By India Today World Desk: Over two years ago, an investigation by the Enforcement Directorate found that media portal NewsClick had received around Rs 38 crores funding from abroad. Investigators traced the flow of funds to an American millionaire, Neville Roy Singham, who was alleged to have close association with the propaganda arm of the Communist Party of China (CPC).
The ED findings at the time were flagged by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which alleged that “anti-india” elements, in league with foreign forces, were “part of a conspiracy to demean the country and target the ruling Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government”.
“All these US companies (linked to flow of funds to NewsClick) are registered in one address. All this clearly reveals that those running NewsClick were not only running a campaign to defame and destabilize the Narendra Modi government, but also conspiring against India and trying to create unrest and disturb harmony,” BJP leader Sambit Patra had said.
There were allegations of the news portal having ties to the Chinese government.
Two years later, a New York Times investigation unearthed an intrinsically linked network of activists’ groups, non-profit organisations, shell companies, and their close ties to China and Chinese propaganda. At the heart of this network is tech mogul Neville Roy Singham.
“In New Delhi, corporate filings show, Singham’s network financed a news site, NewsClick, that sprinkled its coverage with Chinese government talking points,” The New York Times said.
China, which has been trying to assert its economic and global might for quite some time now, used this global ecosystem of activists and NGOs to build a network that subtly promotes the Chinese nation and parrots the government’s stance.
The New York Times investigation revealed how China has been able to deflect international criticism of its human rights abuses and how its talking points on global matters are being weaved into international discourses through this network.
“It is part of a lavishly funded influence campaign that defends China and pushes its propaganda. At the center is a charismatic American millionaire, Neville Roy Singham, who is known as a socialist benefactor of far-left causes,” the New York Times said.
THE MONEY TRAIL
Hundreds of millions of dollars in donations have been traced to groups linked to Neville Roy Singham that “mix progressive advocacy with Chinese government talking points”.
The Enforcement Directorate had traced millions of dollars in donations to NewsClick. India is not the only country that has received funding from Singham’s network. The New York Times investigation tracked the funding to a news organisation in Brazil, a think tank in Massachusetts, an event space in Manhattan, and a political party in South Africa.
At present, Nevilla Singham (69) is in Shanghai. One of his network outlets is co-producing a YouTube show, partly financed by Shanghai’s propaganda department. Two other outlets of the tech mogul are working in close association with a Chinese university to “spread China’s voice to the world.”
In July, Neville Roy Singham attended a Communist Party workshop about promoting the party internationally. However, Singham has claimed that he does not work at the direction of the Chinese government.
HOW THE NETWORK FUNCTIONS
A report by the Centre for Information Resilience (CIR) in 2021 had discovered how a network of fake social media profiles were being used to push pro-China narratives, discredit those seen as opponents of Chinese government, and boost China’s influence and image overseas.
But the propaganda was to be disguised as independent content.
The networks, though not found to be directly linked to the Chinese government, were discovered to resemble pro-China networks previously taken down by social media platforms Twitter and Facebook.
The New York Times investigation of Neville Roy Singham’s network showed the process of how disinformation influenced mainstream conservative discourses.
Singham’s groups have produced YouTube videos that promote pro-Chinese messages. The videos, all together, have garnered over millions of views. The influence does not end on the internet, and it is not just about praising Chinese virtue. These networks have their tentacles in world politics as well.
Some of Neville Roy Singham’s groups sought to influence real-world politics. The group members met with congressional aides and trained politicians in Africa, ran candidates in South African elections, and organised protests in London’s Chinatown.
This process has translated into the cropping up of far-left groups that echo Chinese government talking points. These groups “echo one another, and are echoed in turn by the Chinese state media”, the New York Times reported.
HOW THE NETWORK WAS BUILT
The network is built on the back of American nonprofit groups, the New York Times said, with its probe revealing the web of charities and shell companies. Some groups, like No Cold War, do not exist as legal entities but are instead tied to Neville Roy Singham’s network through domain registration records and shared organisers.
Notably, No Cold War is run mostly by American and British activists, who argue that the West’s rhetoric against China has distracted from issues like climate change and racial injustice.
Apart from this, “none of Singham’s nonprofits have registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, as is required of groups (in the US) that seek to influence public opinion on behalf of foreign powers. That usually applies to groups taking money or orders from foreign governments,” the probe found.
While other millionaires and billionaires have their names stamped on nonprofit organisations, Neville Roy Singham chose to conceal his ties to them.
Four non-profit organisations, with names like “United Community Fund” and “Justice and Education Fund, were found to have almost no real-world footprints. Their addresses were listed as UPS store mailboxes in Illinois, Wisconsin and New York. But these four non-profits threw out “a shower of money from an invisible source”.
Singham is not listed as a board member or donor in the public filings by these nonprofits. In fact, he has categorically denied controlling them. “I do not control them,” he said in his statement, “although I have been known to share my opinions.”
But the probe revealed how Neville Roy Singham is closely tied to the four nonprofits.
The largest of the four nonprofits is run by Singham’s wife, Jodie Evans. The group’s founding bylaws say that Singham can fire Evans and the rest of the board. The bylaws also require that the group dissolve after Singham’s death.
The other three groups have been founded by former Thoughtworks employees, the Times probe revealed. Thoughtworks is a Chicago-based IT consulting company founded by Singham in the 1980s.
TRACKING NETWORK’S INFLUENCE
Millions of dollars flowed from these nonprofits, with the money being tracked to a South African political party, YouTube channels in the United States, and nonprofits in Ghana and Zambia.
“In Brazil, records show, money flowed to a group that produces a publication, Brasil de Fato, that intersperses articles about land rights with praise for Xi Jinping,” the New York Times reported.
The groups work in tandem with each other, all the while refraining from disclosing their ties. They cross-post articles, share each other’s content on social media- all to seemingly give off the perception of “independent content”.
Apart from these, these nonprofits have donated millions of dollars for training at Nkrumah School, set in a popular safari area in South Africa. The school hosts boot camps around the year which are attended by activists and politicians from across Africa.
As per US tax records, one of the UPS store nonprofits, the People’s Support Foundation, donated at least $450,000 for training at the school. Jodie Evans, Neville Roy Singham’s wife, shared a photo of the grounds as “Roy’s new place.”
The New York Times probe also revealed that in South Africa, the foundation has sent $5.6 million to groups that run the school; a news organization; and the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party, a fringe party launched ahead of the 2019 election.
An interview with party members revealed that the focus of the party seemed to be China, and not the issues of employment and poverty plaguing Africa. The party members were also not allowed to question the Chinese state behaviour.
Meanwhile, at the boot camp, Chinese topics quietly seeped into the curriculum.
“At a recent session, reading packets said that the United States was waging a “hybrid war” against China by distorting information about Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Xinjiang region where Uyghurs were held in camps,” the New York Times said.
Apart from this, the tax records also showed that nearly $1.8 million flowed from one of the UPS store nonprofits to Chinese media company called Maku Group.
Maku Group, which says its goal is to “tell China’s story well,” shares the office with Neville Roy Singham in Shanghai.
Not just this, a few years ago, Singham had emailed his friends to introduce a newsletter, now called Dongsheng News, that covers China in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. Dongsheng “provides unique progressive coverage of China that has been sadly missing,” Singham had told friends.
Neville Roy Singham’s ‘personal views’
While Neville Roy Singham’s networks have been accused of having ties to the Chinese government, the tech mogul has denied the charges.
“I categorically deny and repudiate any suggestion that I am a member of, work for, take orders from, or follow instructions of any political party or government or their representatives,” he wrote in an email to the New York Times. “I am solely guided by my beliefs, which are my long-held personal views.”
His associates confirmed Singham’s admiration for Maoism, the Communist ideology that gave rise to modern China. In the past, Singham praised Venezuela under the leftist president Hugo Chávez as a “phenomenally democratic place”, and had said the world could learn from China’s governing approach.
Majdi Haroun, a former employee at Thoughtworks, recalled Singham lecturing him on the Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara. Haroun said employees sometimes jokingly called each other “comrades.”
Singham funded left-wing causes while at Thoughtworks. He sold the company to a private equity firm in 2017, by which time it had 4,500 employees across 15 countries, including South Africa and Uganda. A copy of the sale agreement put the price at $785 million, the New York Times reported.
“I decided that at my age and extreme privilege, the best thing I could do was to give away most of my money in my lifetime,” Neville Roy Singham said in his statement.
On the personal front, Singham’s wife, Jodie Evans, who helped form Code Pink, was once a strident critic of China’s authoritarian government. “We demand China stop brutal repression of their women’s human rights defenders,” she wrote on Twitter in 2015.
But Jodie Evans now voices support for China, casting it as a “defender of the oppressed and a model for economic growth without slavery or war.”
“If the US crushes China,” she said in 2021, it “would cut off hope for the human race and life on Earth.”
While the world leaders and human rights experts have condemned China’s internment of Uyghurs, Evans describes the Uyghurs as terrorists and defends their mass detention. “We have to do something,” she said in 2021.
Meanwhile, Code Pink has also been vocal in defending the Chinese government’s policies. In a 2021 video, a staff member of Code Pink compared Hong Kong’s pro-democracy demonstrators to the rioters who stormed the US Capitol on January 6 that year.
The Code Pink activists have also denied evidence of forced labor in Xinjiang.
As per the New York Times probe, the Chinese state media accounts have retweeted people and organisations in Singham’s network at least 122 times since February 2020, mostly accounts connected with No Cold War and Code Pink.