The New York Times has dubbed internet sensation Guo Wengui "the biggest political story in China this year." The Chinese billionaire, also known as Miles Kwok, has been streaming online videos of himself making allegations of massive corruption against the Communist Party of China's top figures. His newfound stardom is his way of reacting to his own brush with the authorities; he, too, has been accused (he claims unjustly) of corruption. According to Guo, his family members have been jailed and humiliated, his staff members rounded up and allegedly tortured in detention, for a crime he didn't commit.
Guo's claims, which have so far gone unchallenged, charge China's most highly placed with new depths of lowly behavior. He has accused, for instance, "anti-corruption tsar" Wang Qishan of being far more corrupt than any of the officials he has punished for the same crime. Wang's family reportedly controls assets worth hundreds of billions of yuan, and travels the world in the only Boeing 787 ever to be repurposed as a private jet.
It's no surprise that these revelations of wrongdoing among politburo and law enforcement elite have captured the attention of tens of millions of Chinese citizens. But if you have never heard of Guo, you aren't alone; the story has been left virtually untouched by the mainstream media. It isn't because they lack the interest in this high-stakes scandal. Rather, many outlets likely have had difficulty judging the validity of Guo's statements. After all, had he not played the same get-rich-quick games that he now accuses others of playing? Regardless of his moral character, though, common sense suggests that if the Communist Party is taking the matter seriously, so should the press.
A Press That's Far From Free
Perhaps one of the most interesting truths to emerge from this unfolding story has little to do with corrupt Chinese officials, and everything to do with the state of today's media. The deafening silence on Guo's allegations among outlets within China and without, conventional and new, has shown how very few are left uncompromised. The Communist Party has bought, controlled, infiltrated or influenced nearly all of them. Even a Chinese publication once labeled as one of the country's "rare voices of journalistic autonomy" by Times Magazine has been exposed as having entrenched interests among Chinese government and business tycoons.
English-language media are having similar difficulty rising to the challenge of investigating corruption allegations against China's leaders, except perhaps when there is an officially sanctioned anti-corruption case to follow.
Beijing blocked Bloomberg News' website four years ago, threatening the company's operations in the country, after it wrote about the multimillion-dollar assets owned by Xi Jinping's extended family — before Xi had even become president. Bloomberg isn't alone, either; many outlets that report on China fear state retaliation, whether in the form of the denial of journalist visas to China, vexatious litigation or attacks on their owners' financial interests.
Even when a news organization is willing to dig into the issue, as the New York Times was when it ran three feature articles during the four months Guo leveled charges online, it still encounters enormous difficulties in tracking down the facts. Guo is a private citizen with extraordinary means that enabled him to obtain surveillance videos, bank transactions and business contracts — all things money can buy. But such ample funds are unavailable to most investigative outlets.
In a world where just about everything seems to have a price, Guo can use his enormous wealth to recruit an army of bodyguards, cybersecurity firms, private investigators and public relations firms. The war he is waging is being fought on a digital battleground, where information and disinformation are the bullets, connected devices are the weapons, and hackers and cybersecurity engineers are the foot soldiers. With these tools, he can gather hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter and YouTube, who then spread his message to tens of millions more on smartphones inside China's borders.
The Citizen vs. the State
Yet despite Guo's wealth, his power is dwarfed by the overwhelming might of the Communist Party. Beijing has mobilized its entire security apparatus against him, rooting out suspected supporters from within and launching massive cyberattacks against Guo's home Wi-Fi system, devices and internet accounts. Meanwhile, China's Foreign Affairs Ministry is lobbying governments the world over to help Beijing in its fight. Abroad, it has rallied an army of foreign mercenaries to persuade, spy, litigate, sabotage and attack in cyberspace. (The state has even managed to issue an alert for Guo through Interpol, which is currently headed by China's former vice minister for public security, Meng Hongwei. Without the protection of the United States and its insistence on the rule of law within its borders, Guo would not be able to safely continue his campaign.) At home, it has deployed the most stringent of tools to block Guo's messages on the web and social media while releasing wave upon wave of online content designed with the sole purpose of character assassination.
As we watch this ferocious battle between demigods unfold above the heads of ordinary people, new revelations will doubtless be had. In China, at least, the empowerment citizens have found in social media may turn out to be more fleeting than many had hoped. At the end of the day, the man with social media accounts alone has no means of defending himself against well-organized and well-funded attacks. The powerful few with vital interests at stake can afford to spend the resources needed to flood the internet with disinformation, hackers and saboteurs who are often able to render online rallying and public surveys meaningless.
Two petitions to the White House on Guo's case show this problem in action. One, launched by Guo's allies, calls on the U.S. government to protect him. The other, a rival petition created by Chinese cybersecurity officials, called for Guo's "arrest and repatriation." Unsurprisingly, the second gained signatures more quickly than the first. In fact, the petition aimed at shielding Guo saw its number of signatures stall and, in some instances, drop — something that is supposedly impossible — as participants in mainland China were reportedly harassed.
The blocking of Guo's material, meanwhile, has revealed pattern and voice recognition capabilities more sophisticated than ever before seen.
Millions of his followers on Chinese social media apps have been forced to resort to covert retweets, avoiding detection by constantly creating new word variations. Discussion forums on the issues he has raised have been rendered impossible, and computational detection is closing in on his creative, if outmatched, allies.
Big Brother Gets Smarter
Guo's case offers a glimpse of the troubling future to come. The Great Firewall will get ever smarter as Beijing adds artificial intelligence (AI) to its political toolbox, something experts say is imminent. At present the application of AI can only be done with troves of big data, but in China, such information is already entirely in the hands of those in power.
All eyes are fixed on the knock-down drag-out fight between Guo and his powerful opponents, and it's too soon to say just how it will play out. But one issue unfolding in the background of this spectacle is hard to ignore: Hundreds of millions of people, granted internet connectivity and the opportunity to express their individuality, have grown dependent on their connected devices while abandoning the traditional means of communication such as books, social organizations, street rallies and shopping malls. But now their online activities can be measured and collected, and used to train an increasingly efficient, artificially intelligent Big Brother.
"Machines, though helpless by themselves, may be used by a human being or a block of human beings to increase control over the rest of the human race." So said the prescient Norbert Wiener some 70 years ago. For China, however, this may no longer be a vision of a distant future.