Facebook blocks billionaire Guo Wengui known for provoking China

Guo Wengui at his apartment in the Sherry Netherlands Hotel, in New York, on May 16, 2017. Facebook said it had blocked a profile under Guo's name and taken down another page associated with him. PHOTO: NYTIMES

HONG KONG (NYTIMES) - A Chinese billionaire living in virtual exile in New York has riled China's leaders with his sometimes outlandish tales of deep corruption among family members of top Communist Party officials.

On Saturday, Guo Wengui's tales proved too much for one of his favourite platforms for broadcasting those accusations: Facebook.

The social media network said it had blocked a profile under Guo's name and taken down another page associated with him. Facebook said the content on both pages had included someone else's personal identifiable information, which violates its terms of service.

Facebook investigated the accounts after receiving a complaint, according to a spokeswoman.

"We want people to feel free to share and connect on Facebook, as well as to feel safe, so we don't allow people to publish the personal information of others without their consent," the spokesman, Charlene Chian, said. She declined to say who had complained.

Guo did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The profile under Guo's name was not verified.

The move comes at a sensitive time for both the Chinese government and Facebook.

China has taken several steps in recent months to clamp down on public discourse before a major Communist Party gathering scheduled to take place this month.

President Xi Jinping, the party's top leader, is widely expected to use the meeting to cement his power and to make personnel changes that could have wide repercussions in coming years. Chinese leaders, who prize stability above all else, want the meeting to go off without a hitch.

Last week, Chinese officials largely blocked the WhatsApp messaging app, which is owned by Facebook. It also punished three of the biggest Chinese social media and chat forums, fining Tencent Holdings, Baidu and Weibo for failing to supervise users and prevent banned content such as pornography and violence on their platforms.

For Facebook, it is the latest setback to the company's efforts to expand in China. Mark Zuckerberg, its founder, has made a series of grand gestures to gain market access, including meeting with Chinese politicians, learning to speak Mandarin and even reading Communist Party propaganda, most of it to little avail. Many Facebook apps have been blocked in China for years.

Facebook has nonetheless signalled its continued interest in China, even though operating there under current laws would require it to bend to Chinese laws on censorship and personal information disclosure.

Facebook insiders said last year that they had worked on a tool that could appeal to China's censors. This spring, Facebook quietly authorised a small Chinese company to release a version of Moments, its picture-sharing app.

Meanwhile, Facebook is facing scrutiny in the United States, where it faces a congressional investigation for hosting ads linked to Russia that may have played a role in the 2016 presidential election.

Many of Guo's accusations have seemed outlandish, but he has remained a thorn in the side of the Chinese government. In the spring, China asked Interpol to issue a request for his arrest. At the time, both Facebook and Twitter suspended Guo's accounts. Facebook later said the suspension was a mistake.

Some evidence that Guo has presented to back up his claims is easy to refute. But others have been corroborated by The New York Times.

More recently, Guo, who is in the United States on a tourist visa and who lives in a US$68 million (S$92 million) apartment overlooking Central Park in Manhattan, has sought asylum because of what his lawyer claimed was his status as "a political opponent of the Chinese regime."

Chinese news outlets, many of them controlled by the government, have ramped up scrutiny of Guo, with reports accusing him of fraud, money laundering and even rape. Guo has denied the allegations, calling them a smear campaign.

The blocks affect both the profile under Guo's name and an associated Facebook page, a type of account often used by businesses and other organisations.

Neither will be able to add content while the block is in place, Facebook said; the company would not specify how long the block would last. It also said that the page associated with Guo would remain off the site unless an administrator for the page appealed to the company.

On Sunday, the profile with Guo's name was still visible, but with what Facebook said was a "temporary feature block."

A verified page with Guo's name remained on Facebook.

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