This story originally appeared in FAIR on Aug. 17, 2023. It is shared here with permission under a Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0) license.
“A Global Web of Chinese Propaganda Leads to a US Tech Mogul,” the New York Times (8/5/23) announced on its front page. “The Times unraveled a financial network that stretches from Chicago to Shanghai and uses American nonprofits to push Chinese talking points worldwide,” read the subhead.
This ostensibly major scoop ran more than 3,000 words and painted a picture of multimillionaire socialist Neville Roy Singham and the activist groups he funds as shady agents of Chinese propaganda. The piece even referenced the Foreign Agents Registration Act, noting that “none of Mr. Singham’s nonprofits have registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, as is required of groups that seek to influence public opinion on behalf of foreign powers.”
So it should come as no surprise that the piece has led to a call for a federal investigation into those Singham-funded nonprofits. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) sent a letter to the Justice Department citing the Times article and arguing that the groups, including the antiwar organization Code Pink and the socialist think tank Tricontinental, “have been receiving direction from the CCP [Chinese Communist Party].” Rubio concluded, “The CCP is our greatest adversary, and we cannot allow it to abuse our open system to promote its malign influence any longer.”
‘A socialist benefactor of far-left causes’
But what, exactly, did the Times dig up on Singham and his funded groups? Despite its length, the piece provides no evidence that either the philanthropist himself or the groups he funds are doing anything improper. Instead, the reams of evidence it offers seem to show only that Singham has a pro-China tilt and funds groups that do as well, while the paper repeatedly insinuates that Singham and his associates are secretly Chinese foot soldiers.
The article begins by describing a “street brawl” that “broke out among mostly ethnic Chinese demonstrators” in London in 2019. The Times says “witnesses” blame the incident on a group, No Cold War, that receives funding from Singham and allegedly “attacked activists supporting the democracy movement in Hong Kong.” FAIR could find no reporting substantiating this version of events, but, true or not, it serves to introduce Singham’s world as both anti-democratic and thuggish.
It quickly adds duplicitous and possibly treasonous to that picture. “On the surface,” the Times writes, No Cold War is a collective of American and British activists “who say the West’s rhetoric against China has distracted from issues like climate change and racial injustice.” But the Times is here to pull back the curtain:
In fact, a New York Times investigation found, it is part of a lavishly funded influence campaign that defends China and pushes its propaganda. At the center is a charismatic American millionaire, Neville Roy Singham, who is known as a socialist benefactor of far-left causes.
What is less known, and is hidden amid a tangle of nonprofit groups and shell companies, is that Mr. Singham works closely with the Chinese government media machine and is financing its propaganda worldwide.
It all sounds quite illicit, with the lavish funding, the propaganda-pushing and the hiding amidst tangles of shell companies. (The Times uses the word “propaganda” 13 times in its piece, including in the headline.) And this sort of language, which insinuates but never demonstrates wrongdoing, permeates the length of the piece to such a degree that it’s hard to narrow down the examples. For instance, when it reports Singham’s categorical denial that he follows instructions from any foreign government or party, and acts only on his “long-held personal views,” the paper immediately retorts:
But the line between him and the propaganda apparatus is so blurry that he shares office space—and his groups share staff members—with a company whose goal is to educate foreigners about “the miracles that China has created on the world stage.”
The Times accuses Singham of funding news sites around the world that do things like intersperse “articles about land rights with praise for Xi Jinping” or sprinkle “its coverage with Chinese government talking points” or offer “soft coverage of China.” It accuses the groups Singham funds of “sharing one another’s content on social media hundreds of times,” and “interview[ing] one another’s representatives without disclosing their ties.”
A seditious notebook
The article concludes as it began, with a scene meant to cast Singham in a nefarious light:
Just last month, Mr. Singham attended a Chinese Communist Party propaganda forum. In a photo, taken during a breakout session on how to promote the party abroad, Mr. Singham is seen jotting in a notebook adorned with a red hammer and sickle.
In other words: Communist!
If you think China is evil and Communists are the devil—as you might, if you read US corporate news media (FAIR.org, 5/15/20, 4/8/21)—this sounds like important reporting on a dangerous man. The trouble is, there’s nothing illegal about any of this. All the Times succeeds in proving in this article is that Singham puts considerable money, amassed by selling a software company, toward causes that promote positive views of China and are critical of hawkish anti-China foreign policy, which is his right as a US citizen. If you were to replace “China” in this tale with “Ukraine,” it’s hard to imagine the Times assigning a single reporter to the story, let alone putting it on the front page.
But, as Singham is boosting a country vilified rather than lionized in US news media, the Times appears to be doing its best to convey the impression that there’s something deeply problematic about it all. Perhaps the clearest signal of the Times‘ underlying message comes at this moment in the article:
[Singham] and his allies are on the front line of what Communist Party officials call a “smokeless war.” Under the rule of Xi Jinping, China has expanded state media operations, teamed up with overseas outlets and cultivated foreign influencers. The goal is to disguise propaganda as independent content.
The article names many organizations and individuals as being associated in some way with Singham. It even names attendees at his wedding—described as being “also a working event”—including Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman, Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, and V, author of The Vagina Monologues. All of these “allies” are implicated by association as soldiers fighting China’s cold war against the US, “foreign influencers,” Trojan horses of Chinese propaganda—no evidence needed other than the company they keep.
It’s a picture, in short, of treason lurking among the “far left.”
Indeed, many on the left, including those targeted, have accused the Times of McCarthyism. It’s worth remembering the history of the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Enacted in 1938 to address Nazi propaganda, it has in fact rarely been used—no doubt in part because it’s difficult to square with the constitutional right to petition the government and the right to free speech. But it was used in the McCarthy era, most famously to target W.E.B. Du Bois and his Peace Information Center.
The PIC, a US anti-nuclear group, was connected with international peace movements and published anti-nuclear and pacifist literature from around the world, including the international Stockholm anti-nuclear petition. The Justice Department deemed this a Communist threat to national security and a “propaganda trick,” and indicted Du Bois and four other PIC officers for failing to register as foreign agents. The charges were dismissed by a judge, but they caused the PIC to fold.
Du Bois later wrote (In Battle for Peace, 1952):
Although the charge was not treason, it was widely understood and said that the Peace Information Center had been discovered to be an agent of Russia…. We were not treated as innocent people whose guilt was to be inquired into, but distinctly as criminals whose innocence was to be proven, which was assumed to be doubtful.
This was abetted by credulous news media coverage at the time (Duke Law Journal, 2/20). The New York Herald Tribune (2/11/51) editorialized that the
Du Bois outfit was set up to promote a tricky appeal of Soviet origin, poisonous in its surface innocence, which made it appear that a signature against the use of atomic weapons would forthwith insure peace…in short, an attempt to disarm America and yet ignore every form of Communist aggression.
Government use of FARA ramped up again in the wake of accusations of Russian interference in the 2016 elections, but it has primarily been used to target antiwar and international solidarity groups—including the recent indictments of Black liberation activists (Nation, 4/25/23).
Regarding Singham and his “allies,” the Times reported that the FARA “usually applies to groups taking money or orders from foreign governments. Legal experts said Mr. Singham’s network was an unusual case.”
It is certainly unusual in the sense that it’s hard to construe it as a FARA case. It’s not unusual, unfortunately, in the sense that US news media are prone to engage in character assassination of those who sympathize with official enemies.
Research assistance: Brandon Warner