Exiled Chinese Billionaire Wins Defamation Suit Over False Tweets

Guo Wengui lawsuit is rare case of successful action by public figure

Guo Wengui

Dissident Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui has won a lawsuit involving tweets and YouTube videos in a rare defamation case involving American social media.

A federal jury in Alexandria, Va., awarded Guo $100,000 he had sought as a result of an online dispute with former Chinese university professor Xia Yeliang, who describes himself as a "libertarian scholar advocating constitutional democracy and rule of law in China."

The jury also awarded Xia $5,000 as part of a countersuit against Guo for defamation, although Xia had sought $17 million in damages. The countersuit involved retweets by Guo.

Guo's defamation suit was launched last year after a series of tweets and YouTube videos posted by Xia, who has more than 286,000 followers on Twitter.

From 2017 to 2018, Xia tweeted and published videos falsely accusing Guo of being a criminal, kidnapper, and engaging in other crimes, according to court papers in the case.

During a jury trial that ended July 2, jurors ruled in Guo's favor on two types of defamation, including false charges relating to moral turpitude. The jury awarded Guo $60,000 in actual damages and $40,000 in punitive damages.

Guo said in a court filing that a number of tweets and videos had caused him and his family to suffer mental anguish and economic loss. The false Xia statements had been retweeted by his followers tens of thousands of times in compounding the harm, the complaint in the case said. A number of YouTube videos also were published by Xia that contained false, misleading, and defamatory statements about Guo.

Jurors were shown nine tweets that falsely asserted Guo was a liar, rapist, swindler, and a supporter of the Communist Party of China.

The case is unusual since both Guo and Xia were declared public figures in the trial, making the standard for bringing defamation charges higher. It also appears to be the first case of a Chinese national successfully suing for defamation in U.S. court.

Guo was born in China and fled to the United States after authorities in Beijing began a political crackdown on him over his relations with a senior Chinese intelligence official. He at one time was close to China's Vice Minister for State Security Ma Jian, the No. 2 civilian intelligence chief who was imprisoned on suspect corruption charges. Guo has applied for political asylum.

Guo said he was very pleased with the outcome of the trial in Alexandria federal court.

"It is a big victory for the overseas Chinese democratic movement and is a perfect example of why China needs to adopt the rule of law," Guo said in a statement.

Judge and jury were presented evidence and made their determination based on the evidence and "not based on bribery and corruption," as frequently occurs in China, Guo said.

Guo's lawyer Daniel Podhaskie agreed the case was "a great victory for Mr. Guo."

"It is one of the rare instances, where someone deemed to be a public figure, was found defamed by a unanimous jury in a federal court and in all likelihood, the first time a Chinese national was victorious in a federal defamation lawsuit," he said.

The legal burden of proof for public figures in defamation suits is higher. People legally declared public figures in such lawsuits need to demonstrate in court that statements are not just false but made with malice by knowing the falsity or by reckless disregard for the truth.

Since coming to the United States several years ago, Guo launched a series of videos and broadcasts that sought to highlight high-level corruption within the senior ranks of the Chinese Communist Party, including activities of Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan.

According to the congressional U.S. China Economic and Security Commission, Guo, a real estate tycoon living in New York City, has been the target of an unprecedented Chinese government disinformation campaign to discredit him since he began speaking out in 2015.

"Chinese state-run media called him a ‘criminal suspect' and launched an international publicity campaign, including releasing a videotaped confession by a former senior intelligence official accusing Mr. Guo of corruption and uploading videos to YouTube on a channel called ‘Truth about Guo Wengui,' to discredit him," the commission said in a report two years ago.

China used its influence in the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) to issue what the commission called politically motivated "red notices," charging Guo with crimes. Months after the red notices were issued, then-Interpol President Meng Hongwei, a Chinese security official, was arrested during a trip to China and later charged with corruption.

Under suspected pressure from China, Twitter and Facebook both blocked Guo's accounts on social media claiming rules violations related to personal information on Chinese leaders. Until it was blocked, Guo had nearly 500,000 followers on Twitter.

Guo currently operates a major online broadcast outlet called Guo.media.

The Voice of America also cut off an ongoing live interview with Guo in April 2017 amid pressure on the official radio from China's government.

China's government also has imprisoned Guo’s business associates in China in what critics say are politically motivated charges.

Guo said of the court victory: "This is very important to what I am trying to achieve in China. The victory also shows that Wang Qishan's power overseas is fading."

Guo said he believes Xia "is one of Wang’s representatives in the United States."

"The victory over Xia shows that Wang cannot use his power in China to influence justice in the United States where there is the rule of law," Guo said.

Xia, who identifies himself as a pro-democracy activist, said in an interview he is not a representative of Wang in the United States. "That's ridiculous," he said. "If I were Wang Qishan's representative I would be rich."

He said he does not know why Guo has made him his enemy.

In his countersuit, Xia stated that Guo is using lawsuits as a way to pressure opponents, and that Guo has plans to sue 91 people in 41 lawsuits. Xia also argued in his countersuit that his statements about Guo were true and thus could not be defamatory.

"The case is not over," Xia said. "My lawyer is going to file a motion."

According to Xia, the judge in the case did not allow the jury to see evidence Xia sought to present. Also, he asserted that one English translation of one of his tweets was not accurately translated from Chinese to English.

Xia did not specify the defamatory statements made by Guo but said they were "very damaging" to him and his family.

"My personal opinion is that the jury made a verdict leading to a wrong conclusion due to asymmetric information," Xia said.