Virginian cast as center of Hong Kong plot

November 8, 2011

Mark Simon, a 47-year-old businessman from Falls Church, was until recently just another American lured by the opportunities offered by Asia’s economic boom.

Today, the portly Virginian has a dashing but, he says, “extremely unpleasant” new role at the center of a political thriller scripted by China’s Communist Party and its allies in Hong Kong. It features espionage, slush funds, U.S. plots to bring chaos to the former British colony and, Simon says, “intense lies.”

“I’m the ice sculpture in the middle of a big propaganda buffet,” said Simon, a former submarine analyst at the Pentagon who now works for Jimmy Lai, a media tycoon whose outspoken calls for democracy and criticism of China’s ruling party have long riled Beijing.

Beijing has been gunning for Lai for years, but attacks on him and other pro-democracy figures escalated sharply in the run-up to hotly contested Hong Kong elections for neighborhood councils. In the voting, held Sunday, pro-China candidates trounced the democracy camp.

The elections were mostly dominated by local issues, including the status of Filipina maids and complaints that minibus drivers play their radios too loudly. But pro-China media also homed in on Simon’s past as an intelligence analyst at the Pentagon and his current employment with Lai’s Next Media to paint Hong Kong’s leading democracy advocates as American stooges.

“This is their constant refrain,” said Christine Loh, the head of local think tank Civic Exchange and the author of a book about the role of the Communist Party in Hong Kong. If you cross Beijing, she said, “they always assume you have let yourself become the instrument of an unfriendly foreign power.”

Political donations revealed

Simon, who moved to Hong Kong in 1992 to take a job with a shipping company, surfaced as a focus of attention last month after the financial records of his boss, Lai, mysteriously popped up on the Internet. They revealed that Lai had made donations of nearly $8 million over five years to pro-democracy groups and individuals — and that Simon, as head of his private office, handled the payments.

The donations broke no laws and were tiny compared with those made to pro-China parties by Hong Kong businessmen whose identities have remained secret. Financial statements show that Lai and a few other donors gave $770,000 to Hong Kong’s Democratic Party over a 12-month period that ended in March 2010, while unidentified donors contributed $6.2 million over the same period to the Democrats’ main rival, the Beijing-friendly Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong.

China’s official government representatives in Hong Kong kept quiet, but an extensive network of party-controlled organizations mobilized for attack. The party still operates in Hong Kong as it did under British rule as an underground organization: It is not registered, and its membership is secret. It nonetheless controls newspapers, trade union groups and a host of other bodies loyal to Beijing.

Hong Kong papers run by the party and a media group owned by a pro-China businessman suggested that the money Lai donated had originated in America, citing as evidence Simon’s former Pentagon job and his position in 2005 as head of the Hong Kong branch of Republicans Abroad. This, said Wen Wei Po, a party-run newspaper, showed that Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp is led by “political agents nurtured and funded by American intelligence organs.”

Simon, who spends most of his time in Taiwan, where he runs Next Media’s animation unit, dismissed the whole affair as a “sloppy farce.” He said he worked for three years at the Pentagon but has “not been involved in any capacity with the U.S. government” since leaving the Defense Department in 1991, nor with “any service, agency, military arm, any program, charity or activity supported by the U.S. government or any government.”

Albert Cheng, a prominent commentator and radio personality, said he doubted that many ordinary people in Hong Kong believe allegations of American plotting. He said the pro-democracy camp’s setbacks were a result of bitter infighting between rival factions and other failings. Revelations of Lai’s financial donations in support of democracy, he added, only make the tycoon “look like a folk hero.”

‘They don’t like me’

For all of China’s dramatic changes in recent years, the Communist Party and its propaganda apparatus still follow a dictum enunciated by Mao Zedong in 1926: “Who are our enemies? Who are our friends? This is a question of the first importance.”

And few rank higher on Beijing’s list of foes than Lai, Simon’s boss. “It is not a secret that they don’t like me,” Lai said. The recent accusations involving Simon, he said, are typical of a long campaign by Beijing to “defame the democratic camp as a front for America’s ‘black hand.’ ”

Simon’s casting as an international man of mystery with sinister links to U.S. intelligence and political interests began with a cover story in Eastweek, a Hong Kong magazine that competes with Lai’s better-selling weekly, Next Magazine. “Secret Relations,” screamed a front-page headline. “Former American Military Intelligence Officer Turned Next Media Executive.” The magazine is part of Sing Tao News Corporation, whose chairman, Charles Ho, sits on the Standing Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a Beijing assembly.

Ho declined to be interviewed. His office declined to say whether he had made any political donations.

Lai said he is accustomed to being pilloried as “a mole for the CIA” but is disturbed by “serious accusations” against Hong Kong’s democratic movement. He said he is suing at least one of the publications that alleged secret links between Washington and the pro-democracy forces.

Simon, for his part, said he’s baffled that China would make “such an all-out effort against the democracy camp based on a nobody like me. . . . Half my friends say, ‘Be careful,’ and half howl with laughter when they get the translations.”

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