Ho Pin (何频) is in a very 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 in 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 in late December and showed up weeks later in the custody of the mainland police.
Another, who was planning to publish a book critical of President Xi Jinping, is serving a 10-year sentence in a Chinese prison for smuggling industrial chemicals. Yet another appeared this week in Hong Kong, telling how he had been blindfolded, taken away by train and held for months by the Chinese authorities and forced to sign a confession.
But Mr. Ho, a native of Mao Zedong’s home province, Hunan, is not the least bit worried about meeting the same fate. Now 50, he has spent three decades cultivating close ties with Chinese officials, business executives and scholars, producing some spectacular scoops. And should he ever 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, driving a Tesla Model S through the suburbs. 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,” Mr. Ho said in an interview in Flushing, Queens, a favorite meeting spot of his not far from his office in Great Neck, N.Y.
Although Mirror publishes its share of rumor-filled books and articles, Mr. 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 lineups for the previous two party conclaves, in 2002 and 2007.
Mr. Ho is also offering up some 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 Mr. Xi’s place. He also said rigid rules on age might be loosened. That may allow leaders such as Wang Qishan, who is overseeing the party’s crackdown on graft, to stay in office.
The son of a factory worker, Mr. 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 for a paper in the southern city 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 Mr. 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 young reporter from the south.
“These officials provided me a lot of very special details,” Mr. Ho recalled, speaking in Mandarin with a slight Hunanese accent.
After the bloody crackdown on June 4, 1989, Mr. Ho 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, then a Portuguese enclave, and later moved on to Canada, where he began his career in publishing.
Mr. Ho was soon drawn to Long Island, where a Taiwan-based paper had an office. He has been in the United States for nearly a quarter-century now, but rarely speaks English.
There’s not much need in Flushing, one of the epicenters of a thriving Chinese émigré community that is making New York what Paris was to White Russians in the 1920s, with all the intrigue.
Some of that intrigue centers on Mr. Ho, as scholars and publishers wonder how he manages to walk a fine line between China’s contentious interest groups.
“Unlike his competition, Ho Pin has an impressive track record of accurately forecasting leadership successions and breaking important stories,” said Prof. Minxin Pei, who studies Chinese elite politics at Claremont McKenna College in California. “The only concern I have is whether he is being used by his sources inside the Chinese regime. If he is, he could get into serious trouble because the rivals of his sources must not be very happy about what he has been doing.”
Bao Pu, the publisher of New Century Press in Hong Kong, said Mr. 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 hurting the reputation of Hong Kong’s media and publishing industry, Mr. Bao said.
“I’m not sure whether they contributed to freedom of speech or if they spoiled it,” Mr. Bao said of Mirror.
But if Mr. Ho is an agent of his sources, it is hard to tell who they may be. On the one hand, he can be complimentary of China’s politicians, saying, for example, that Mr. 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 toward self-censorship, he says.
Mirror’s flagship bookstore in Hong Kong, up one floor from a busy city street, is still in business, unlike so many of its competitors, which are falling victim to a relentless long-term campaign by the Communist Party to stifle the supply of and demand for publications critical of the country’s leadership.
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. Another book on its shelves is a 2009 volume that claims to depict the extramarital sex lives of China’s top leaders, including Mr. Xi.
But if Mr. Ho speaks of some leaders and policies with respect and circumspection, his critique of the Chinese 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,” Mr. Ho 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, Mr. Ho has chosen not to become a United States citizen. By his reckoning, if he did, his well-placed sources in China would then think he was representing America.
And why bother? Flushing these days feels more and more like China. Mr. Ho chose to meet at the Rose House, a faux English tearoom with overstuffed red leather sofas, chandeliers and loud floral wallpaper, a kind of Laura Ashley-gone-rogue style common in Beijing and Shanghai. Needless to say, the lingua franca among its customers and staff is Mandarin Chinese.
“I have a country,” he said. “China.”