Almost $20,000 of Lisa Chen’s savings were sent to overseas bank accounts before she saw red flags about her investment into a scheme that promised to reshape the global financial order.
In April last year, Ms Chen — a Chinese immigrant to Australia — began investing in a new cryptocurrency called Himalaya Coin, or HCoin.
The digital token was being promoted by a global anti-Chinese government movement founded by fugitive Chinese businessman Guo Wengui and former Trump adviser Steve Bannon.
Mr Guo claimed the token would one day replace the Chinese renminbi.
A member of Mr Guo’s movement since early 2020, Ms Chen said she tried to warn fellow followers about her discoveries but was branded a traitor by other members of the movement.
“I invested and asked all my relatives to invest in HCoin as well,” Ms Chen said.
“I thought I did the right thing. I thought I was fighting for justice.”
She’s seen first-hand how members of the organisation have harassed and attacked their critics and detractors, but is now speaking out against them.
Other investment schemes Mr Guo’s movement had promoted were the subject of a United States Securities and Exchange Commission review that resulted in a settlement worth more than $539 million in 2021.
Mr Guo also filed for bankruptcy in Connecticut in February and claimed he had less than US$100,000 in assets.
Meanwhile, proponents of the new cryptocurrency have boasted HCoin’s market value has reached more than US$43 billion.
An ABC investigation, through analysing financial documents, private chat rooms and blockchain wallets, has unravelled a sophisticated cryptocurrency operation endorsed by Mr Guo and Mr Bannon’s political movement.
The scheme has raised alarm bells for financial crime and cryptocurrency experts, who said it had the hallmarks of a scam.
Despite international authorities putting the platform where HCoin is traded, Himalaya Exchange, on investment caution lists, it is still being promoted by Mr Guo and his loyal followers who believe it will herald a new political age.
A spokesperson for Himalaya Exchange, said it had “no connection, whether shareholding or financial, to Wengui Guo”.
A new world order and a coin to overthrow Beijing
An online search for the coin leads to a bombastic music video posted in November on YouTube called “Hcoin to the moon”.
The title is a play on a phrase popularised by cryptocurrency investors celebrating an enormous spike in a digital token’s valuation.
In the video, Mr Guo is seen taking lengthy drags from a cigar, while a ship soars past a golden moon.
The exiled billionaire then waxes lyrical about the coin’s “advanced encryption technology” between rapid inserts of fireworks and a woman dancing in an astronaut suit.
For Mr Guo’s followers, HCoin isn’t just about financial security, it is part of an all-encompassing way of life out from under the shadow of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Mr Guo reportedly fled mainland China in 2014 in anticipation of corruption charges that took down his business partner and afterwards, his political patron. He arrived in the United States in 2015, later boasting he would reveal all about top officials in China.
Qiu Yueshou, a Chinese scholar who fled the country after the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, said it was Mr Guo’s promise to provide compromising information about key CCP figures that caught his attention.
He said he was among a core group of Australian followers in a chat group with Mr Guo, where they received his direct orders.
“He said he had a Pandora’s box,” the 67-year-old said.
“When the box open, CCP finished.”
Mr Qiu and Ms Chen are former members of The Whistleblower Movement, which was led by Mr Guo and Mr Bannon.
It’s been linked to disinformation campaigns about COVID-19 and about US President Joe Biden.
To take the political movement to another level, Mr Guo and Mr Bannon founded the New Federal State of China (NFSC) on June 4, 2020, and referred to it as “a government in exile”.
They said the NFSC movement would one day replace the CCP.
Mr Guo reiterated in February, HCoin would be instrumental to their revolution and would replace the Chinese currency.
“Our NFSC’s Himalaya Exchange and Himalaya Coin can attract all the money from the Chinese people,” he said.
Ms Chen said the charismatic exiled billionaire’s vision for HCoin and NFSC convinced many of his followers to back the digital token.
“He promised us it will be a good investment,” she said.
Mr Bannon also voiced his support. In an interview posted on pro-Trump social media platform Gettr in November, he called the Himalaya Coin project “monumental”. Himalaya Exchange denied any connection to the political operative.
For Ms Chen, investing in the coin wasn’t straightforward and neither was where her money ended up.
While typical cryptocurrencies can be purchased directly from exchanges, Ms Chen said she was instructed by Himalaya Exchange to purchase HCoin tokens by making direct bank transfers to overseas bank accounts.
Ms Chen provided the ABC with bank records that showed her investment was sent to accounts in the Bahamas and the US — the latter under the beneficiary account name Himalaya International Clearing.
Australian investors, in some cases, were told to sign an agreement that prohibited them from taking any action that “could potentially hurt or damage the reputation of the Exchange”.
The Himalaya Exchange spokesperson said it would not disclose or confirm any bank account details the ABC raised with the company.
Himalaya Exchange: A mysterious multinational platform
The ABC asked several cryptocurrency and financial crime experts to analyse the trading platform Himalaya Exchange and HCoin.
They concluded both raised red flags.
It’s unclear who owns Himalaya Exchange and the website does not acknowledge any connection to Mr Guo. The platform is linked to a web of companies across Australia, the UK and the British Virgin Islands (BVI).
One Australian company linked to the exchange is Himalaya Currency Clearing (HCC), which has offices in Sydney and is registered with AUSTRAC as both a digital currency exchange and a remittance provider.
HCC’s registration means the company is subjected to anti-money laundering laws but this does not guarantee investor protection, according to cryptocurrency crime expert George Andreopoulos.
Unlike BitCoin or other well-known cryptocurrencies, HCoin can only be traded on its own platform Himalaya Exchange, which means claims about its value cannot be independently verified.
Himalaya Exchange founder and Hong Kong businessman William Je was quoted in a recent Bloomberg opinion piece that claimed HCoin had reached a market value of US$43 billion.
In US court documents, Mr Guo described Mr Ye as “a long-time friend” and allegedly told a former staffer he is “the money man”.
Lawyer and blockchain specialist Aaron Lane said there was “absolutely no chance” this eye-watering valuation was correct, adding it would put HCoin in the top 10 cryptocurrencies and above well-established tokens such as Ripple XRP.
“To be in excess of Ripple and not listed on any major list is completely unbelievable,” Dr Lane said.
He warned the scheme had “the hallmarks of a cryptocurrency scam”.
“If it’s a genuine exchange, it’s a centralised exchange, and there doesn’t appear to be a good way of seeing what’s behind that black box.”
The ABC has been unable to substantiate many of the claims made about the coin, including basic information routinely found with many other tokens.
“You can’t see who’s behind the project, whether there’s any companies backing it or funding it, what the distribution of the token is going to be,” Mr Andreopoulos said after examining HCoin’s white paper.
The same document also claimed its contract was verified by blockchain security company Certik, which would be an indication the project had been checked by a third party.
In a statement to the ABC, the company said HCoin was not a Certik project.
The Himalaya Exchange spokesperson said its whitepaper had been “drafted and verified by numerous lawyers in different jurisdictions” and it had disclosed “all relevant information”.
“Investors have a choice whether to invest or not,” they said.
The company also rebuked suggestions it was not audited by Certik, adding it had “relevant documentation” but did not provide it to the ABC.
The exchange’s website also does not provide any information about the blockchain contracts for HCoin.
Researchers with social media analysis group SMAT…