'I'm not a spy', says Jimmy Lai's right-hand man Mark Simon

Mark Simon says his US intelligence links are in the distant past. His focus now is on helping Jimmy Lai seek change … while turning a profit

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 August, 2014, 6:10am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 October, 2016, 2:38pm

"My dad was CIA for 35 years"; "My internship with CIA, four years with naval intelligence…"; "[Next Media] work on human rights cases and have regular fights with many non-democratic regimes in Asia."

Comments like these in leaked correspondence and job-application letters from Mark Simon offer a rare glimpse into his background and that of his employer; insights some media have used to portray the American as a "man of mystery" with ties to the US Central Intelligence Agency.

Simon, 50, is a senior executive at Next Media Group, which is controlled by Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, a strident and unrelenting critic of the Communist Party and the Hong Kong government. It is no secret that Beijing does not like Lai. Simon, as his closest aide, is also a target for attacks by the Beijing-loyalist camp.

A report in the July 23 edition of pro-communist daily Ta Kung Pao was headlined: "Jimmy Lai's close aide is ex-spy."

Simon shrugs off any such insinuation.

"[I am a] man of mystery to anyone who doesn't read my columns in Next [ Magazine], the WSJ [ Wall Street Journal], and hear me bellow on RTHK," he says in an emailed reply to the South China Morning Post.

"I have never made any secret that I worked for the US Navy. I am proud of it. But I left the navy in 1991 and [have] never been in pay, association, or employed in any intelligence work for any government since then. Also, on the stolen emails alone, if I am a spy, I am really pretty damn bad at it," adds Simon.

Dubbed "the backstage man", Simon found himself taking centre stage after two massive leaks of documents and emails between Simon, Lai and other senior executives of the media group were released to the press in recent weeks.

They reveal discussions of Lai's financial support for pan-democrats and the planned Occupy Central pro-democracy protests, and Simon's role in the transfer of money.

Simon, Lai and Next Media did not contest the authenticity of the leaked documents but suspected the information was obtained through computer hacking. On Wednesday, the group formally reported to police that their computer system was targeted by hackers. The case is now under investigation

The donations were not illegal. But some pro-Beijing newspapers suggested the money originated in the United States, citing as evidence Simon's former intelligence job.

The leaked documents also seemed to suggest Simon helped Lai build relations with right-wing US politicians. In one case, Simon helped set up a meeting between former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin and a group of pan-democrats during her visit to Hong Kong in 2009.

While the documents suggest nothing illegal, Simon was annoyed by how it went public.

"I am truly tired of them being called leaks. They are stolen information and are part of a disturbing pattern in Hong Kong."

Born in Falls Church, Virginia, a state where "thick skins grows naturally", Simon is a Republican and chaired the Hong Kong chapter of Republicans Abroad in the mid-2000s.

In June, the local press unearthed a link between Lai and Paul Wolfowitz, the former No2 in the US Defence Department under President George W. Bush. The two of them and Simon reportedly spent five hours on a yacht off Sai Kung.

Simon moved to Hong Kong in the early 1990s to take a job at the shipping company Sea-Land Service. He joined Next in 2000 after being introduced to Lai by conservative writer Bill McGurn - later Bush's chief speechwriter - at a Wall Street Journal editorial writers' dinner.

"One would have to be dishonest in Hong Kong not to know that Jimmy leans to the right when it comes to economic policy," says Simon. "He was truly friends with [US economists] Milton Friedman and Gary Becker.

"Jimmy was the smartest guy [at the] dinner. Then he later offered a job. So, yes. Jimmy is brilliant. One guy, and he has the entire pro-Beijing crowd wetting their underwear."

Of his role, Simon says: "My job is to make money for Next Media and Mr Lai. I try my best, and we are profitable despite all the pressures. It is no small feat."

The leaks show Simon also takes care of private equity, property and hotel investments for the Lai family, as well as Next's advertising and sales strategies.

He has a packed diary and travels frequently. Speaking of work-life balance, Simon says: "I have an incredible wife. And we focus on [our two] kids. I have little life out of work and family. We are home people. This is helped by [the fact] no clubs will let me in and no one invites me to all those silly damn banquets. There are upsides to having the united front dislike you."

Simon says he is used to criticism and it has not affected his work at Next Media. He once wrote of his role at Next: "We are pro-democracy…It is my job and I like the side I work for."

"Mr Lai is secure in his beliefs and truly respects others. At the end of all of this his only real concern about the attacks is for staff. No one except the most hardcore pro-China folks think we did something wrong," Simon adds.

"My friends jokingly call me the walking unemployed. When this broke out, my brother sent me a picture of the tractor I used to work on [at] our farm as a teenager. So when I am more damage than use to Jimmy, I will do the right thing. And you will find me working on that old Ford tractor."

He insists he is not anti-China. "The world has changed and China wants to be a nation taken as an equal. That means more openness, more transparency, and less use for shoe-shining Hong Kong bootlicks.

"The glass is not halfway empty in terms of freedom in China, but [half] full and rising. China will develop its own political system, and I expect it will work. Think what our kids will see in China, it will be awesome," says Simon, adding: "And for the record, I still travel [on the mainland]."

Despite his praise for Lai, there was an indication that their relations once turned sour. In a leaked draft of a letter to Lai in September 2007, he complained: "I have operated with great autonomy since I joined in 2000. Those rules have changed… There were never any written rules for what we undertook. And I have never asked for any as I thought there was a common understanding of my role."

Simon expressed his intention to resign, citing a "business disagreement".

A former colleague of his at Next Media, Cheng Ming-yan, who joined Apple Daily in 1995 and became chief editor in 2006, said: "Mark is a friendly and nice guy. He is definitely the right-hand man of Lai, taking care of Lai's other investments and businesses. But he never touched editorial affairs.

"He is very American. I mean, Americans speak quickly. He is big, too. Sometimes when we ran into each other in the building, I would tease him and ask him to go on a diet."

Democratic Party lawmaker Albert Ho Chun-yan, a friend of Lai's, said: "My impression is that Simon is very familiar with financial and political issues. Lai is, of course, his boss, but he seems to work independently and I seldom see him escort Lai. … Lai often wants to be on his own."


Mark Simon

Age: 50

Family: Married with two children

Education: East Carolina University; National Defence Intelligence College; Georgetown University

Career: 1987-91, US Navy analyst; 1991-93, Sea-Land Service, manager; 1994-95, K-Line Shipping, global accounts manager; Trans-Pacific Lines, chief operating officer; 2000-present, Next Media, senior executive

Politics: Republican. Vice-chairman and later chairman, Republicans Abroad Hong Kong, 2002-2005

Enjoys: Red wine, Cuban cigars