A fugitive Chinese billionaire claims this cryptocurrency will overthrow Beijing. Experts say it has the 'hallmarks of a scam'
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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.
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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".
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.
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 Je 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 located two blockchain addresses — one for HCoin and another associated with a stable-coin called Himalaya Dollar — but cryptocurrency experts could not identify any evidence of regular trading for either.
A Himalaya Exchange spokesperson did not respond to ABC questions about these addresses.
It said Himalaya Coin "was recently launched and is in discussion with other exchanges".
"[It] will be listed with other exchanges in due course," they said.
The exchange has also come under scrutiny from overseas regulators, including New Zealand's Financial Markets Authority (FMA), which said it is "not a registered financial service provider" in the country.
The FMA has issued a warning about the exchange, along with regulators in the Bahamas and in the Canadian province of British Columbia.
The Securities Commission of the Bahamas (SCB) said in a January 25 notice that it was investigating complaints that Himalaya Exchange "may be conducting activities" that were "either registrable/licensable or illegal" in its jurisdiction.
It said the company was cooperating with its investigation.
A Himalaya Exchange spokesperson said those warnings were based on "malicious, false complaints and all notices have been contested and are defended".
The exchange said authorities had "concluded that there was no wrongdoing" on their part.
However, notices remain on all three regulator websites, with the FMA stating it "recommend[s] exercising caution when dealing with this entity".
British Columbia authorities gave similar warnings and added the platform was not "registered or recognised" in its jurisdiction.
When Ms Chen grew suspicious of HCoin in August last year she contacted Australian regulators and her bank, National Australia Bank (NAB), with little success to reclaim her $20,000 investment.
NAB referred her case to its digital fraud and scams team.
A review concluded "the money transfers as a result from the scam could not be reversed because the recipient organisations will not return your money".
Ms Chen said she fared better with the offshore banks where her money was sent. After reaching out to them she was refunded most of her investment.
But when she raised her concerns to Himalaya Exchange and other Australian NFSC followers in a covert chatroom on voice messaging service, Discord, she said she was labelled a "CCP agent" and lost access to Himalaya Exchange.
"Some people lost more money than me," Ms Chen said.
"Why they didn't speak out? Because they are afraid."
A Himalaya spokesperson said it was confident it had not fallen foul of any refund policies.
"The Exchange has never retained anyone's funds and all return of funds have been honoured," they said.
Ms Chen is still urging Australian authorities and banks to investigate the scheme and protect Australian investors.
"I want them to stop other investors from sending money over and protect them from being scammed," she said.
Neither Mr Guo, Mr Bannon or Himalaya Exchange founder William Je responded to ABC interview requests or answered detailed questions about HCoin.
However, Mr Guo continues to sing the praises of HCoin and Himalaya Exchange.
On March 30, during the invasion of Ukraine, he claimed on social media that a "world-renowned individual" had asked him for one million HCoins.
Two men who worked in a propaganda machine led by Steve Bannon and billionaire Guo Wengui are speaking out about the tactics and motives behind the secretive conspiracy group.
Both Mr Qiu and Ms Chen hope other followers will become disillusioned by the movement.
"I think Guo and Bannon are just using 'take down the CCP' as an excuse to make money," Mr Qiu said.
"Himalaya Exchange's vision is to give financial freedom to everyone in the world and supports freedom, human rights, and democracy," Himalaya Exchange's spokesperson said.
It said some of its supporters share its vision and promote the exchange on their own social media, but "these organisations and persons have no financial or any other relationship" with the company.
"Himalaya Exchange is aware that it is constantly being maliciously attacked by CCP and organisations/bad actors sponsored by them, including some customers who made complaints without any grounds," it said.
Meanwhile, an apparent live ticker on the Himalaya Exchange website showed HCoin was currently valued at around US$43, up from US$0.10 when it was launched in November.
Read the story in Chinese: 阅读中文版本
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A fugitive Chinese billionaire claims this cryptocurrency will overthrow Beijing. Experts say it has the 'hallmarks of a scam'