A Chinese-Canadian businessman who attended one of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's controversial cash-for-access fundraising dinners last year is now fighting accusations by prosecutors in China that he played a key role in a massive pyramid scheme that took in more than $350-million.
Edward Gong, from his home in Markham, Ont., has assembled a business empire in recent years, acquiring hotels in the Toronto-area as well as the second-largest hotel in Michigan and two Chinese-language TV channels in Canada, including Canada National TV. He was an opera director before he moved to Canada in 2002 and became a wealthy entrepreneur, according to a 2016 profile in state-run China Daily.
Mr. Gong was awarded a Queen's Diamond Jubilee medal in 2012, which was given to recognize community service.
He has been photographed with former prime minister Stephen Harper, and befriended Mr. Trudeau at a now-famous Liberal fundraiser involving Chinese-Canadian business people in Toronto last May.
He was in one of the widely circulated photos of the Prime Minister at the event – it shows Mr. Trudeau making dumplings for his donors. The picture was part of The Globe and Mail's coverage of cash-for-access fundraisers that prompted the Liberals to usher in legislative reforms concerning donations to political parties.
The businessman, whose given Chinese name is Xiao Hua, told the China Daily last December that he was using his Canadian broadcasting outlets to represent "China's voice in Canada."
China's state-controlled news agency, Xinhua News, recently reported that prosecutors in Shaodong county of Hunan Province have accused Mr. Gong of recruiting personnel for a pyramid scheme that reaped 1.9 billion yuan, which is equivalent to $350-million (Canadian).
It is not known whether Mr. Gong has run afoul of China's Communist Party, which has recently clamped down on alleged corruption, ensnaring far bigger corporate tycoons such as the chairman of Anbang Insurance Group and the founder of property giant Dalian Wanda Group. Anbang chair Wu Xiaohui was recently arrested for undisclosed reasons and Beijing barred state-owned banks from lending money to Wanda, whose founder, Wang Jianlin, has been accused of overpaying for overseas properties.
The Chinese embassy in Canada declined to comment on Mr. Gong's case and on whether Beijing might seek his extradition, saying only that it has "learned from media reports that the relevant Chinese local judicial department recently conducted a trial on a pyramid-selling case." The Chinese government has been pressing Canada to sign an extradition treaty that would make it easier for Beijing to bring alleged wrongdoers to China.
According to Xinhua, 11 people were handed prison sentences and fines in connection with the alleged pyramid scheme. Mr. Gong was not named among those convicted or sentenced, but the news agency, citing court proceedings, said he is accused of having "remotely developed" personnel in China who were involved in the pyramid selling.
Pyramid schemes are an illegal form of multilevel marketing, an arrangement for the distribution of products in which participants are supposed to earn money by supplying products to other participants.
According to Canada's Competition Bureau, they focus primarily on generating profit by recruiting others to put their money into it rather than from the sale of the products.
The Xinhua article said organizers of this alleged scheme sold health products supplied by O24 Pharma PLC, which they said was owned by Mr. Gong's Edward Enterprise International Group, and charged members 5,000 yuan to join. The court said this scheme offered members shares of O24 Pharma and Canada National TV if they purchased O24 health products such as "Harp Seal Oil," "Lung Cleanse" and "Stress Less." Britain's corporate registry shows a company called O24 Pharma PLC was majority owned by Mr. Gong as of 2015.
The entrepreneur did not immediately respond when asked for comment, but he held a lengthy news conference on Wednesday at a Toronto-area hotel he owns, where he rejected the allegations and proclaimed his innocence.
Mr. Gong vowed to fight the accusations and take the matter to China's Supreme Court if necessary. He portrayed the allegations as an attack on his TV channel and businesses.
"In North America, I have about 630 employees; around 600 of them are full-time employees," he told reporters. "You can defame me, but you cannot defame a media that spread the positivity of Chinese culture. … I am a Canadian citizen. But my heart is still in China."
He took issue with Chinese media coverage that reported he was a fugitive "on the run," saying he is being tried in public without the right to defend himself and has not been to China since August, 2005.
"I haven't received any summons from court, neither any notice from any department in China. ... I wasn't given any right to talk and then I become an escaped criminal. I cannot sleep these two days; I am a little bit depressed," he said.
Mr. Gong defended his business in China, saying he uses the Internet to sell health products there and engages in multilevel marketing just as other companies do in Canada or the United States. "This is normal when we sell products here."
Mr. Gong owns a small chain of mid-sized hotels as well as a private high school in Hamilton that caters mainly to students from China. His corporation acquired Motorola's former production research centre in Illinois last year with the goal of establishing a biological engineering research and development facility.
A U.S. lawyer working for the Chinese-Canadian businessman told the Detroit Free Press last year that "Mr. Gong has considerable resources. I will say that," when asked how much he was willing to spend on a massive renovation of the former Dearborn Hyatt Regency, which he bought for $20-million (U.S.).