Advocacy, Asia, Human rights, Sanctions, Top Stories, US-China tensions

Daschle hire divides Hong Kong grassroots advocates

An anonymous Hong Kong pro-democracy group’s decision to hire a Democrat-led lobbying firm has some activists fretting about inadvertent harm to a US pressure campaign that has thrived on bipartisanship and transparency.

Project Hong Kong (PHK) retained former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and his Daschle Group last month to lobby on “advocacy for democracy and human rights” in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory, as Foreign Lobby Report first reported. Since then, well-known groups such as the Washington nonprofit Hong Kong Democracy Council (HKDC) have raised concerns about opaque funding and potential conflicts of interest.

“We started HKDC because we believe that the most effective and powerful faces and voices for Hong Kong are US-Hongkongers — not paid K-Street lobbyists,” said HKDC founder Samuel Chu, an American activist originally from Hong Kong. “There are plenty of capable Hongkongers, willing to be public, who can speak and make the case for Hong Kong and that’s why the people in Congress and the [Donald Trump] Administration trust and work with us.”

Founded in September 2019, Chu’s group was a driving force behind passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights & Democracy Act later that fall. The group also championed the Hong Kong Autonomy Act that President Trump signed into law last month.

The Daschle Group says it has put Hong Kong activists front and center in its outreach to Capitol Hill.

“It is in America’s interest to resist Beijing’s crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong,” Daschle Group President Nathan Daschle said in an email today. “We have spoken to many of the House and Senate leaders on Hong Kong about how PHK can help the overall effort and shared the perspective of some Hongkongers who live with the threat of [Chinese] prosecution. Yesterday, we did a Hill briefing for House and Senate staffers in which three members of PHK shared their experiences” under the new national security law.

The dispute has laid bare tactical differences and plain old turf battles in a pro-democracy movement that has ratcheted up impressive victories over the past year as Congress and the administration have sanctioned China for its crackdown on Hong Kong.

On one side are activists such as Chu who have openly defied China, and paid the price. Hong Kong authorities have reportedly issued a warrant for his arrest under the new national security law that went into effect on June 30, prompting an international backlash.

“We have nothing to hide,” Chu said in an email. “If people in Hong Kong are really to risk everything to protest, the least we can do here in the US is to speak for them publicly without fear.”

He said his group respects requests for confidentiality but is otherwise transparent, for example prohibiting “masked individuals with fake names speaking on behalf of the movement” and vetting stories before they are shared with Capitol Hill offices.

“We believe that the most effective and powerful faces and voices for Hong Kong are US-Hongkongers — not paid K-Street lobbyists.”

HKDC Founder Samuel Chu

Arguments for working with known quantities have gained traction in recent days as several figures close to the Chinese democracy movement have been sucked into murky Washington politics. Last week Trump’s former adviser Steve Bannon was arrested for fraud on a yacht belonging to Chinese billionaire Guo Wenghui, a Communist Party critic who fled China in 2014 amid corruption allegations. Also linked to Bannon is Elmer Yuen, a Hong Kong businessman who has been campaigning in media tied to China’s banned Falun Gong movement for the US to designate the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as a criminal organization.

“Our movement has earned the support and trust of everyone not because we have money or party connection, but because we are Hong Kongers speaking for Hong Kong,” Chu said. “HKDC has kept Hong Kong as a firm bipartisan issue during a time of extreme polarization in US politics and we must not jeopardize this support.”

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Daschle said there is a role in the movement for grassroots groups that do no want to expose their members to Beijing’s global reach. He is one of four registered lobbyists on the account alongside his father, Tom Daschle; senior public policy adviser Veronica Pollock; and vice president Spencer Wolf.

“PHK is thrilled with the broad bipartisan support Hong Kong has received in recent months, and believes in full transparency — with one exception,” he said. “China’s heavy-handed rooting out of any democracy supporters in Hong Kong has put people’s lives in danger. Some of the individuals associated with PHK are currently living in exile because the CCP has arrest warrants for them in Hong Kong. To protect the life and liberty of themselves and their families, many of the volunteers working with PHK wish to remain anonymous.”

Project Hong Kong’s registration, which was effective July 27, does not include a point of contact for the group and lists a P.O. Box in New York as its address.

A web site for the group describes it as a “grassroot, volunteer cooperative” of Hongkongers living in the United States and links back to the global Stand With Hong Kong effort. Both describe themselves as independent, crowdfunded groups of individuals with no easily identifiable leadership.

A search of lobbying records shows that Project Hong Kong had previously registered to conduct in-house lobbying in late December. The document sheds some light on the group, notably identifying its funding source as a GoFundMe account that has raised more than $1.8 million for Hong Kong democracy movements since its launch in August 2019.

The fundraiser was organized on behalf of group called Hong Kong Add Oil, a Cantonese phrase that loosely translates to “go for it.” Its largest single contribution was for $10,000. According to the account, the collected funds were to be sent “to a US volunteer’s personal account.”

In a section on “How the United States can help,” Project Hong Kong calls for actions aligned with those of Chu’s Hong Kong Democracy Council and other groups. These include urging the Trump administration to designate Hong Kong victims of persecution as priority refugees and pressing the administration to “implement and enforce” sanctions approved under the Hong Kong Autonomy Act.

The group however has not joined calls by Chu’s group and China hawks on Capitol Hill to strip Beijing of its 2022 Winter Olympics unless it ends its crackdown on Hong Kong and Xinjiang’s Uighur Muslims. The Daschle Group has represented the International Olympic Committee, which opposes any such move, since September 2019.

“More people trying to do a good thing is a good thing.”

Nathan Daschle, president of The Daschle Group

Daschle told Foreign Lobby Report that the firm has a “robust” international practice and notably represents the Embassy of Japan and Taiwan’s de facto embassy in Washington rather than Chinese interests. He said the firm was up-front about its joint lobbying for Project Hong Kong and the IOC in a recent phone call with the office of Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), a leading proponent of stripping Beijing of its Olympics.

“As some have been pushing the IOC to withdraw its award of the 2022 Winter Olympics from Beijing, we worked with both clients to make sure our joint representation would not create a conflict,” Daschle said. “Moreover, in the interest of transparency, when we speak with offices who have been active on the Winter Olympics, such as Sen. Rick Scott’s, we disclose our joint representation at the start of the meeting to make sure everyone is comfortable. Sen. Scott’s office spoke to us for 45 minutes afterward.”

Asked for comment, Scott’s office highlighted the senator’s trust in established figures such as Chu and Hong Kong pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai.

“Sen. Scott has a very strong relationship and with Jimmy Lai, Samuel Chu, and the Hong Kong Democracy Council,” Scott’s press secretary Sarah Schwirian said in an email. “He visited Hong Kong last year and has had numerous meetings with Hongkongers of all ages and generations fighting for liberty and democracy. He will continue to do everything he can to support the Hong Kong Democracy Council and Mr. Lai.”

Daschle said Congress can only benefit from hearing from a diverse array of Hong Kong advocates.

“PHK and other grassroots organizations have been incredibly successful in educating members of Congress about what is happening in Hong Kong and why it matters to the U.S.  The recent legislation and executive actions are the direct result of their tireless and self-sacrificing efforts,” he said. “But the fight isn’t over yet; in fact, China seems to be doubling down on its anti-democratic crusade.  Until that changes, we hope everyone, from all backgrounds, parties, and persuasions, joins this cause. More people trying to do a good thing is a good thing.”