US wants to revive good old days of propaganda work in Hong Kong

April 06, 2017 15:28
The now defunct US Information Services operated inside the US Consulate-General for decades. The USIS was a key agency for Washington's propaganda activities. Photo: HKEJ

Few heeded a law signed by then outgoing US president Barack Obama before last Christmas.

In fact, that's exactly what Obama wanted when he “quietly” signed the Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act, which some commentators called a “dangerous Christmas gift”.

The act, part of the bigger National Defense Authorization Act of 2017, had been approved handily by a clear majority of the House and Senate. 

Out of Washington’s US$584 billion budget for national defense for the current fiscal year, some US$800 million would be set aside for the training of news professionals and funding for non-governmental organizations, think tanks and private entities to counter “fake news” about the US.

The negligible amount notwithstanding, the initiative, in the name of anti-propaganda, marks Washington’s renewed bid since the end of the Cold War to beef up its own global propaganda and soft-sell of the “universal values” it thinks it embodies.

Beijing’s multibillion-dollar “fanfare projects” worldwide, from setting up Confucius Institutes in numerous overseas universities to buying up ad space in leading publications and prime-time television, has obviously put a positive spin on its own image.

This has set Washington thinking. Rob Portman, the Republican senator that spearheaded the bill, said Beijing’s self-branding beyond its border was not just about ballyhooing the merit of its political and social systems; it also served political purposes, like justifying its island building and militarization of the South China Sea.

Beijing’s propaganda has already swayed, if not brainwashed, not a few Westerners who were once critical of China.

The Obama administration was thus pushed to counter China’s growing say in the Western media and discourse.

US trips and royalties

Indeed, Washington used to splurge on its own publicity schemes overseas in the decades following the end of World War II.

The then British Hong Kong was a vital outpost for the endeavor starting from the 1950s, when a team of the now defunct US Information Services (USIS), stationed at the US Consulate-General at Garden Road, pumped money for local anti-Communist groups and publishers.

Other than the generous dollars, they also invited journalists and writers to exchange tours to the United States.

I was invited to one of those tours while working at Ming Pao Daily, and later on many HKEJ employees also joined such all-costs-covered trips packed with seminars and visits to enterprises and scenic spots, culminating with a press conference at the White House.

While in the US, participants would stay at the homes of famed scholars or reporters and given some handsome honoraria and allowances to buy books as well.

And one thing was for sure: none from pro-Beijing newspapers or the leftist camp was ever invited.

The USIS also commissioned members of the media to translate US novels and academic publications into Chinese, with a generous pay considerably higher than the market rates on offer. I once translated the work of Nobel Prize laureate Simon Kuznets.

More historical evidence about Washington’s subtle infiltration of local media was laid bare by Wang Mei Hsiang, a Taiwan scholar at the National Tsing Hua University, in her doctoral thesis on Washington’s cultural aid and its anti-Communist input in Hong Kong and Taiwan’s post World War II literary works.

A well-trodden way for USIS in Hong Kong to “recruit” writers was through pecuniary aid amid the mass exodus from up north, when numerous intellectuals fled calamities and the Communist rule to the then British colony.

With the help, some of these cynical yet talented defectors resumed writing as political commentators at local newspapers, including Ming Pao.

Declassified documents on USIS operations in the 1950s showed that advance royalties for anti-Communist articles could fetch up to US$400 a piece, or HK$2,400 at the exchange rate back then. The average monthly salary of a public school teacher at the time was HK$300.

More eminent columnists and literati were approached with even bigger cheques. It has been revealed that Eileen Chang, one of the most acclaimed novelists in the modern era with enormous clout and following among the Chinese diaspora, once relied solely on the money from these US envoys for translating Chinese novels into English.

It’s said that Chang got US$10,000 for translating a novel into English, a handsome fee even by today's standards. Surely working for Washington back then meant riding a big gravy train.

The USIS would then print, in large amounts, novels or translated books critical of Mao Zedong and his Communist republic and sell or donate them to Chinese communities in Southeast Asia.

Washington and the founding of CUHK

The founding of the Chinese University of Hong Kong also had a lot to do with Washington’s cultural containment against Beijing and its efforts to woo and indoctrinate intellectuals, through the Asia Foundation.

The well-funded organization, at the behest of the USIS and the Central Intelligence Agency, was tasked with establishing contact with tens of thousands of scholars and intellectuals who sought refuge in Hong Kong after the mainland fell to Mao’s Red Army in 1949.

The Dwight Eisenhower administration subsequently approved a lump sum of US$250,000 for financial aid to a selected number of them.

The foundation also sponsored local tertiary education, in particular colleges founded or led by Chinese scholars in exile in Hong Kong, as bulwarks against the spillover of the Communist rule north of the border.

Through a subsidiary, the Asia Foundation made generous donations to nine such colleges. Ample funding and scholarship led to rapid growth in staff and student headcounts, and three of these colleges, Chung Chi, New Asia and United, decided to join forces and form CUHK in 1963.

The USIS’ surreptitious liaison oiled the entire process.

London was largely hands off while its ally turned Hong Kong into a covert propaganda base: local authorities never stepped into the cultural rivalry among Beijing, Taiwan’s Kuomintang and Washington in this tiny colony.

But rather, London’s laissez-faire after drawing its own bottom line made sure that Hong Kong was a safe playground for all, even contending forces.

Today, with Washington’s imperative to revive the power of words in its public and media diplomacy, Asia, not Europe of the Cold War years, is now without doubt in its full glare.

I have reasons to believe that Hong Kong may become a hive of activity in this respect.

Still one of the most internationalized cities in the region, Hong Kong has a cluster of print and digital media outlets in a relatively free ecosystem.

And don’t forget the territory’s many advocacy groups and think tanks with a wide mix of people and funding from various backgrounds.

It goes without saying that Hong Kong is ready to provide a foothold when Washington looks to fend off Beijing’s ideological campaign and step up its own across the continent.

Members of the media need to stay vigilant and not become the agitprop operatives of either side.

This article is an excerpt of two separate columns that appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 22 and 29.

Translation by Frank Chen with additional reporting

[Chinese version 1, 2 中文版]

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Renowned novelist Eileen Chang reportedly got US$10,000 for translation commissioned by the USIS while she was residing in Hong Kong, Chang later migrated to the US. Photo:
The Chinese University of Hong Kong owes its establishment to the USIS's generous donations to local colleges, which later became constituent members of the university. Photo: CUHK
Outgoing US President Barack Obama signed the Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act into law at the end of last year. Photo: Handout

A famous Hong Kong writer; founder of the Hong Kong Economic Journal