Current and former US officials warned that a controversial Trump appointee overseeing the federal government’s media arm has undermined Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement and put activists and protesters there at risk through his acts as head of the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM).
At a House foreign affairs committee hearing on Thursday, members of both parties excoriated USAGM chief Michael Pack for firing some of the US government’s top experts in countering Chinese propaganda, withholding funds for anti-surveillance tools used in authoritarian countries like China, and generally harming American efforts to support the democracy movement in Hong Kong.
“This is not a typical DC policy discussion,” said Texas Representative Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House foreign affairs committee. “I believe his actions damaged support during the height of unrest in Hong Kong. And they are continuing to do so today in Belarus.”
Get the latest insights and analysis from our Global Impact newsletter on the big stories originating in China.
The hearing featured more than three hours of scathing, bipartisan criticism of Pack – a rare example in polarised Washington of the two parties coming together to chastise a Trump appointee, and a telling sign of the solidarity in Congress that has emerged around China in recent years, amid human rights concerns, trade disputes and the coronavirus.
Just one lawmaker at the hearing defended Pack – Pennsylvania Representative Scott Perry, a Republican, who has introduced numerous bills of his own targeting China.
According to expert witnesses at the hearing, many protesters and journalists in Hong Kong rely on tools produced by the USAGM’s technology arm, the Open Technology Fund (OTF), to stay safe amid Beijing’s expanding efforts to police online speech.
“In many places around the globe, OTF quietly is providing support to protesters,” said Grant Turner, who was removed by Pack in August from his role as the USAGM’s chief financial officer. “So the Hong Kong protesters are protecting their identities from surveillance by OTF tools; protesters in Iran; we’ve seen it in Beirut.”
“Around the world, people are using these tools to protect themselves, so we would surge funds on technology, and also to the broadcasting operations,” he said.
Ambassador Karen Kornbluh, the chair of the board of the OTF, testified that Pack had dangerously withheld those funds.
“OTF has a long history of supporting internet freedom efforts, and was poised to expand its efforts in Hong Kong,” she said. “It was going to serve support for circumvention tools and expand support for digital training.”
“And then USAGM froze, and continues to withhold, its funding – and did that just weeks before the new security laws came into effect,” she added. “So OTF hasn’t been able to support any of these efforts.”
Analysts say Trump pushed for Pack to overhaul the USAGM – which also oversees Voice of America and Radio Free Asia – in part because the president had objected to its coverage of his coronavirus pandemic response.
Earlier this year, the White House expressed outrage when a Voice of America tweet included video of a light show in Wuhan, where the outbreak first began, celebrating the end of the city’s months-long lockdown.
▶️ A light show against the night sky marked the end of a months' long lockdown in Wuhan, China, early Wednesday.
China's Virus Pandemic Epicenter Wuhan Ends 76-Day Lockdownhttps://t.co/9NTcgqJM0m pic.twitter.com/Glyco7Oict
— The Voice of America (@VOANews) April 7, 2020
Pack was confirmed by the US Senate in June.
Lawmakers also chastised Pack for undermining the agency’s foreign-language journalists – some of whom would likely face severe punishment, along with their families, in their home countries because of their reporting – by reportedly denying them visas and also implying that they may be spies.
Beyond the danger Pack’s actions and rhetoric pose to the USAGM’s reporters, lawmakers said, they also hurt the agency’s efforts to counter government-backed misinformation around the world.
“The best way to push back on the propaganda coming out of Russia, China, and elsewhere is to provide the truth, plain and simple,” said New York Democrat Eliot Engel, the chairman of the committee.
Pack, he added, “is making a mockery of a US agency that has long enjoyed strong bipartisan support”.
More from South China Morning Post:
- Donald Trump’s new head of US global media purges news outlets’ leaders, raising alarms
- White House accuses US broadcaster Voice of America of promoting ‘Beijing’s propaganda’
- US democracy watchdog gives freedom award to Hong Kong protesters
- Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam admits US sanctions over national security law will be an inconvenience but says she and her colleagues ‘will not be intimidated’
This article US government media chief undermines Hong Kong protesters, say officials first appeared on South China Morning Post