Friday, June 14, 2024

Protesters for the New Federalist State of China on Jan. 3, targeting a Cambridge resident related to a lawyer involved in a bankruptcy case. (Photo: Jake Stern)

Third-grade teacher Isabelle Despins has endured months of protests outside her home from a far-right group that originated online.

The protests began Nov. 20, when four Chinese nationals set up lawn chairs in front of Despins’ apartment building on Fayette Street in Mid-Cambridge. Wearing tight zipped winter jackets, they held signs with phrases such as “Luc Despins makes the 2022 A-List [of] Scumbags” in the direction of a livestream, which amplified the event to conservative social media.

Like other demonstrations targeting family members of Luc Despins across the country, the Cambridge protest has continued on a near daily basis into the new year.

“We’re here to protest Luc Despins’ daughter because Luc Despins took money from the Communist Party of China,” protester Frank Wang said underneath dark sunglasses and a white baseball cap. “We are also patriots of the United States of America. We love this country. We’re here defending American democracy. We are here defending American liberty.” Frank’s Chinese name is Yanming, according to a court filing.

Wang said the four to eight people who show up on any given day are volunteers with a group called the New Federalist State of China, a purportedly “anti-Communist” government in exile co-founded by right-wing pundit and political adviser Steve Bannon and Miles Guo, a former real estate developer who fled China in 2014 amid corruption allegations. Guo is also known as Guo Wengui and Miles Kwok.

Making sense of the protests

Since arriving in the states, Guo has used his billions to ingratiate himself in right-wing U.S. political circles, becoming a member at Mar-a-Lago, helping fund the creation of the conservative social media app Gettr and building a business relationship with Bannon. In the summer of 2020, with his yacht, the Lady May, floating in the background, Guo stood side by side with Bannon to announce the creation of the NFSC as “warriors” intent on “taking down the” Chinese Communist Party. (An excerpt is above.) Bannon would be arrested on felony charges while on the Lady May later that summer.

Critics say the group has been used to attack Guo’s personal and political enemies. It appears to be targeting Isabelle Despins because her father was appointed by the Department of Justice to oversee Guo’s assets in his $130 million bankruptcy case. Guo claims Despins has a conflict of interest because his law firm, Paul Hastings, previously represented Pacific Alliance Group, Guo’s largest creditor.

“We are Chinese dissidents,” said an older protester on Nov. 20. “When the Chinese Communist Party is doing things to damage the interests of the world, including America, they don’t do it by themselves. They have a lot of American enablers and helpers … And one of them is Luc Despins.”

The man, who would not give his full name, said they were also there to protest another Chinese national, Weijian Shan. Standing next to a sign with accusations of “crimes against humanity,” the protester called Shan “a CCP spy” and that “Luc is the law firm that works very closely with [him].”

Shan is chief executive of Pacific Alliance Group, which owns much of Guo’s debt through a subsidiary.

The protesters say they have no prior relationship to one another and that the protest was organized spontaneously through conversations on the social media network Gettr and messaging apps Signal and WeChat. Protesters could not produce tangible evidence linking Luc Despins or Weijian Shan to the Chinese government. Neither man lives in Cambridge, or even Massachusetts. Instead, NFSC members are stationed outside the homes of their family members in New York, Los Angeles and Connecticut as part of an organized effort known as the 90-day “Say No to Evil” campaign.

Likely paid protesters

The protesters on Jan. 15 in a new location after a judge placed restrictions on them. (Photo: Jake Stern)

In Cambridge, the so-far peaceful protests outside Isabelle Despins’ home are led by Wang, who interlaces his talk about the Despins with unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, such as how Bill Gates is working with China to use Covid vaccines as bioweapons. Wang, who claims to be a former research fellow at Harvard Medical School and to have had a successful career in pharmaceuticals, said he is working for the protest group full time – unpaid and in a “volunteer capacity.” According to Mother Jones, audio messages, bank statements and interviews with NFSC members confirm that its protesters are sometimes paid $200 a day.

Wang speaks fondly of Guo, saying, “I love him very much” and that “he surpasses George Washington.”

Asked why the NFSC is protesting a woman uninvolved with her father’s bankruptcy case, Wang said “she benefits from him financially.” He said Luc Despins takes “blood money” from the Chinese government.

Standing nearby handing out flyers is a protester named Haiping who said she traveled from Minnesota for the “Say No to Evil” campaign but will not comment about Guo, the NFSC or how she learned about the protests.

Guo’s hit list

It’s not the first time Guo and the NFSC have used propagandists such as Wang to go after enemies. In September 2020, Guo released a hit list and called on his followers to “kill the cheaters.” Pastor Bob Fu, the cofounder of ChinaAid, which provides sanctuary to Christians fleeing China, was on the list and lambasted as a spy for the Chinese government. He received death threats and dozens of NFSC activists protested outside his home in Midland, Texas, leading to the FBI placing Fu and family members in protective custody. That same month, after Guo went on a rant against “fake pro-democracy activists,” anti-CCP activist Mang Liuzi was assaulted by a Guo follower outside of his home in Los Angeles. A few months later, in Vancouver, Louis Huang was attacked by protesters targeting Huang’s friend, Gao Bingchen, a journalist critical of Guo.

Guo has supported the demonstrations, disseminating their coverage through Gettr and his website Gnews. In response, on Nov. 24, just three days into the “Say No to Evil campaign,” a temporary restraining order was granted by a judge against Guo, restricting him from “posting false and harassing” content or “encouraging, inciting, suggesting or directly or indirectly funding protests” against Despins, the Pacific Alliance Group or their respective family members.

“If a temporary restraining order [is not issued], any continuing harassment may deter witnesses from assisting with the trustee’s investigation or deter creditors from filing claims,” the court said. Still, Guo’s media network continues to show support for the protests and his followers march on.

Increasingly hostile

In the past few weeks, the protest in Cambridge has become increasingly hostile. The signs now read “Isabelle Despins: Every next dollar Luc gives you comes from Chinese slave-laborers’ blood,” and some make allegations of antisemitism; the group is also handing out a high-definition photoshopped image of her father in the grasp of a devil with a hammer and sickle.

Two middle-aged women now accompany them: Alice from Texas and Jean from Florida. (Neither protester would give their full name.) Jean said she came here to support a cause she considers important. Like Wang, she claimed to be a volunteer. “I am retired, so I’m not doing this for money,” Jean said at a protest Jan. 9.

On Jan. 10, Wang and his group ratcheted up their efforts by standing outside the Kennedy-Longfellow School in East Cambridge, where Isabelle Despins has taught for two years. They carried signs with fake bloodstains and accusations of responsibility for crimes committed by China. “It’s nothing personal against his daughter,” Wang said. “She’s got a lot of money from him, so she’s part of the problem.”

Protesters are employing a tactic used in Chinese espionage “to make the person tired,” Wang said.

New restrictions, “more visibility”

As school got out, Wang walked up to an administrator and could be overheard talking frantically about Luc Despins and his connection to China. At the same time, a Chinese teacher walked by and shook his head disappointingly at Wang, who responded by pointing at him and exclaiming, “he supports the Chinese Communist Party!”

The next day, a judge released new restrictions on the protests, preventing Guo from “protesting, picketing, parading or displaying or distributing harassing material at any time within 200 feet of the homes of relatives, including former spouses.” NFSC members in Cambridge moved a block from Isabelle Despins’ house to Broadway and Fayette, next to the current site of the Tobin Montessori School. When asked why they moved so far away, Wang grinned and responded, “More visibility.”

Luc and Isabelle Despins declined to comment.

Jake Stern is a freelance writer and journalist in the Cambridge and Boston area.

This post was updated Feb. 5, 2023, given newly provided information about protesters.