Hours after the arrest last week of fugitive Chinese mogul Guo Wengui at his Upper East Side penthouse apartment in the tony Sherry-Netherland Hotel, a two-alarm fire broke out there. New York authorities are investigating what caused the blaze, which news reports said began while Guo was in custody and FBI agents were searching his residence. The New York Post reported that investigators are looking into whether the fire was sparked “remotely.”
Guo is charged with masterminding an international scheme in which he used his claim to be a leading Chinese dissident—a brand created with the help of former Trump aide Steve Bannon—to amass supporters within the global Chinese diaspora and then allegedly defrauded them through scam investment opportunities. Guo has pleaded not guilty.
Investigators have yet to share any conclusions about the cause of the fire in Guo’s apartment. But there is some crazy context to consider. In 2017, a Chinese court found that four defendants, including Guo’s brother, had, four years earlier, destroyed accounting documents, receipts, and other records at a Beijing property Guo then owned—by fire, at Guo’s behest. A Singapore-based newspaper that covered that trial reported that the defendants destroyed 70 to 80 boxes of evidence by burning them over three days, part of an alleged effort to cover up corruption and fraud for which Chinese authorities later charged Guo. “The four defendants all argued that the they destroyed accounting data…under Guo Wengui’s order,” according to a translation of a December 14, 2017, court ruling. (Confessions in Chinese proceedings are often coerced.)
Lawyers for Guo did not respond to requests for comment.
Guo, who fled China in 2014 to avoid prosecution, has claimed the charges he faces there resulted from his criticism of China’s government. He has likewise blamed his many legal problems in the United States on Chinese influence. Guo, who remains jailed, has not specifically addressed his indictment or the fire at his residence. Pamela Tsai, a woman who acts as a spokesperson for the New Federal State of China, a group founded by Guo and Bannon, says the FBI may have started the Sherry-Netherland fire. Suspicions that Guo was behind the blaze are unfounded and result from Chinese Communist Party propaganda, Tsai claims.
Guo has regularly urged supporters to engage in a “flame revolution” against China. After calling for years for backers to “take down the CCP,” Guo late last year apparently began urging people in China to embrace arson as a sort of asymmetrical weapon against the China’s rulers. “When you have nothing, what can you do?” he asked in a December 2, 2022, video posted on the social media app Gettr, in which he is an investor. “The only weapon you have is fire.” Pointing at a red hat he had on, Guo then said: “Fire. Fire. Fire. Fire. Fire.”
In a January 4 video that also appeared on Gettr, Guo urged supporters to use the Chinese New Year, which is often celebrated with fireworks, as an excuse to start fires to “destroy the rogue organization, the CCP.” Guo referred to this push as “the firework/flame movement” and “the incinerating the CCP movement.” He added: “The ordinary people have one key weapon, which is fire. As long as there is fire, cars, gasoline, fireworks, matches, paper, flammable goods will become the best weapons to eliminate the CCP.” (These are translations from statements made in Chinese.)
A notice posted online last month by a group of Guo followers based in San Francisco also explained that his “‘flame revolution” can “completely destroy the whole CCP system.”
Guo supporters have argued that his words have had results, linking a series of fires last month in China to his campaign. There is no evidence, though, that those incidents had anything to do with Guo’s incitement. Due to CCP censorship, his exhortations are not easily viewed in China. His supporters are mostly emigres living elsewhere.
Guo has also alleged that his foes are using arson against him. In a video posted in late 2021, he predicted that the CCP would burn two hotels he formerly owned in China. And after a fire broke out last month at the Park Lane Hotel, a stone’s throw away from Guo’s place at the Sherry-Netherland, the New Federal State of China claimed in a video posted on Gettr that “a prominent member” of the group, a woman who uses the name Fei Fei, was staying there at the time. The fire reportedly started in the hotel’s kitchen, where contractors were doing work, but the broadcast said Guo strongly suspected “it was the work of the Communist Party.”