The phone call awoke Pras Michél in the middle of a spring night in 2017. His “cousin from China” needed to meet, the woman on the line said. The caller was an ex-girlfriend who Michél, a rapper, producer and member of legendary hip-hop group the Fugees, hadn’t spoken to in years. He grew up in a Haitian family in New Jersey and doesn’t have a cousin from China, but he knew what the message meant.
Michél dressed and called a car to take him to the Four Seasons Hotel on 57th Street in Manhattan. The front desk clerk handed him a note. It instructed him to exit the hotel and circle the block twice, scanning to see if he was being tailed. Michél did as he was told and returned to the clerk, who gave him a room key. He went up to an empty suite and waited.
After about 25 minutes there was a knock on the door. An austere-looking Chinese security agent in a suit gave Michél a second room key and told him to go to the penthouse. Inside, another agent took Michél’s phones and placed them in a pouch. A table and two chairs sat in the middle of the room.
“They can’t kill me in the Four Seasons,” Michél said to himself.
Featured in Bloomberg Businessweek, March 6, 2023. Subscribe now. Photographer: Marc Baptiste for Bloomberg Businessweek
Soon a short, chubby man with wavy hair arrived, surrounded by more security personnel. Michél had met him before. He was Sun Lijun, China’s vice minister of public security. Sun began shouting in Chinese. An interpreter translated for Michél: “Who the f— do the US government think they are?”
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Sun said he’d come to the US for sensitive negotiations with President Donald Trump’s administration but had failed to secure a high-level meeting. For three years, Beijing had been targeting Chinese nationals living in America who it viewed as threats. Agents had surveilled emigrés, visited their houses and detained family members still in China, aiming to persuade the targets to return home, where some would be charged with serious crimes. Called “Operation Fox Hunt,” the covert repatriation strategy had infuriated US officials.
Of particular concern to Sun was Guo Wengui, a real estate billionaire living on a temporary visa in New York. From his home overlooking Central Park, Guo had enraged the Chinese government by making a series of scandalous claims to the media, purporting to reveal the assets of top Communist Party officials. China was prepared to release two American citizens—one of them pregnant—being kept in the country under a so-called exit ban if the US deported Guo.
Behind the scenes, the US government had been agitating for their return. But when Sun and his entourage arrived in Washington, hoping to make a deal, Attorney General Jeff Sessions was traveling and unable to meet with them, according to an email Sessions wrote in May 2017. Unsure what to do next, Sun sought Michél’s help. (The Department of Justice declined to comment.)
“This is way above my pay grade,” Michél said after Sun laid out the situation. “But if I were you, I would at least send the pregnant woman back as a token of good faith.”
“You think so?” Sun asked, now calmer and speaking in English. An agent handed Sun a telephone. After a brief conversation, he turned again to Michél. “When do you want her back?”
Michél, who’d won two Grammys with the Fugees before going on to a solo career, was unsure about the usual time frame for international hostage repatriations. “Tomorrow?” he asked.
“The weekend is no good.”
By Tuesday the woman was back in the US.
About two months later an FBI special agent interrupted Michél at brunch near his apartment in SoHo. The agent had 12 photos of Chinese officials and many questions: Who did Michél meet at the Four Seasons? Who else had contacted him from the Chinese government? And of course: How had a famous rapper and record producer found himself in the middle of a high-stakes negotiation between global superpowers?
Michél’s audience with a top Chinese security official, reported here for the first time, was a flashpoint in one of the most unusual political influence campaigns in recent memory. His involvement began by chance, around 2006, when he met a baby-faced Malaysian businessman named Jho Low. Low was a globe-trotting financier whose lavish spending would put him on familiar terms with dozens of A-list entertainers. But by 2016, US investigators believed he’d masterminded the embezzlement of billions of dollars from the Malaysian sovereign wealth fund 1MDB, blowing much of it on artwork, real estate and gifts for celebrity friends including Leonardo DiCaprio and Kim Kardashian. Few were as close to Low as Michél: Prosecutors seized $95 million that they alleged originated with Low from Michél’s accounts.
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