How have China's rich amassed their fortunes?
The stories of backroom dealing, brutal competition and even spycraft are typically shrouded by the country's powerful elite, who in a country without a free press have often had the tools to keep quiet any unwelcome attention.
Now, however, a battle between Chinese authorities and a dissident billionaire has produced a tale that claims to be a bawdy and dark catalogue tell-all, an account with few parallels in its portrayal of a Chinese path to wealth and influence.
Guo Wengui's rise to riches involved assiduous and copious use of sex, a cellphone jammer, spy cameras, media cowed into silence by political connections, snakes tossed into the homes of restive villagers, dirt dished to corruption investigators, a whole lot of bravado and more than a few fibs.
That, at least, is what rival businessman Qu Long claims in a 49-page document that he distributed recently in Beijing – a retaliatory strike by a convicted criminal that marks the latest instalment in a salacious months-long public tiff that has shed light on the secretive halls of Chinese power.
Entitled "My pains and sorrows with Guo Wengui," it is indisputably a screed, its allegations not tested in court.
It is also an extraordinary document, in which Mr. Qu names names, cites dates, discloses financial details and offers a remarkable peek behind the curtain of the tactics and high drama of becoming rich in modern China, what he called "the story of Guo's obtaining power, fooling people and stealing."
Neither Mr. Guo nor his lawyer responded to repeated requests for comment, nor was The Globe and Mail able to find any direct response to Mr. Qu from Mr. Guo on the videos he regularly posts to YouTube.
But he has accused Chinese authorities of fabricating allegations of wrongdoing. "I can vouch to you that I am probably stupid, but I've never made any serious mistakes," he said in one video.
Over the past few months, Mr. Guo has turned his luxury perch above New York's Central Park into a war room for the social media era, creating a series of videos in which he accuses the Communist Party and its elite of rot at the highest levels.
He has promised "to expose the leviathan Chinese mafia state," calling China "the most corrupt, tyrannical and brutal state on earth, bar North Korea."
Beijing has gone to great lengths to silence him, sending agents to New York to pressure him to return, a move that prompted a furious high-level response by U.S. authorities the Wall Street Journal headlined a "Caper Worthy of Spy Thriller."
When that failed, China sought to sully Mr. Guo's reputation badly enough to undermine the impact of his words. The emergence of Mr. Qu, who has had the support of Chinese authorities, has come in the midst of that campaign. (The annual report of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, released this week, devotes three pages to "China's Discrediting of Guo Wengui in International Media.")
Mr. Qu, for his part, has scores he wants to settle. He accuses billionaire Mr. Guo of destroying his reputation and his wealth, leaving Mr. Qu indebted and his family homeless.
Still, in the melee of mutual recriminations a remarkable window has opened onto the hidden intersections of political power and affluence in China.
"This series of bombshells, and the washing of dirty linen in public – this has never happened before," said Willy Lam, a scholar of China's elite politics with the Jamestown Foundation.
Mr. Qu and Mr. Guo were once business partners, but Mr. Qu was sentenced to 15 years in prison for embezzling $162-million (Canadian) from a company owned by Mr. Guo, who built a fortune as a property developer before fleeing China.
In September, however, Mr. Qu was suddenly released when a court ruled there was insufficient evidence for his conviction.
Mr. Qu accuses Mr. Guo of setting him up, and wants the U.S. to send him back to China to face justice.
To underscore his point, he released his account of how he claims his one-time partner built his billions.
That included a concerted use of sex, which Mr. Qu alleges was such a valuable tool that Mr. Guo employed four different categories of sexual bribery and control.
Sauna workers could service lower-ranking functionaries, suppliers and administrators.
Prostitutes and club managers could be used for more important people. Mr. Guo had on his payroll people at one popular karaoke club, Mr. Qu said, who could "provide sex service and at the same time shoot the whole process as a video so as to help Guo to blackmail those target people." Servers at a fancy restaurant could do the same with higher-level officials and businessmen.
The final category involved Mr. Guo himself, who used sex with staff as means of assuring loyalty and pursued liaisons with the intimates of friends and business partners "so that he could control" them, Mr. Qu contends. In one case, he shamed another CEO by declaring that he had slept with the man's girlfriend, Mr. Qu said. In another case, Mr. Qu said Mr. Guo got a man drunk, then videotaped him committing an indecent act in his hotel room.
Mr. Guo's high-flying life was fraught with risk, Mr. Qu said, and rivals once sent people to kill him – they erred and killed his brother instead.
At the same time, Mr. Guo's own business practices often descended into spycraft and violence, Mr. Qu alleges.
"Guo Wengui went to the extreme," Mr. Qu said. He hired a "private army" of "100-200 people" after his brother was killed, had people secretly photograph Mr. Qu's children and installed a telescope to keep watch on a high-ranking Communist Party member, Mr. Qu said.
Mr. Guo regularly used thugs to press his advantage, contends Mr. Qu, who alleges that at one point his own car was surrounded by people who smashed his windshield with desks and chairs and used a cellphone jammer to prevent him from calling police.
Mr. Qu also alleges that Mr. Guo used security guards to break into a company to steal financial documents. On another occasion, Mr. Qu said, Mr. Guo sent "two minibuses full of hatchet men" to pressure a company into compliance.
When villagers tried to block one of Mr. Guo's projects, he sent his security team to pour glue into their locks, "throw snakes into their homes" and beat those "who were about to stir up troubles," Mr. Qu said.
When a competitor came into town looking to rent out a high-rise building, Mr. Guo drove away revenue by hiring henchmen to control the underground parking, elevators and front entrance. "The office building soon became a haunted house," Mr. Qu said.
Mr. Guo gathered dirt that he could turn in to police and graft busters when it suited his cause, Mr. Qu said.
All the while, Mr. Guo gained social and business advantage by talking up connections to prominent political figures, some of them not real. Once, Mr. Qu said, he watched Mr. Guo tell a local party secretary that he had little time for a meeting. To emphasize the point, he read off a sheet of paper purportedly bearing an agenda jammed with political elites.
It was classic Mr. Guo, a man whose charm and moxie had helped propel him into great opportunities across China, and great wealth.
"The secretary was astonished by his 'superb relationship,' " Mr. Qu said. "However, I was standing there beside Guo, and saw the schedule. It was just a blank sheet of paper."
With reporting by Alexandra Li