August 14, 2020
The FBI Agents in My Living Room
“I’m prepared for prison… If it comes, I will have the opportunity to read books I haven’t read.”
Hong Kong billionaire and publisher Jimmy Lai – labeled a “genuine traitor” by the Chinese government – said that in late June… And he may want to load up his Kindle right about now. He’s on the front line of the losing battle that some Hongkongers are waging against their rapidly diminishing freedoms of expression and media.
(And – as I’ll tell you below – I previously had a front-row seat for a different kind of American/Chinese media morality play, when the FBI knocked on my door for a chat about a Chinese “journalist” who was living in my house in suburban Washington, D.C.)
Unlike most ridiculously rich people in Hong Kong, Jimmy Lai – who made his $1-plus billion fortune as the founder of a clothing retailer Giordano (T-shirts went for $8 at my local mall back in Singapore) – didn’t fold like a blind poker player back in the late 1990s when Britain handed Hong Kong over to China for safekeeping. Rather than cozying up to the new landlords, he’s been a thorn in their side…
As publisher of Hong Kong’s most popular newspaper, Apple Daily, Lai has been – in the words of Foreign Policy magazine – a “rare bird” among the island’s elite for his relentless and vocal opposition to the Chinese Communist Party and to China’s outsized role in Hong Kong… and for being unusual in his support of pro-democracy efforts on the island.
That’s getting him into a lot of trouble, as China has tightened its grip on Hong Kong (I wrote about this a year ago, here). And with the imposition of a new security law in early July, it’s become a Darth Vader-style handshake-on-the-neck that’s threatening to squeeze out the spark, verve, and free spirit that make Hong Kong unique and vibrant as Asia’s answer to New York City.
The law broadens the definition of, and increases the punishment for, crimes labeled as terrorism, subversion, secession, and collusion with foreign powers. The Economist explained that the rule gives the Chinese government “sweeping power to crush dissent in the territory using its own secret police and even its own courts” – making it “one of the biggest assaults on a liberal society since the second world war.”
As an old friend of mine in Hong Kong put it, “Hong Kong is China now. There’s nothing else to say.” Right now, only people like Jimmy Lai are standing in the way of China turning Hong Kong into, well, just another Chinese city.
On the surface, that might not sound so bad. China has a gangbusters economy and a fantastically rich culture, cool technology, big walls, and with 1.4 billion people, lots of fellow countrymen.
But try popping across the border – well, whenever we can travel again – from Hong Kong into Shenzhen, which has all the charm and vibrancy of cat food. From the giant Chinese flag that greets you upon exiting the train station, to the maddening challenge of finding local currency, to the soulless skyscrapers downtown, to the rip-off taxi drivers… if you brainwashed Hong Kong, took out its soul, and replaced the blood pumping through its veins with tepid water, you can begin to understand why 71-year-old Jimmy Lai is willing to risk ending his life in a Chinese prison to try to maintain Hong Kong’s scraps of independence and individuality.
And he might have a lot of time to catch up on some reading. On Monday, Lai and nine employees of Apple Daily were arrested on charges of colluding with foreign forces, under the new Death Star-style national security law. Lai is the most high-profile person to be detained under the law so far.
After Lai was arrested on Monday, Apple Daily – just hours after its editorial offices were raided by more than 100 police officers – cranked up the printing presses, according to CNN…
[Apple Daily] produced 550,000 copies on Tuesday — up from its normal circulation of about 70,000. In a post Monday, it urged people in Hong Kong to buy the paper and show their support, a message seemingly heeded by many people who were seen lining up for copies.
Investors showed their support for Lai in a different kind of way, as shares of Next Digital, the Hang Seng-listed holding company that controls Apple Daily, are still up 10-fold this week (after being up nearly 20-fold on Tuesday).
Lai was released on bail early Wednesday morning. He warned fellow pro-democracy activists of the need to be “more cautious” – and that his arrest was “just the beginning.” Lai may be tried in Hong Kong – or in mainland China courts that are being set up for national security cases.
He may also go broke. As Foreign Policy explains…
One of the major tests of whether any semblance of rule of law remains in Hong Kong will be whether his business empire is carved up among CCP [Chinese Communist Party] cronies if he is convicted. Dividing the assets of the rich after they fall is a common practice on the mainland…
The newspaper business is a dangerous one in China. Last year, the country’s government jailed at least 48 journalists for their professional activities – more than in any other country. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a nonprofit organization that promotes the freedom of the press around the world, most of them have faced charges of acting contrary to the interests of the state, and of “false news.”
That sounds a lot like how U.S. President Donald Trump – who, as recently as January 15, called Chinese President Xi Jinping “a very, very good friend of mine” – likes to denounce media he doesn’t approve of, labeling it “fake news.”
And to the Chinese government, there’s no worse insult than calling a journalist a friend of those apple-pie-loving Yankees (as in, Americans… not the baseball team, or the side that beat the Confederacy), as reflected in a recent editorial in the Global Times, a Chinese government-supported English-language publication…
[Lai] has fallen completely into the U.S. orbit. His efforts not only aim at pushing Hong Kong society toward the U.S. in terms of values, but also kidnapping Hong Kong interests to place Hong Kong on the U.S. chariot… the so-called freedom of the press became his playful tool with which he promotes US strategic interests in Hong Kong. Then he used U.S. interference in Hong Kong affairs as a lever to protect himself, and attached his interests and safety to Washington’s Hong Kong policy. This is how a traitor came into being.
For all of Trump’s harrumphing about his treatment by the American media, which he’s called the “true enemy of the people” (in most interpretations of democracy, a free media is the defender of the people – but never mind), there’s this: The number of journalists arrested in the U.S. last year, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, was a grand total of zero.
Journalists have long been pawns in the slow, grinding war of economic, technological, and propaganda superiority between China and the U.S. In mid-March, the Chinese government expelled 13 American journalists from the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and the New York Times.
As geopolitical risk analysts at GZERO Media explained at the time, “The move is part of a tit-for-tat over journalists that has already seen each country kick out a handful of the other’s reporters.” And that kind of sniping with journalists as geopolitical collateral damage has only escalated.
The journalist angle isn’t new to me… You see, I made a cameo appearance in the U.S.-China reporter wars long before it came into fashion.
My detour into international intrigue started around six years ago when my doorbell rang as I was working from home in suburban Washington, D.C. I answered the door in my Snoopy pajama pants – expecting a FedEx guy – to greet two well-dressed American government employees on my stoop. They introduced themselves as agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
I’ve seen enough movies to know that nothing good ever comes of the FBI standing at your door. My brain immediately flipped through potentially FBI-attention-worthy things I’d done recently… (That trip to Tehran? Losing $50 million of OPM? Living in Russia for nine years?) I invited them in, apologizing for my pre-coffee bedhead (but not for my stylish pants).
Their opening question – to my confusion – was, “Do you own a brown Toyota Corolla, license plate XYZ, that was recently parked in the driveway of 5483 Lander Avenue?”
In fact I do, I said. That was my car and the house, a few minutes away, was an investment property that my wife and I owned. And I’d visited the house just a few days before.
“Aha,” the agents said. Since a 30-second Internet search would reveal that we had owned the house for more than a decade, I hoped that this wasn’t news to domestic intelligence and security service of the United States. (Look up the word “oxymoron” in the dictionary, and you’ll find the term “government intelligence”… )
“What is the nature of your relationship with your tenants?” they continued. They live in my house, and they pay me rent, I said. This was getting weird… so I asked what this was all about.
They told me that the tenant in our house, Mr. Lo – who, as you may have guessed by now, was from China – was a “person of interest” (that’s “POI” if you’re cool) to the FBI. Perhaps Mr. Lo hadn’t done anything wrong… But he was squarely on the radar of the FBI. And since I’d recently visited Mr. Lo, I was too…
As far as I knew, according to his rental application, Mr. Lo worked for a Chinese newspaper that focused on science and technology (which, I realized later, sounded pretty sketchy). The previous tenant – who was also from China and had worked for the same publication, he said – had introduced him to us. Mr. Lo’s predecessor was a model renter (took off his shoes, paid on time, didn’t flood the basement), so his recommendation carried weight with us.
(Just to clarify… Mr. Lo wasn’t a “born in Jersey, loves the Mets, eats pizza for breakfast” Chinese-American kind of “Chinese person.” He was an off-the-plane-from-Beijing Chinese person with a bona fide red passport who had grown up reciting Mao in school. And that made all the difference to my new agency friends.)
For the first few months, the pre-POI Mr. Lo was a good tenant. But then our property management company, after a routine check-up visit, gave him poor marks. That had led to me paying a visit for a sit-down with Mr. Lo… and now, to the two overly solicitous agents sitting on my sofa.
My visitors told me the agency was very eager to learn more about Mr. Lo, the alleged journalist, and his activities. They said-didn’t-say (“not at liberty to discuss but”) that their interest was linked to China trying to get its hands on American science and technology – which, in those quaint days of the mid-to-early 2010s, was one of Uncle Sam’s biggest concerns regarding China. The FBI hoped that a properly incentivized Mr. Lo might share some details about China’s efforts to steal American intellectual property.
The agents had discovered Mr. Lo’s pressure point: He had a high-school-aged daughter whom he very much hoped could attend a university in the U.S. The agents told me that they could block the approval of the requisite visa and immigration documentation for Mr. Lo’s daughter to study at a U.S. college – unless he cooperated.
The agents told me that by dint of my unique relationship with Mr. Lo – a mutual interest in ensuring that his toilet didn’t leak, I suppose – I was the perfect person to encourage him to have a heart-to-heart with my new friends. “Will you help us?” they asked me.
At the time, I didn’t realize that you should apply the same kind of due diligence to agreeing to help the FBI in a shady, ill-defined scheme that you’re completely unqualified for, as you do to, say, buying a stock… So in the spy equivalent of buying the penny stock that the shoeshine boy recommends, I told the agents that I’d be delighted to do my patriotic duty, as visions of shaken-not-stirred martinis danced in my head.
“We’ll be in touch,” they told me.
A few weeks later, the agents laid out the plot to my wife and me over a cup of coffee. Their plan: We invite Mr. Lo out for a nice dinner and lubricate him with a bottle of wine. (“Of course we’ll pay for it, up to a reasonable sum,” they promised.)
We would guide the conversation to children… and college… and college admissions… and plant the seed. Oh, your daughter will be applying soon to colleges? Hmm, how interesting. If you ever need any help with the whole visa-thing, I know just the guy to call!
And of course, the guy to call – I envisioned myself passing the number over to Mr. Lo on a wine-stained napkin, or maybe a matchbook cover? – was one of the friendly agents… who would present an intelligence-in-exchange-for-college-visa proposal. Mr. Lo would spill the beans about technology and secrets (and probably guarantee himself a one-way ticket to somewhere very, very uncomfortable if he were to go back home to China). But his daughter would get in to State U., and America’s technology secrets would be safe for another day!
My wife, though, wasn’t buying the shoeshine boy’s idea. “So let’s say we do it, and Mr. Lo bites. We won’t even know what happens. And then we’ll need to find a new tenant. Also, what’s their real agenda?”
She had a point: Regardless of their ideology, governments lie – and why should FBI agents be any different? Volunteering to be a pawn in a chessboard where I couldn’t see the other pieces (or even the board) was a recipe for something bad. And I wasn’t eager to have (more of a) record with the FBI… or with the Chinese authorities, for that matter, just months before we would be moving to live in Asia.
So, against my superspy instincts, I didn’t call the agents back. And I never heard from them again.
Over the next few months, Mr. Lo’s home-maintenance skills didn’t improve. I had a few nightmares about the house being impounded by the U.S. government after an investigation of Mr. Lo turned it into a crime scene. And in any case, the house was growing creaky and leaky in its advancing middle age. In part to oust Mr. Lo without causing a fuss, we decided to sell the house. He left, and I never heard from him again (and all the sophisticated listening devices he cemented into the foundations of the house are someone else’s problem now… haha, just kidding.)
But I was left with some discomforting questions… Like, why would an agency with a $9 billion budget and more fun spy toys than James Bond’s Q, ask someone like me to do their work for them? Surely the FBI had a better way to get to Mr. Lo than me… Or did they?
A lot of people assume competence. But when it comes to governments, very rarely is that true. And in the world of coronavirus – where people look to government as a critical line of defense, where the battle between the U.S. and China is deepening and broadening – it’s a dangerously bad assumption.
And since then, the U.S. has stepped up its game against Chinese journalists. Hopefully it won’t read over China’s shoulder and start to treat its own purveyors of the free media like China is threatening with Jimmy Lai.
Now here are some of the stories we’re reading…
The general election bursts into life in dueling American dreams
Biden and Harris essentially offered a return to a traditional, conventional vision of the presidency, pledging competence, empathy, hope, diversity, unity, and sober leadership at a grave moment.
Billionaire investor predicts a Trump victory
Joe Biden/Kamala Harris in 2020? Not so fast, according to DoubleLine Capital’s billionaire boss Jeffrey Gundlach, who predicted Donald Trump’s win the 2016 election. “Bond King” also says stock market could crash back to March lows.
Back-to-school shopping is normally a boost to the economy; now it’s in chaos
The back-to-school shopping season, second only to the holiday season in terms of consumer spending, has been thrown into uncertainty bordering on chaos as parents and retailers do their best to plan for what school will look like in the coming weeks.
‘We Are the Guinea Pigs’: Hollywood Restarts Its Blockbuster Machine
Big movie studios, under pressure to get their production assembly lines running again, have focused on overseas shooting. Leading the way is Universal, with Jurassic World and a 107-page safety manual that details everything from the infrared temperature scanners the cast and crew encounter upon arrival to the vacuum-sealed meals provided by masked workers standing behind plastic partitions in the takeout-only cafeteria.
And let us know what you’re reading at [email protected].
Chaos Chronicles Editor, American Consequences
With P.J. O’Rourke and the Editorial Staff
August 14, 2020