KUALA LUMPUR (Aug 31): The authors of Billion Dollar Whale and award-winning Wall Street Journal journalists Tom Wright and Bradley Hope have pointed their fingers at China as possibly keeping alleged 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) mastermind and fugitive financier Low Taek Jho (Jho Low) hidden in the republic.
Taking to Twitter on Wednesday (Aug 31), Wright said that Jho Low was allegedly spotted having a feast at Shanghai Disneyland in 2019, and claimed that the information came from “a Malaysian government source”.
In an accompanying YouTube channel, Wright said that "I dont think either of us or during our reporting thought that he (former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak) would ever go to jail.
“I mean, he was untouchable for so many years when he was the prime minister, and that, you know, people are optimistic now he may get a royal pardon? He may get out," he said.
Wright said the attention has now turned to the question of where is Jho Low.
"Jho Low, of course, was the orchestrator of the whole 1MDB scandal. Najib helped him.
“But Jho Low is now on the run, presumed to be in China, and that's why we've decided at Project Brazen to launch this campaign to find Jho Low. It's not that we are trying to do a citizen's arrest here, but we are trying to use the powers of crowdsourcing and journalism to locate him,” he said.
Meanwhile, Bradley explained that there are many reasons the duo thought why Jho Low is in one particular country.
He went on to recap the chasing of Jho Low — that starting in 2015, Jho Low had stopped his travel.
"And up until that moment, he was around the world in a new country every few days, on a kind of amazing trajectory that took us years to figure out what he was up to during that time.
But when US investigators started to knock on doors, he stopped his travel, but he did stay primarily in Asia as far as we can tell.
Wright said when Najib was arrested in 2018, Jho Low really was in trouble because up until that point, after the first stories about Jho Low and Najib came out in 2015, he thought Najib had told Jho Low to leave Malaysia as it was too embarrassing.
"And he spent a lot of time away from Malaysia from that point onwards, mainly in Thailand. He was staying in Bangkok, in a couple of hotels there. And he was in Shanghai, in the Peninsula Hotel.
"The reason he was in Bangkok was because he's Chinese and his grandfather came out of China, and he has family in Bangkok. Obviously, [there's] a lot of ethnic Chinese in Bangkok. And so, he was able to live there.
However, Wright said there was no evidence of Jho Low being in Bangkok after the arrest of Najib in 2018.
"But we do have some knowledge of him being in China after that point,” he said.
Bradley added that Jho Low was hiding in open view aboard his yacht and used the gymnasium as his office, and talked to different people trying to come up with a strategy to deal with the US investigation primarily.
"Because he was living on his yacht for long stretches of time, the whole world could see with free-tracking websites where the Equanimity was at all times.
"We watched it move, and he was hiding and in plain view. He was away from the ability to be extradited.
“All our reporting over the last years since we really started was pointing to Jho Low setting himself up in China, and primarily he was in Hong Kong, Macau, and there were these visits to Shanghai that maybe would go on longer or shorter depending on what was going on.
Hope also said against the backdrop of Jho Low being seen as the mastermind behind the scandal, he did some things which were "just kind of dumb".
"Famously, he created a Seychelles company where it ended up with his own name on it. This was a core part of the money laundering scheme. Likewise, when he was in Shanghai, the Peninsula Hotel confirmed that Jho Low was 'a long-term guest from Malaysia'."
Hope said he then flew to Shanghai and stayed at the Peninsula Hotel, where the staff knew about Jho Low and the room service he was ordering.
However, when Hope said he was a friend of Jho Low and wanted to meet the businessman, the receptionist and security personnel completely stonewalled him, and said they had never heard of this long-term guest.
Wright and Hope also claimed that Jho Low had sought to obtain membership of the Hong Kong Yacht Club using his wife's name, where the woman was listed as a new member.
Wright said the timeline being described was between 2017 and 2018.
Hope said that since 2019, Project Brazen had gotten tips about Jho Low being seen at parties and events in China.
The author described Jho Low's world as "shrinking progressively".
"His world was the whole world. Then it was kind of Asia, primarily China, Taiwan and Thailand. And after Najib got arrested, it became China. And so within China, it was four main cities he was spending time in.
"I think we lost track of him after the Covid pandemic, because at that point everybody was underground, and people said they had not heard from Jho Low," he said.
Wright said the Royal Malaysian Police (PDRM) had stated that Jho Low was in Wuhan at the beginning of the pandemic.
He added that there were also a few times when PDRM said Jho Low was in Macau.
"But the reason we launched this campaign to find him is because the trail has gone a little bit cold. There are three arrest warrants [for Jho Low] — in the US, Malaysia and Singapore, and they are open.
"Why would China give a safe haven to this guy?"
Hope then said China had also denied Jho Low being in the republic, and that it had no knowledge or information on the businessman.
"But we're talking about one of the greatest surveillance states on earth. You know if Jho Low [is in] China, they would definitely know.
"And in fact, our intelligence is not only that, but that Jho Low has minders from Chinese intelligence. What's most fascinating about this [is that] maybe people outside of Asia think Jho Low looks Chinese and has a huge network in China.
"Our information is very good, but I cannot get into exact details. By the time he showed up in China, when he was on the run, so to speak, he did not have that network.
"He didn't really have the connection to the political class, the intelligence network, but built it up himself," said Hope.
Wright and Hope said Jho Low had become heavily involved in China-Malaysia relations.
"We have seen the documents. We have spoken to many people about it.
“Presumably, what he did is he, if you think about it, had this amazing offer.
Wright said after news of the fraud in Malaysia broke and Jho Low was on the run, the businessman was still acting as if he was a de facto minister of Malaysia because his co-conspirator was Najib, who was still the premier back then.
"So, he was able to organise meetings in Beijing and elsewhere. We know this because they were dumb enough on the Malaysian side to take minutes of one of these meetings, which we then got hold of, in which Jho Low and some very senior people, including a minister called Sung Lee June, had this meeting in Beijing.
"Jho Low said he wanted the Chinese to do certain things for him, which included getting the 1MDB probes dropped in the US and elsewhere, and in return the Chinese would get huge infrastucture deals, rail roads and gas pipelines at these usurious rates that they were going to charge,” Wright said.
He said this discussion was minuted as well.
"Those deals would then help for the 1MDB hole, but also make a lot of money for the Chinese state — enterprises that could then be passed off between various individuals.
"Now, Sung Lee June has been arrested for corruption and indicted in January this year. So, perhaps these guys weren't freelancing to a degree. They did not have the backing of China's president for it all. But the point is Jho Low was dealing with some very senior, just sub-bureau, members of the Chinese apparatus.
And then when Najib lost power, some of the deals made were cancelled, but others were rewritten, as it was such a bad deal for Malaysia, Wright said.
"That explains why Jho Low was allowed to stay in China because he knew all these kinds of things, about how the Belt and Road Initiative works, and it would be hugely embarrassing to China if Jho Low were to turn up in a court like in the US or Malaysia,” said Wright.
Meanwhile, Hope said if the whole world knows just how craven and undermining this plan was — if all the countries in the developing world know about the details, really understood it and saw it from the testimony of someone, and saw how they were trying to essentially undermine the sovereignty of a nation state using money — that would be the worst nightmare for China.
Hope added that while the US had maintained this theory, that country is instead accused of being jealous of a rival power.
"But this is in pure paperwork of exactly how this plan worked, and how the Belt and Road initiative is not what it seems, at least in Malaysia," he said.
Wright, meanwhile, said while they had narrowed down as to why China would potentially keep Jho Low, the questions that remain in the jigsaw are the businessman's exact location, and if he is under house arrest or able to move around China freely.
Touching on their "#Where is Jho Low campaign", the duo said while they are trying to confirm whether Jho Low is in China, the other question is where is all the money.
"That's another big portion of this investigation we are doing, because all the money that's been recovered is only about US$1 billion, but we are talking about US$6 billion to US$7 billion stolen.
"That money is not accounted for — the majority of it. Jho Low is at large, and he is offering money to have a settlement with Malaysia,” they said.
Wright and Hope at the end of the clip also showed a photo of Jho Low, which came in as part of their crowdsourcing effort, which they said is the last known photograph of the businessman.