Exiled publisher gets lowdown scoops on China's elite

Ho Pin lives in Nassau County, Long Island, where he runs his Chinese- language publishing company, Mirror Media Group.
Ho Pin lives in Nassau County, Long Island, where he runs his Chinese- language publishing company, Mirror Media Group.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

United States-based Ho Pin publishes exposes on political infighting, offshore accounts and sexual exploits of Chinese leaders

NEW YORK • Ho Pin is in a dangerous line of work. He publishes books chronicling the political infighting, the far-flung business interests and, occasionally, the sex lives of China's top leaders and their families.

One of his competitors disappeared last October in Thailand, only to reappear in January on Chinese television, tearfully confessing to a decade-old fatal hit-and-run accident. Another publisher vanished off the streets of Hong Kong last December and showed up weeks later in the custody of China's police.

However, Ho, a native of Mao Zedong's home province, Hunan, is not the least bit worried about meeting the same fate.

At 50, he has spent three decades cultivating close ties with Chinese officials, business executives and scholars, producing spectacular scoops. Should he run afoul of the Communist Party, he has a sound strategy for staying out of the clutches of China's police: his address.

Nassau County, Long Island.

From there, on the other side of the planet from Beijing and Hong Kong, he runs his Chinese-language publishing company, Mirror Media Group. Mirror's books, magazines and online news articles present a portrait of China impossible to replicate inside that country's tightly controlled news environment.

"America will not send me back to China," Ho said in an interview in Queens, a favourite meeting spot of his, not far from his office in Great Neck, New York.

Although Mirror publishes its share of rumour-filled books and articles, Ho has a familiarity with the personalities that drive Chinese politics matched by few people inside the country, let alone in New York.

In 2012, Mirror - Mingjing in Chinese - published a list of the seven people who would ascend to the Communist Party's ruling Politburo Standing Committee, weeks before the official announcement.

Another news site he founded and later sold, Duowei, correctly predicted the leadership line-up for the previous two party conclaves in 2002 and 2007.

Ho is also offering predictions for next year's Communist Party conclave.

In a recent interview with a Chinese-language publication, reprinted on Mirror's website, he predicted that the party might dispense with the tradition of designating successors to the top leaders, making it unclear who would eventually take President Xi Jinping's place. He also said rigid rules on age might be loosened.

That may allow leaders such as Mr Wang Qishan, 67, who is overseeing the party's crackdown on graft, to stay in office.

The son of a factory worker, Ho attributed his success to a lifetime of cultivating sources across what counts for a political spectrum in a one-party state.

His writing skills attracted the attention of his elders at an early age. As a teenager, he acquired a mastery of the traditional Chinese characters that were being phased out in Mao's China by simpler ideographs. He uses them to this day when texting and on Mirror's website.

By the early 1980s, at 17, he was an editor at the provincial state radio broadcaster. By the time he was 21, he was the news director of a newspaper in the southern city of Shenzhen.

It was there that he started talking to some of the most powerful people in the country.

Some leaders came through the subtropical city to escape the harsh Beijing winters. Others came to learn more about capitalism. Adjacent to Hong Kong, Shenzhen was a special zone with the freest economy in the country.

Those contacts paid off four years later when Ho set off to Beijing, this time as a special correspondent for Ming Pao, a Hong Kong newspaper, to write about the Tiananmen Square protests.

Every official, it seemed, was aghast that the government had declared martial law and all of them wanted to talk to the reporter from the south.

"These officials provided me a lot of special details," he recalled, speaking in Mandarin with a slight Hunanese accent.

After the bloody crackdown on June 4, 1989, he became a wanted man, as the authorities sought to find out who had spoken to him.

Warned by friends of his imminent arrest, he slipped across the border to Macau and later moved to Canada, where he began his career in publishing.

Ho was soon drawn to Long Island, where a Taiwan-based newspaper had an office.

He has been in the United States for almost a quarter of a century, but rarely speaks English.

There is not much need in Flushing, Queens, one of the epicentres of a thriving Chinese emigre community that is making New York what Paris was to White Russians in the 1920s - with all the intrigue.

Bao Pu, publisher of New Century Press in Hong Kong, said Ho had a mixed record. Although he has had spectacular scoops and published an authoritative biography of Zhou Enlai, the first prime minister of the People's Republic of China, his company has also published its share of salacious works.

Those books made money, enticing other publishers to follow suit and that hurt the reputation of Hong Kong's media and publishing industry, Bao said.

On the one hand, Ho can be complimentary of China's politicians, saying, for example, that President Xi still has the chance to become a great leader.

He is also highly critical of people who say Hong Kong's civil liberties are in grave danger from Beijing, arguing that many people in the former British colony exaggerate the threat. The greatest danger to liberty in Hong Kong lies with the tendency of Hong Kong's media towards self-censorship, he says.

Mirror's flagship bookstore in Hong Kong, up one floor from a busy city street, is still in business, unlike many of its competitors.

One of Mirror's latest additions is a 334-page book about Chinese leaders and their offshore accounts that were uncovered by the Panama Papers only weeks earlier.

However, if Ho speaks of some leaders and policies with respect and circumspection, his critique of the Communist Party is scathing. He likens China today to a virus, saying it will increasingly use its financial power to undermine democracy around the world.

"A virus starts with just a few patients. Soon, it spreads to every corner, causing a worldwide outbreak," he said in written testimony to a congressional committee in June last year.

"This is what China will do to the world - destroy the very foundation of human freedom."

Despite his critique, he has chosen not to become a US citizen. By his reckoning, if he did, his well-placed sources in China would then think he was representing the US.

"I have a country," he said.

"China."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 21, 2016, with the headline 'Exiled publisher gets lowdown scoops on China's elite'. Print Edition | Subscribe