Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung claimed Sunday that local democracy protests raging for over a month are, “not entirely a domestic movement, as external forces are involved.” American businessman Mark Simon has been thrown into the eye of this storm as one of the alleged external forces. “Former American Military Intelligence Officer Turned Next Media Executive,” charged a typical headline about him in the pro-Beijing press. Next Media is a leading pro-democracy publishing company in Asia. Raised in Falls Church, Va., Mr. Simon played football at East Carolina University and attended Georgetown University before a 25-year career in the Far East. Below is an exclusive interview with the expat China is inculpating of espionage:
Decker: You work for Jimmy Lai, the Chinese-language publisher known for his strong advocacy of democracy and support for persecuted Christians in China, particularly the Catholic Church. Can you discuss some of the pressure that has been put on Mr. Lai because of these public stands?
Simon: I work for a very effective dissident. That is the only way to describe Jimmy Lai. Advertising boycotts, feckless personal attacks, constant surveillance, attempts to scupper business deals, attacks on his home, and even a murder plot (the guys are in jail) – Jimmy Lai is subject to more attacks from China than any other person outside mainland China.
Jimmy runs the top news media houses on both Taiwan and Hong Kong and is best friends with Cardinal Joseph Zen, the former archbishop of Hong Kong and another gent on China’s most-hated list. The pressure is expected, relentless, and Jimmy Lai does not bend. If he sold out, China would open the vault. But he won’t. He once said he wouldn’t want his kids and grandkids to think he was a greedy asshole.
Decker: This is hardball, and some pitches have been thrown at your head too. Beijing operatives have alleged that Mr. Lai is a mole for U.S. intelligence and that you are his handler for the CIA. What in your background is used as a basis for these allegations? Are you a spy?
Simon: No, I am not a spy. I used to work for Naval Intelligence from 1986 to 1991, but I was a very junior analyst. They say that my dad, God rest his soul, worked for the CIA – but he was a printer/logistics guy, never undercover. We wrote “CIA” on our school forms for parent’s employment. I think if anyone knows my politics, they know I am not really one for working with any government. I am an open book, especially since my emails were hacked and published. As for Jimmy Lai, they just lie about him. The guy is a brilliant businessman, and his media dominance is proof of it. What is very sad is that the argument against Jimmy and against me is a self-loathing racist argument by Chinese against other Chinese. It is as if Beijing can’t believe their own people are capable of independent thought. If someone disagrees with the government, it must because of some plot by a hidden hand from abroad.
Decker: So basically you’re just an American businessman who’s been in the Far East a long time. How long have you lived out there, and in what areas have you worked during your career in Asia?
Simon: I love Hong Kong. I have been in Asia since 1992 after I quit the Navy and went into shipping, which is a great way to learn how the region works. My wife is from the Philippines, and my kids were adopted from Hong Kong. I met Jimmy Lai in 1999 and went to work for him in 2000. I have held most of the business seats in the company outside CFO and CEO. My job has always been and remains business development. Whether a hotel project or a new e-commerce site, I like making businesses go.
Decker: The protests in Hong Kong are receiving heavy media play in the West, but I don’t think most casual observers understand how fundamental the differences are between the people in Hong and the Chinese leadership in Beijing. OccupyCentral (HK) is not a superficial movement like Occupy Wall Street. What’s this popular uprising all about?
Simon: The one thing the protests are not about is revolution or separation from China, which is an important point to get out of the way because that is how Beijing at first tried to frame the debate. Hong Kong is a leading international city, with an educated and very well-off population. There is no legitimate argument that Hong Kong people are not suited for electing their own mayor, which is in fact all the chief executive really is, but Beijing won’t allow it.
It has become obvious that Beijing thinks Hong Kong is “free enough,” which is not outlandish from the view of an unelected communist regime. But Beijing is stuck with the fact that they promised universal suffrage by 2017. All the Hong Kong people are doing is asking that this promise be upheld. That is the core of the disagreement. The spark for the kids in the street today is the early September, long-awaited decision by the National People’s Congress on democratic development for Hong Kong that not only slammed shut any opening for full and open elections in 2017, but did so in a manner that was completely condescending, arrogant and dismissive of any input from Hong Kong people. Basically, Beijing picked a fight.
Decker: The Chinese Communist Party and its apparatchiks are notoriously thin-skinned and label even the slightest criticism of their policies as the result of “anti-China” prejudice and insidious foreign meddling. It’s not that simple, is it?
Simon: We all knew that Hong Kong was changing under the Communists; it was just bound too. It’s not a British town anymore, hasn’t been since 1997, but what is shocking is how China and her minions here seem to want to make it just another Chinese city. What is refreshing is the Hong Kong people seem to be of the opinion that they can be part of China and remain the free Hong Kong they grew up in. In a broader sense, the anti-foreigner sentiment is a danger to all of Asia. “Asia for Asians” is China’s policy towards the West across the region, particularly regarding the United States. How can anything good come of such an outlook and policy? Hong Kong for the world is a window into how China will deal with Asia and the U.S. Nations are what they are, and it may well be that through Hong Kong a new and modern China reveals its true character.
Brett M. Decker, consulting director at the White House Writers Group and author of “Bowing to Beijing,” was a Hong Kong-based editor for the Asian Wall Street Journal from 2000-2003.