China on Friday stepped up an international campaign against fugitive billionaire and government critic Guo Wengui, with the fraud trial of employees linked to an investment firm he controls.
According to an indictment, the company and three of its employees stand accused of fraudulently obtaining loans and foreign exchange at Guo's instigation, official media reported.
Yang Ying, Lu Tao and Xie Honglin, who worked at Guo's Beijing Pangu Investment Co., stood trial at the Dalian Xigang District People's Court in the northeastern province of Liaoning on Friday.
All three said Guo had directed them to carry out the alleged fraud, and admitted faking construction contracts and other documents to apply for loans totaling 3.2 billion yuan (U.S. $470.6 million) and foreign currency, the amount of which wasn't specified in court.
The company later paid back the loans in full, but prosecutors accused Guo of using the foreign exchange to buy a second private jet.
Guo, who has an Interpol "red notice" issued for his arrest, welcomed the trial in a series of social media comments, saying it was conducted "according to law."
Guo, who is also known as Miles Kwok, is named as a suspect by the notice, which requests that the police forces of member states "locate and provisionally arrest an individual pending extradition."
Prosecutors also charged Lu and Xie with fraudulently obtaining foreign exchange totaling U.S. $13.5 million from the Bank of Communications using falsified documents in a separate transaction in 2012 which also involved a company controlled by Guo's son, Guo Qiang.
All three defendants expressed regret, plead guilty and thanked the court for its lawful handling of their case, as well as plead for leniency on the basis that they were carrying out Guo's instructions.
"The verdict will be announced at a later date," state news agency Xinhua reported, adding that Friday's trial is the first in "a series of cases" involving Beijing Pangu Investment and Beijing Zenith Holdings.
"Other cases involving offering bribes, forced transactions, duty-related encroachment, embezzlement, destroying accounting documents and unlawful detention are being handled according to the law," the agency said.
Beijing says Guo is wanted for paying 60 million yuan (U.S. $8.72 million) in bribes to disgraced former state security vice-minister Ma Jian, with whom he has been linked.
But Guo, who has lived overseas for the past two years, said the move is linked to fears that he will act as a whistle-blower on corruption among the highest echelons of China's leadership.
Political commentators said the "internationalization" of the Guo Wengui case with the Interpol warrant lays bare the extent of the overseas exodus of China's richest and most powerful people.
Analyst Liang Jing said the case shows the ruling Chinese Communist Party trying to set an example for the country's political and financial elite who may hope to dodge President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption campaign by relocating overseas.
"The internationalization of the crisis within the Chinese leadership ... presents a huge challenge [because] ... regardless of whether or not Guo Wengui sees justice, the various facts of the case that he has revealed have had a powerful impact on China's elite class," Liang wrote.
"The fact that so many of the political and financial elite place so many of their ill-gotten gains, and even their younger sons and daughters, overseas, show how little faith they have in the future of this country," he said.
"They won't be taking any responsibility for what happens in the future: indeed, even more of them will be looking to leave China to protect their assets and their children's future," Liang said in a commentary broadcast by RFA's Cantonese Service.
And current affairs commentator Jiang Weiping said Guo's judicious use of social media while being effectively on the run from China has nonetheless gained him a huge online following.
"Unlike China's dissidents, more and more of whom are in jail as the Chinese Communist Party regime gets harsher and harsher ... billionaire Guo Wengui's online revelations and videos attract an insane amount of attention from the general public," Jiang wrote in a recent commentary for RFA's Mandarin Service.
"The attention hasn't slackened off one bit in recent months, and it has received blanket coverage in the overseas Chinese media," he said. "This is partly because rich people are perceived as the winners, and people are curious about them."
"He has made good use of videos on social media, and he has plenty of funding and equipment, as well as trained staff, to enable his voice to be hugely magnified," Jiang wrote. "These are all factors in his becoming an online phenomenon."
Reported by RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.