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Donald Trump

How America wrote the rule book on ‘foreign agents’

C.K. Yeung says America’s recent move to have RT register as a foreign agent relates to a 1938 law, with Russia and Australia taking copycat action. If Hong Kong was to do the same, it would only be following the master player

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 December, 2017, 5:33pm
UPDATED : Friday, 22 December, 2017, 7:33pm

The US government, in an ominous move last month, required the RT (formerly Russia Today) news network to register its American office as a “foreign agent”. Later in the same month, the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a committee of the US Congress, proposed that all official Chinese media personnel working in America comply with the same requirement. Had Hong Kong ­required foreign media outlets to do the same, it would have been met with howls of protest and accusations of infringing on the freedom of the press.

This regulatory requirement was imposed pursuant to the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Its language is simple, its intent clear and its power sweeping. In short, it stipulates that all foreign agents report to the US Department of Justice on who they work for, what they do, and how much they are paid.

It is interesting to note that one of the charges levelled against Donald Trump’s former election campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, in the so-called Russia-gate probe was his alleged violation of this act. Specifically, it ­refers to his having served as a lobbyist for the Ukrainian government during 2015-16, without registering as a foreign agent.

Watch: US Congress revokes RT America’s accreditation on Capitol Hill

The US does not brook any foreign interference with its politics or election process. It has put in place a series of firewalls against such a possibility. Under this act, foreign agents must operate in the sunshine and be subject to close monitoring; they must also report their source of funds and how they are spent.

The US does not brook any foreign interference with its politics or election process

This act dates as far back as 1938. You would have to marvel at the US government’s farsightedness in foreseeing the need for such a piece of legislation.

The explanation is simple. The US has a network of agents stationed in different corners of the globe to make the world more congenial to American interests. The Americans know only too well what these “foreign agents” can do, and they are not about to let other nations do likewise.

By contrast, while Hong Kong is known to be home to a proliferation of international spy networks and listening posts, it doesn’t have a similar piece of legislation.

The Russians have arrived late to this game. It was only last month that they scrambled to pass similar legislation, called the Non-Governmental Organisations Act, more in retaliation against the US than in anticipation of its actions, subjecting all American media based in Russia to registration and regulatory control, and mandating periodic reports of activities and flow of funds.

Watch: Putin signs off on foreign media intervention law

Copycats of American legislation are not limited to Russia. Australia joined the club earlier this month, when Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull tabled a bill against foreign interference, forbidding any foreign political donations. Turnbull expressed his fears about a China expanding its influence via political contributions, thus eliciting a swift response from the Chinese foreign ministry, which condemned the move as poisoning Sino-Australian relations.

Watch: Tough message from Turnbull

The director general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, Duncan Lewis, warned in October against secret efforts by foreign governments to shape the views of Australians, media ­organisations and government officials in such a way as to benefit their national political interests and agenda. Within just over a month, “foreign forces” has ­become an international buzzword.

Spies and a magic weapon: why are Australia, NZ so suspicious of China?

One of America’s most influential foreign agents is the National Endowment for Democracy, under whose auspices the National Democratic Institute operates. This endowment was funded by an appropriation by the US Congress, with its declared purpose of promoting democratic development overseas. It has been widely reported that endowment helped to fund and promote the uprising known as Arab Spring.

Hong Kong is known to be home to … international spy networks and listening posts

When we look at how the Middle East situation serves US strategic interests, you can see the long arm of this organisation and its affiliates.

Closer to home, in its 2011-2013 annual report, the Hong Kong University Centre for Comparative and Public Law listed Professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting, one of the organisers of the Occupy movement, as a board member. On page 26 of its annual report for 2013-14, it stated that the centre had received funding from the National Democratic Institute to set up its online platform, to instruct users in how to design and debate different universal suffrage systems.

Such activities enrich public debate on democracy and there is nothing wrong with them, except that if other countries were to conduct similar activities in the US, they would be required to register and ­declare funding sources. But not in Hong Kong.

Occupy leaders refuse to reveal who donated HK$1.3m that co-founder passed to HKU

Hong Kong has remained unguarded in this respect for historical and geopolitical reasons. This city has long been a centre for intelligence-gathering on the Asia-Pacific by Western countries. During British rule, Western intelligence agencies were running amok. Then, the Royal Hong Kong ­Police had a special branch to contend with “enemy forces”, charged with counter-espionage and other national security duties. It was disbanded prior to the 1997 handover.

The Americans know only too well what these ‘foreign agents’ can do

Post handover, as China played a greater role in international affairs, intelligence-gathering in Hong Kong by the West escalated rather than diminished.

Prior to the change of sovereignty, the British systematically devolved power downward, via measures such as the passage of the Bill of Rights. The result was that, even though the kind of cooperation that existed between the former colonial government and Western intelligence agencies had ceased, there was no vigilance against them either.

Geopolitical competition in an interconnected world means that foreign forces are present everywhere. Each jurisdiction has its own way of coping with them. Russia has its way, and so does Australia, not to mention the grandfather of them all, the US, which has a head start on us of some 80 years.

It may have cold war overtones, but if a similar act was introduced in Hong Kong, no one should be alarmed. After all, we are only playing catch-up with the world’s foremost democracy.

C.K. Yeung is an education worker