellectual circles centered on two figures – Guo and Trump. Those who supported Guo were almost exclusively pro-Trump and are in the majority, while those who opposed both Guo and Trump were clearly in the minority. The fact that the majority of Chinese dissidents supported both Guo and Trump is a confusing, frustrating, yet important intellectual and political phenomenon. There are many similarities between these two figures who unexpectedly shot to fame. They are both narcissistic celebrity tycoons, with authoritarian personalities and lacking in morals; both are involved in sex scandals. They are both contemptuous of rules and norms, and both launched lawsuits against the media and their critics. Last but not least, both are perpetual liars and avid promoters of conspiracy theories, and many supporters of both men tweeted and retweeted conspiracy theories about U.S. election fraud.
The rise of Guo and the rise of Trump each have their own complex and profound political, economic, social, and psychological factors. My discussion here will focus on information and truth, why people believe lies and conspiracy theories, and whether facts can still defeat lies.
“The coronavirus is a biochemical weapon created in a laboratory by the Chinese government for the purpose of harming the United States.” This is a claim actively promoted by Guo and his media outlet. Guo and Bannon’s team were also involved in orchestrating the Hunter Biden hard drive conspiracy theory during the final days of the 2020 election. Trump, meanwhile, has repeatedly retweeted QAnon conspiracy theories, including outlandish claims such as an accusation that Biden plotted to kill six Navy SEALs to cover up Bin Laden’s fake death. He has derided and waged war on the mainstream media, calling them “enemy of the people.” In one speech he said, “Just remember: What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney and a friend of Guo, once declared, “Truth isn’t truth.” According to an Ipsos poll, 23 percent of the Republicans think the president should shut down CNN, the New York Times and the Washington Post; 48 percent of the Republicans believe that the press is “the enemy of the people.” Likewise, Guo also claimed that the mainstream media in America were owned by the CCP, telling his followers to get news only from his GTV Media, which has become the Chinese version of QAnon.
Trump excited many during his 2016 campaign with promises like “I’ll give you everything” or “Make America Great Again.” By stirring up and exploiting the discontent among groups like white Christians or those who felt left behind by globalization, over issues of immigration, racial division, and progressive values, Trump created a list of enemies and made sure his supporters heard his dog whistle. Similarly, Guo’s promise to build a “new China” in three years played on people’s aversion to the corrupt authoritarian regime and their curiosity about information about the inner circle of the CCP.
Guo has gone even further than Trump. He has created a cult-like group for himself and his followers. First, he instilled eschatological fears among his followers, telling them the economy is going to collapse and the currency will be worthless, the US is going to bomb China, and World War III is about to start. Persuading them of these realities, he encouraged people to leave China and invest in his G-series. Sometimes he pretended he had talked to a Taoist god in his dream, and other times he claimed to have received messages from aliens. All of these helped him establish absolute power as a leader within the cult. In addition, he severely restricted communication between staff members across teams, even calling for some to quit their jobs and go into hiding in the mountains, thus creating an environment of information deprivation and physical isolation. As for promises, he presented a vision of the “new China” as a utopia where everyone would be a billionaire. In contrast, Guo branded his opponents as traitors and CCP spies, and launched a global “extermination campaign” that in some cases turned violent and caused personal injury. So, it seems that Guo’s organization is three things in one: a multinational financial fraud, a far-right conspiracy media outlet, and an ever-growing cult.
An unprecedented revolution that has changed the ways human beings communicate, the Internet can be a great gift to those who resist dictatorship. In 2012, I wrote an article discussing the positive effects of the Internet on the civil rights movement in China. I argued that the internet made censorship difficult, facilitated information dissemination, strengthened civil mobilization, and made “unorganized organizing” possible. At that time, I did not anticipate what I see today, which is that many pro-democracy Chinese scholars and activists fanatically spread, via Twitter, Guo’s bizarre, outlandish conspiracy theories about BLM, COVID19, and U.S. election fraud.
A study by MIT found that, on Twitter, “falsehood diffuses significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth,” and that it takes six times as long for a true news story to reach 1,500 people than it does for a false news story. No matter how crazy the story appears, it will find its echo on social media and gather force. As soon as falsehood becomes “fact” in certain circles, its volume is amplified. The internet creates an echo chamber effect, in which voices spouting similar opinions are repeated, causing certain groups to believe that the distorted stories are the whole truth. This is reminiscent of Plato’s allegory of the cave. Since people are more willing to read what aligns with their existing views, internet algorithms filter information and products based on user preferences, thus reinforcing their perceptions. The result is that people are increasingly trapped in their own information cocoons, no longer exposed to different views.
An excellent article by Kurt Andersen describes the extent to which Americans believe in alternative facts. One-third of Americans believe that global warming is a conspiracy, and a third also believe that aliens have visited Earth and may still live among us. Nearly a quarter think vaccines cause autism, and 15 percent are certain the media or government has secretly added mind control technology to television signals. In addition, one in four Americans believe that U.S. government officials conspired in the September 11 attacks.
Believing in alternative facts is not a uniquely American phenomenon. In China, Qi Gong masters, snake oil doctors, and con artists are prevalent, some even worshiped as gods. Lies, rumors, and fake news are rampant on Chinese internet. GTV media, Falun Gong media outlets, and anti-CCP social media all work tirelessly to spread conspiracy theories, with CCP-controlled WeChat and other media platforms joining the fake news chorus.
There is one difference between China and the U.S., though. The Chinese government’s political repression and censorship itself has become a breeding ground for disinformation. In China, some “rumors” are actually suppressed truths, jokingly referred to as “prophecies that were told too early.” In the war between truth and lies, the authoritarian government has absolute power in areas from the media to the scientific community, to courts and the legal system. Whenever the Chinese government declares something a rumor, people would actually take it as truth, which is the natural social psychology response under information control and the suppression of free speech. It is paradoxical that many Chinese have superimposed such a cognitive model on their understanding of American politics, viewing independent media and free press as fake news while taking tabloid conspiracy theories as truth.
It appears that an increasing number of people are living in a parallel world of “alternative facts.” Worse still, in the “post-truth” era, people no longer care about truth and falsehood. They may equate power with truth, and consider truth as relative, and reality as constructed in any way they like. What is at war is no longer facts against lies, but Rashomon-style truth against alternative truth. The criteria for truth seems to have disappeared, too. No amount of data, fact-checking, or court verdicts can convince those who believe in election fraud otherwise. Likewise, none of the mainstream media and human rights organization reports of my imprisonment and torture, or multiple testimonies made at the Congressional hearings, will change the mind of people who believe I am a CCP agent, as they can always counter the evidence with disinformation from GTV Media, because they simply don’t care about facts. As Hannah Arendt once said, “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.” This is threatening the very foundation of our democracy, because if a society does not even have a base of commonly agreed upon facts, democratic dialogue will not be possible. In his book On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder offers twenty lessons for resisting tyranny, one of which is: “Believe in the truth.”
Trump and Guo are both great attention seekers who lie more often than the average person can fact-check. Guo has said “there will be a bombshell next week” more times than I can count, and of course nothing has happened. Guo’s accomplices don’t care about truth; they only care about viewing rates, which translate to advertising dollars. Chinese web users found that anti-Trump posts led to “unfollowing” while pro-Trump bloggers saw a large rise in viewing.
Many of my friends regard “anti-communism” as the only goal. Therefore, they created a world of dichotomy, in which pro-Trump and pro-Guo means anti-communist, while anti-Trump and anti-Guo equals pro-communist. For this reason, they don’t care whether Yan Limeng’s research had never been recognized by the scientific community, and they don’t care about Guo’s fraud and lies. They also don’t care if Trump was destroying freedom of press, the rule of law, and democracy in the United States. That is why Guo can effortlessly convince his followers that I am a “traitor” and a “CCP spy.” As the CCP has lost all credibility, people won’t believe the CCP no matter what. So, when liars and schemers use the “anti-Communist” slogan for their own purposes, they can easily win over people. Many Chinese dissidents who are anti-CCP but can’t find a way to achieve democracy in China have put their hope first in Guo, and then in Trump. This is exactly what the Chinese idioms “a desperately sick person would try any remedy” and “drinking poison to quench the thirst” mean.
Just as I was about to finish this article, my family and I were involved in a car accident. After a month of being harassed, we decided to escape to visit an out-of-town friend during our children’s winter break . We had a car accident not far from home, and our children were injured and hospitalized. Some friends suggested that it must be the work of Guo’s people. Such theory would suit me well, as it could garner attention and make the FBI, which has been following the situation, further investigate Guo, at the same time shirking my own responsibility and giving me psychological comfort. But I analyzed the circumstances and concluded that it couldn’t logically be Guo’s fault. Sometimes conspiracy theories are tempting and difficult to reject; sometimes truth brings pain and loss, and is hard to accept. So we all will have to constantly make choices.
On the other hand, there are numerous efforts to counter disinformation and to reveal the truth. Many media outlets, fact-checking organizations, human rights institutions, and internet users are not willing to give in to conspiracy theories. There are political figures who respect truth and hold on to principles over partisanship or the desire to win. When Trump became a “clear and present danger” to the nation, Twitter, Facebook and other media platforms blocked his account, even though traffic to their sites dwindled and their stock prices fell.
As for the dramatic scene outside my house, my neighbors chose to believe the local newspaper and the Washington Post over GTV media. Those who tried to impose “alternative facts” on my community did not succeed, although the online smearing and bullying against me continued.
Teng Biao is Grove Human Rights Scholar at Hunter College.
[The Chinese version was first published in the New York Times (Chinese), February 1, 2021]