Forbes Magazine Dumps an Article on an Influential HK Tycoon

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The continuing tightening of the noose around democratic practices in Hong Kong now appears to be playing itself out in the New York-based Asia Society, the prestigious nonpartisan educational organization dedicated to promoting mutual understanding between Asians and the United States, and its billionaire Hong Kong chairman.

There have long been worries about Chan’s influence. Chan is a duel US-China citizen whose wealth derives from a Hong Kong property empire built by his father. Annual cash flow from the Chan-controlled Hang Lung Properties is more than enough to buy his way to the top of the Asia Society in Hong Kong and to massive influence on its New York parent.

Chan has used this to promote his own Chinese nationalism, political as well as ethnic, to decry core American values of democracy and the rule of law, and generally act as though he were a key member of the Communist Party of China’s United Front. Several former Asia Society members have quit because of Chan. It appears that his sway is also enough to influence Forbes Magazine to remove a critical article from its website.

Despite frequent and overt swipes at US interests, the Asia Society’s entrée has made Chan acceptable to many in the upper reaches of US business and academia. His links survived the 2001 collapse of the scandal-ridden Enron Corp., where he was not only a board member but on its finance committee. He is also one of the property sector leaders with close government connections who survived the 2003 SARS crisis in Hong Kong. The crisis was centered on an apartment building developed and managed by Hang Lung where poor maintenance resulted in 329 cases, of which 42 were fatal.

Chan’s influence with some elites in the US extends to removing from websites criticisms of his relations with the Asia Society and leaning on it and academic institutions more interested in money than principle to avoid criticism of China. In practice this also means that the Asia Society vastly overweights China at the expense of other major Asian countries.

Chan’s influence appears to be behind a decision to remove from the Forbes website the critical article, written by analyst Anders Corr. The article also soon vanished from mirror sites. Asia Sentinel reprints Corr’s vanished article here:

The Asia Society recently barred a student democracy activist, Joshua Wong, from speaking at a Hong Kong literary event. It caused a wave of critical online comments and reporting on the Asia Society, and its influential billionaire donor Ronnie Chan. Chan is Co-Chair of the Asia Society in New York, and Chair of its Hong Kong Center, which has been likened to Chan’s private club.

Chan is known for his anti-democratic views, involvement in foreign policy think tanks, and extensive investments in mainland China. Those investments, as well as his investments in Hong Kong, give him an incentive to ingratiate himself with mainland authorities by promoting China’s foreign policies. Those authorities, after all, have the power to make or break Chan’s business. The issue is broader than Asia Society, though, as Chan and his family are major donors at influential institutions in the US, including Harvard University and the University of Southern California (USC).

Orville Schell of the Asia Society, and Susan Shirk, on the Board of Scholars at the Chan-affiliated USC US-China Institute among other roles, co-chaired an influential study of US-China Relations in February. Had Hillary Clinton won the US presidency, some in the Schell-Shirk task force, such as Shirk herself and Kurt Campbell of the Asia Group, would have been poised to seek influential positions in US government. The focus of Chan’s attentions on institutions that are politically influential on US-China relations raises the question as to whether China is seeking to use Chan, a dual US-Hong Kong citizen, to influence US foreign policy on China.

While the Hong Kong office of the Asia Society released a statement that said the decision to bar the democracy activist was “an error in judgment at the staff level”, several individuals with whom I communicated suspected Ronnie Chan’s influence to be behind the decision. That influence may or may not have been explicit. When a major funder shows a general preference against a class of people, for example democracy and freedom of speech advocates, then staff who counter that preference do so at the peril of their own organisation and jobs.

“Sounds like someone will take a bullet for Ronnie (that is, after all, what he pays them for),” said Joe Studwell, author of How Asia Works and The China Dream. “Ronnie will retain all powers and be left to figure out new ways to avoid any ‘controversy’ at Asia Society HK [Hong Kong]. I’d go for a pure, unspoken focus on ‘cultural’ issues, just like Beijing would want. No contemporary sociology, politics, economics, etc. More oracle bones and Ming vases.”

That prediction would be consistent with recent trends at Asia Society Hong Kong against politically controversial figures stretching back to at least 2009. At least four persons who support democracy and freedom of speech, in addition to Joshua Wong, may have been barred from the Hong Kong chapter of the Asia Society, including Martin Lee, Evans Chan, James Mann, and Renee Chiang.

Martin Lee is the founding Chair of the Democratic Party in Hong Kong. He was arrested during the 2014 democracy protest. According to one source, he has never been invited by the Asia Society in Hong Kong to an event.

Evans Chan filmed a documentary on the 2014 democracy movement in Hong Kong. He said that, “last October, Asia Society cancelled a screening of my film, Raise the Umbrellas, for an ‘unbalanced’ post-screening discussion with Martin [Lee] & Benny Tai.” The New York Times covered the cancellation without apology from the Asia Society, which indicates that the action was probably noted by its leadership without change in policy, since Asia Society Hong Kong repeated itself with Joshua Wong and in at least one other case.

James Mann of the Los Angeles Times commented on Facebook on July 6, “I was asked to speak in Hong Kong a few years ago, and Ronnie Chan vetoed my appearance. The only surprise to me here is that the Asia Society in NY, which professes a belief in liberal values, should allow this sort of thing to happen again and again and again. I guess they must need his money desperately.”

Renee Chiang, the wife of publisher Bao Pu, commented on Facebook that, “I can also confirm being turned down by Asia Society Hong Kong when the Zhao Ziyang book (Prisoner of the State) was published in 2009. Meanwhile, Asia Society in New York hosted a panel talk about the book, at which Orville Schell admitted getting a phone call from Chinese authorities voicing their disapproval, yet they did what they should do: they ignored the threat and held the talk anyway. In Hong Kong, no such call is needed, as they appear to have in-house censors.”

Studwell noted that “the HK government gave Ronnie a very valuable piece of public property (the old arsenal), which he was then allowed to refurbish… and operate as a sort [of] quasi private members club. But the whole thing, surely, only worked because the Asia Society in the United States of America let him use its brand to get his hands on the place.”

The question is then whether the Asia Society headquarters in New York, including its Co-Chair and 66 trustees, are complicit in what appears by its repeated programming decisions in Hong Kong, to be amplification of Chinese government propaganda. What do the Asia Society Co-Chair and trustees, some of whom do business in China, get out of the deal? Is the Chinese government seeking to use Chan to politically influence these trustees and others? Are the trustees seeking access or favors from Chan in China? Chan and staff of the Asia Society Hong Kong office did not reply to requests for comment.

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Chan has connections, sometimes very weighty ones, at Harvard University in Cambridge Massachusetts, the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington D.C., the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, the East-West Centre in Hawaii, and the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and Washington D.C. These connections are facilitated by donations or the hope of donations, according to a source. The Chan family, through its Morningside Foundation, donated $350 million to Harvard University. This is the largest ever single donation to Harvard.

The latest Asia Society controversy has “renewed questions about the influence that China, and people with deep business interests in China, hold over universities, nongovernmental organisations and other groups that rely on wealthy donors,” wrote Austin Ramzy at The New York Times. Ramzy noted that Ronnie Chan was an “outspoken supporter of Leung Chun-Ying, the pro-Beijing former chief executive [of Hong Kong] who was a target of the 2014 protests.”

Studwell said, “Doesn’t the Asia Society just show the problems of having corporate-led NGOs anywhere in the world? As an organisation it has totally failed to set up a governance system that could deliver freedom of speech. I don’t blame a Ronnie Chan-run Asia Society (HK) for that as his behaviour is entirely predictable based a) on his track record of kowtowing to all Establishments and b) on his vested interests in having a large mainland property portfolio. I personally think that the corporate US interests behind the Asia Society have more to answer for, though not much more because, as I said, corporate-led NGOs don’t work when push comes to political shove.”

Chan’s influence and connections, fueled by profits dependent on the Chinese government, could be used to promote China’s foreign policy interests among elites in the US And the elitism that Chan promotes is consistent with what elites in China think. Victor Shih said, “many in the elite stratum of China, even the younger generation, believe that most people in China, except for the elite, are incapable of making sound political decisions.” With President Trump’s election, that anti-democratic message could resonate among elite Democrats and Republicans alike, whose establishment political connections, for example through the Clinton and Bush families, were ruptured by Donald Trump’s election.

“Ronnie Chan is one of a small number of Hong Kong tycoons who are US-educated or had extensive US experience,” said Edith Terry, former opinion editor at the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. “The most prominent members besides Ronnie are Tung Chee-hwa and Victor Fung. They regularly hold senior public roles in Hong Kong and most are also members of the Hong Kong delegation.” The CPPCC is a mainland Chinese government body.

Terry said, “The question of influence, however, is a subtle one. They represent a highly privileged class in Hong Kong that has huge vested interest in stability, a continuation of the status quo, not changing it. I believe that for this group, the game is more about keeping senior US policy makers and institutions engaged with the Hong Kong question. There is of course some exertion of soft power both ways. In this case, I would say the tycoons and the multinational elite here talk off the same page. Free speech only goes so far when talk of independence invites intervention by Beijing.

You could say they are all practical billionaires. Whatever their personal feelings are about free speech and Ronnie is notorious for speaking whatever is on his mind, and can be blunt to the point of rudeness in public before large audiences. They know that talk of independence is toxic and are convinced that the only way to stop it is to criminalise it by introducing a national security law, which would be in accordance with the Basic Law and is long overdue in their view. Ronnie and his cohort are extremely sophisticated and understand the usefulness of soft power through back channels and elite institutions. They are very good at it, and it is about being in position to deflect or argue points, not broadcasting simple, black and white messages.”

The perception of undemocratic influence that elites in Hong Kong have on international and domestic politics may be one cause for increasing political instability in Hong Kong. Michael Davis, former professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, said, “in the Hong Kong context this is more than just a free speech issue. I have long felt that the radicalisation of Hong Kong politics is due in no small part to the perception that the Hong Kong government and the pro-establishment business elites do not make much effort to represent the core concerns of Hong Kong people to the Central government and more generally. It seems to be a culture where they regularly lecture Hong Kong on Beijing’s requirements.

So if a prominent organization such as the Asia Society is thought to be leading the charge as Beijing’s mouthpiece in Hong Kong then that is a serious problem and contributes to the sense of futility among our young –not the sort of community service you would expect from such an organisation. Does the society have any mechanism at all to review its policies and practices?”

Studwell thinks that the Asia Society in New York should ask Chan to decrease his influence over programming in Hong Kong. Studwell writes, “I lay responsibility for all of this at the door of the Asia Society in the United States. If the Asia Society believes in free expression and debate, it should very politely, and gratefully given all the money, offer Ronnie two choices: 1. Ronnie steps down, and allows the Asia Society to put in place a governance structure that means that the Asia Society HK operates according to a clearly stated set of principles. Given the government ownership of the premises, I don’t think the HK operation can or should be run from the US. What is needed is a local system that operates according to transparent rules, preferably with an elected board. 2. The Asia Society removes its imprimatur and its moniker, Ronnie picks a new name (Asian Values Society(TM)?), and does things his way.”

Given Chan’s Co-Chairmanship of the Asia Society in New York, such a decision would likely have to be made by his Co-Chair, Henrietta Fore, along with at least half of the 66 trustees. Fore is former Administrator of US AID, and a member of the boards of Essilor International SA, general Mills, Exxon Mobil Corporation, and Theravance Biopharma Inc. The trustees include such personages as Ambassador John Negroponte, currently a Senior Fellow at Yale University, talk show host Charlie Rose, former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, and Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of Blackstone Group. Blackstone does extensive business in China, and has $368 billion in Assets Under Management. Chan may not be the only one seeking favor in Beijing.

These and other trustees should take action per Studwell’s advice, or risk their own reputations. The Asia Society, democracy, and free speech will be the better for it, though the trustees’ commercial access in China could suffer. That, like Asia Society’s decision to bar Joshua Wong, is a judgment call.