In a months-long investigation published earlier this month, The New York Times explored the links between a “lavishly funded influence campaign” pushing Chinese state propaganda narratives and American millionaire Neville Roy Singham, long a champion of far-left causes. The report touched on the increasing involvement in China-related work of the anti-war activist organization Code Pink — whose co-founder, the American political activist Jodie Evans, married Singham in 2017.
As the Times report and other sources have noted, Code Pink was openly critical of China’s human rights record prior to 2017. The organization has since moderated that critical stance and the China page of its website focuses on a campaign called “China Is Not Our Enemy,” also the title of a regular webinar series hosted by Evans since 2021, and a dedicated Twitter (X) account.
The campaign’s object is simple enough: taking action to advocate for peace with China in the face of bilateral relations that have grown dangerously strident, and calling for greater dialogue to reduce the risk of conflict. The premise of the campaign is more problematic. Relations have worsened, Code Pink claims, because politicians and media in the United States have stoked confrontation. The group never seriously addresses the legitimate concerns many Americans have about China, including its worsening one-party authoritarian politics, its illiberal approach to human rights, and its broad repression of civil society.
Instead, as Evans explained in a March interview with the often saber-rattling Global Times, a paper published directly under the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship People’s Daily (which is by its own admission an organ of propaganda), Americans “have been watching US propaganda, which drives hatred and fear around China.”
The “China Is Not Our Enemy” campaign drew wider attention back in February this year as a pair of Code Pink demonstrators charged into a House Select Committee hearing on strategic competition with China bearing protest signs with the slogan.
For state-run outlets like the China Daily, published by the government’s Information Office (functionally the same office as the Central Propaganda Department), this and other “China Is Not Our Enemy” protests have shown that there is growing popular resistance to anti-China policies in the US. This was also, wittingly or unwittingly, the reporting frame used by Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, which cited the Select Committee hearing protest as evidence that “frustration with [the] status quo and recognition of [the] high cost of conflict extends beyond seasoned China watchers.”
This might have been wishful thinking. Or it might have been an effort to shift the narrative. In any case, there is no popular revolt over China policy in the US, and current polling shows that a large majority of Americans are concerned about China’s role in the world.
How, then, should we understand the China-related peace activism of Code Pink? What are its real objectives, affinities, and vulnerabilities?
The growing body of reporting on Singham’s network and its amplification of what are clearly Chinese state propaganda talking points should already encourage skepticism about the integrity of Code Pink’s peace-focused China mission. That skepticism only deepens upon closer scrutiny of the goals and language of the organization’s “China Is Not Our Enemy” campaign.
On the question of Code Pink’s associations with the Singham network, the New York Times reports that based on non-profit records close to a quarter of the organization’s donations since 2017, totaling more than 1.4 million dollars, have come from linked groups. As the Times and others have documented — the 2022 story at New Lines magazine being a must-read — Singham’s network has supported not just progressive causes but has consciously and conscientiously echoed the talking points of the Chinese party-state, including its brutal treatment of ethnic Uyghurs in the far western Xinjiang region.
Even without secondary reporting, however, many of Singham’s associations with the CCP’s external propaganda mechanism, and its movers and shakers, are simple enough to track down. A quick search in Chinese turns up his attendance last month of a forum in Shanghai focusing on “innovating the international image of the Chinese Communist Party,” and “breaking through the Western monopoly on culture and discourse.”
This forum is the “Communist Party workshop” referenced by the Times in its story.
The host of the event was Fudan University’s China Institute, whose director, Zhang Weiwei (张维为), is one of the key architects of Xi Jinping’s external propaganda strategy, and was the keynote speaker at the May 2021 collective study session of China’s Politburo that dealt with the topic of external communication.
For years, Singham has pushed pro-CCP messaging far beyond such private strategy sessions. The Times report tracks funds from non-profits backed by Singham to media around the world that have disseminated what looks and feels like Chinese state propaganda. Examples include Brasil de Fato, a Brazilian online newspaper and video channel that centers on social movements in the country but has regularly published content that praises the Chinese leadership — even running a promo for Xi Jinping’s books on governance.
A quick jump down the rabbit hole of “Tings Marco,” the video series on China run by Brasil de Fato, turns up an “international online forum” held in May 2021 with participation from the Shanghai-based outlet Guancha.cn (观察者网), founded by the Chinese venture capitalist Eric X. Li, which is known for its penchant for state-aligned nationalism (and hosts a regular column by the above-mentioned Zhang Weiwei). The forum, which dealt broadly with the China-Brazil relationship in the context of China-US tensions, was organized by No Cold War and Tricontinental, both Singham-backed groups.
Among the online forum participants was Wang Wen (王文), a professor at Renmin University of China’s Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, a “new type of think tank with Chinese characteristics” founded in 2013. Wang has been a strong proponent for innovative forms of state communication, and in 2018 spoke about a more prominent role for Chinese think-tanks like his within the CCP’s external propaganda. Also attending were the hosts of the “Tings Marco” program at Brasil de Fato, Marco Fernandes and Tings Chak (翟庭君), listed as researchers for Singham’s Tricontinental.
Chak identifies herself on her Twitter (X) account as a Tricontinental researcher, and also a member of “Dongsheng News,” an outlet that the Times story reported was edited by a team in China, under Tricontinental, but had an address linked to the People’s Forum, a New York event space funded by Singham. Chak, who is named by Shanghai’s The Paper as a “joint founder” of Dongsheng News, is also a columnist for Guancha.cn.
Chak, like Singham, has associated closely with CCP entities working directly on external propaganda. In July 2021, she attended an online forum called “Guaranteeing Labor Rights and Good Living for All Ethnic Groups in Xinjiang,” where she spoke on the need to “tell China’s story well” to the Global South. The forum was hosted by the China Foundation for Human Rights Development (中国人权发展基金会), a group overseen, as its 1994 charter makes clear, by the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department.
The threads in Singham’s global network can at times seem complex, but they are the weft and warp of a single fabric. When China’s deputy consul general of Sao Paulo, Tian Yuzhen (田玉震), met with “the Brazilian media Dongsheng News” in December 2022, the representative there to take the meeting was Marco Fernandes, the Tricontinental researcher and co-host of “Tings Marco.”
Another thread in the fabric is Code Pink’s “China Is Not The Enemy” campaign.
In one of her many “China Is Not Our Enemy” webinars, Jodie Evans hosted Tings Chak and Marco Fernandes, presenting the pair as authoritative sources on “what is true about China.” The chat was co-branded with the People’s Forum, Singham’s New York event space, and also Qiao Collective, an avowedly Leftist online outlet associated with Singham that idealizes China as a communist country and uncritically accepts the frames of its state media.
“We are showered with lies and distortion,” Evans said at the start of the April 2021 webinar. She then yielded the stage to Chak and Ferdandes, who offered glowing assessments of China’s enlightened governance through its policy of “targeted poverty alleviation,” a high-profile political campaign formally announced by Xi Jinping in July 2015, with the goal of lifting 70 million Chinese out of extreme poverty by 2020, within six years. Among other measures, the campaign called for the creation of anti-poverty leading groups at all levels of the national bureaucracy, with officials responsible for meeting quotas.
Swallowing the Hook on the Party Line
The achievements of China’s anti-poverty campaign have been closely intertwined with Code Pink’s China-related advocacy since the launch of the “China Is Not Our Enemy” in 2020. The organization has lionized the country’s anti-poverty efforts, accepting uncritically the facts and talking points of the party-state — as in this TikTok video, which argues that while the US is focused only on individual prosperity, “China is focusing on people and collective prosperity.”
While there have no doubt been measured positive developments as a result of China’s poverty alleviation campaign, the full story is much more complicated. The campaign, which has required Xi Jinping’s consolidation of control over society, is typical of movements pursued in China’s past through “campaign-style governance,” a symptom of poor institutionalization in communist regimes. In such cases, the powerful leader commands action from the top, and the effects ripple down as cadres rush to demonstrate their loyalty and obedience.
One scholar studying China’s poverty alleviation policy in 2019 wrote that “the political assignment is so tough that local governments have had to mobilize almost their entire workforce of cadres and all their resources to carry it out.” This can have unfortunate consequences as political priorities and resources shift myopically to the problem at hand. In June 2019, for example, the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin learned from local trade union officials in Sichuan province that they were unaware of a serious ongoing case of unpaid wages for construction workers, and had taken no action, because the demands of poverty alleviation had become all-consuming:
I think your suggestions [about collective bargaining] are very good, yet we have a heavy burden with poverty alleviation right now. All officials in the western rural areas have to participate in it, not just trade union officials, but all government officials now.
This is one of many cases of this kind that the group has documented through direct contact with officials in the national union bureaucracy — with an impact on the livelihoods of workers that should be obvious.
Another serious drawback of “campaign-style governance” is that it necessitates society-wide propaganda to sustain the movement, manufacture and amplify successes, and disguise failures. What Chinese leaders have termed a “comprehensive victory in the battle over poverty” is a tale not just of political will but of determined and pre-planned propaganda.
This too can be documented. In January 2021, shortly after Xi Jinping formally declared victory in his push to eradicate poverty, CMP tracked the making of local myths from the mid-2010s like that of Dong Heqin (董贺勤), a once impoverished farmer from Anhui province who had managed to dramatically turn his fortunes around with the help from local anti-poverty officials. In fact, from 2017 onward, China’s government made an active push to foster the creation of “poverty alleviation and prosperity leaders” (脱贫致富带头人) in poor areas across the country, seen as critical to the overall poverty alleviation strategy, which itself included a section on “adhering to propaganda models.”
But for Code Pink, drinking liberally from the fountain of the Singham network, the tales, however tall, are demonstrably true. “China’s successful efforts to lift millions of people out of poverty” are the real story, and any reporting or context that suggests otherwise is evidence of a broader conspiracy of US censorship and bias — also a strikingly familiar theme for those who specialize in China’s official discourse.
In November 2020, not long after the launch of the “China Is Not Our Enemy” Twitter account, the Los Angeles Times ran an in-depth news feature with factual news reporting that complicated the CCP’s triumphal narrative about its poverty eradication victories.
Sharing a post from the Singham associated Qiao Collective, Code Pink responded hotly that the US media were “threatened by an alternative to capitalist, imperialist hegemony.” Soon after, Code Pink shared another post from Qiao Collective that unquestioningly passed along a press release from the Information Office of the State Council. It referred readers to a list of additional state media sources, including CGTN, the international broadcasting arm of the CCP’s official China Central Television — which is directly under the China Media Group (CMG) and Central Propaganda Department — and the CCP-run journal Seeking Truth (求是), which since 2018 has topped each of its issues with a speech from Xi Jinping.
Also among the Qiao Collective recommendations shared by Code Pink was the documentary Voices from the Frontline: China’s War on Poverty, which would quickly become a key advocacy point for the organization’s China work.
The hourlong documentary, which purports to tell “the inside story of China’s race to eradicate all extreme poverty by the end of the year 2020,” is directed by Emmy Award-winning director Peter Getzels, and co-produced by the Los Angeles-based foundation of international corporate strategist Robert Lawrence Kuhn and the local affiliate of the publicly-funded Public Broadcasting Service, PBS SoCal.
PBS SoCal aired the documentary on May 11-12, 2020, but by month’s end had launched an internal review of the film after PBS said it failed to meet its editorial standard of objectivity. The fundamental issue was the involvement in the film project of CGTN. As the public editor at PBS, Ricardo Sandoval-Palos, explained in a response following hundreds of furious letters on both sides of the issue, the Kuhn-hosted film had gone “a step too far” by giving “the co-production role to China Global Television Network, the nation’s principal and government-run broadcaster.” It appeared to Sandoval-Palos, moreover, that “the filmmaker downplayed CGTN’s co-producer role with an unobtrusive mention near the end of the credit roll.”
We Are Appalled, PBS
Alleging that the film had been “censored in the US,” Code Pink responded with a petition campaign asking supporters to write PBS with their objections. The form letter from Code Pink, still one of the organization’s top China campaigns, asked how PBS can “censor a documentary by a widely respected public intellectual,” which moreover has “done us a service by laying out the techniques and the 5 levels of government that coordinated to bring 800 million people out of extreme poverty.” Further, the letter expressed shock that PBS would give credence to allegations from “the conservative publication The Daily Caller,” which had called the film “pro-China.”
On the first issue raised by Code Pink, the question of Kuhn as “an expert on China,” many long-time China observers would twist uncomfortably. Kuhn seems most in his element when parroting the language of his official contacts and state media handlers, and his sycophancy toward the Chinese leadership can be nauseating. For an unctuous case in point, look no further than his article this month in the People’s Daily, in which he praises Xi Jinping a grand total of 14 times as he urges the need for “people-to-people” exchanges to improve US-China relations.
But what matters more than the question of Kuhn’s expertise is the plain fact of his long-standing association with the state-run CGTN, where he is a regular columnist and program host. That fact goes to the heart of the issue Sandoval-Palos raised about the objectivity and goals of the film.
If, as the public editor at PBS suggested, Voices from the Frontline was indeed co-produced by CGTN rather than independently by Kuhn and his director, Peter Getzels, then concerns about the program’s objectivity owing to the direct involvement of a Chinese state-run media outlet under the guidance of the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department would have to be taken seriously. The question of whether the film has “done us a service” also hangs on this crucial point.
So what do we know about the production of Voices from the Frontline? As it happens, we do not require the conservative grumblings of The Daily Caller to tell us the film is “pro-China.” China spells it out for us in Chinese, even if the issue is not so readily communicated in English.
In an article on external propaganda in late 2020, Li Bo (李波) of Fudan University’s China Institute — which readers may recall hosted the event Singham attended last month — wrote that the core of telling China’s story was telling the CCP’s story. Kuhn’s documentary, he suggested, was a fine example: “With the support of the Organization Department of the Chinese Communist Party, the film’s host and contributor, Robert Lawrence Kuhn, accompanied the US filming crew in visiting impoverished families in Guizhou, Gansu, Shanxi, Sichuan, Hainan, and Xinjiang, and interviewed leading Party members and cadres at all levels, from the central government to townships, to tell truly touching stories.”
At roughly the same time, China Report, a magazine published by the state-run China International Communications Group, interviewed Kuhn, who told much the same story about the film: “Our international crew, led by award-winning US director Peter Getzels, worked with the Organization Department of the CCP’s Central Committee, the State Council Leading Group Office of Poverty Alleviation and Development, and our production partner, CGTN, to travel across China in an unprecedented way and delve deeper into large-scale poverty alleviation projects.”
This high-level CCP involvement in the production of the film is clear enough from the jacket of the video as it was released in China in April 2019, more than a year ahead of its PBS SoCal airing. It lists as producers the State Council Leading Group along with the China Media Group (CMG), the CCP media conglomerate that encompasses CCTV and its international arm, CGTN. Kuhn is identified only as a host and writer.
If there is any suggestion that these entities simply assisted in the production of what was an otherwise independent project by providing access to villages in China, this is called into question by a description of current work on the website of director Peter Getzels’ production company, updated sometime between March and September 2017, according to Wayback Machine. There Getzels mentions that he is “currently in production on a third series of CHINA’S CHALLENGES, as well as a one-off documentary about poverty for China Global Network Television (the English-speaking branch of CCTV).”
Getzels’ language makes clear that this was a CGTN project from the get-go, and we know from the Organization Department involvement that the priority was high and senior. The timing is also significant. It places the start of the Voices from the Frontline project in the months leading up to the 19th National Congress of the CCP in October 2017, at exactly the time when promotion efforts for the poverty-alleviation campaign were heating up as a key component of Xi Jinping’s bid for continued power consolidation. In China, the trumpet blows before the victory.
None of these facts, in all likelihood, could put a kink in the Code Pink narrative. The tall tale came again last month as Jodie Evans was interviewed for a podcast program called The Bridge:
A United States capitalist went to China to understand how China took everyone out of poverty. He hired an award-winning filmmaker. He took him to China. They took a lot of footage. They came back and edited it in the United States, got PBS (which is funded by US taxpayer money) to produce the video — and they showed it one time, and have now censored it. Because, Oh my God, it makes Beijing look too good.
Too good, indeed.
Podcast listeners who are interested can tune in to the rest of Evans’ interview on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or YouTube. They might wish to know, however, in the interest of transparency, informed choice, and integrity, who is really behind the program. No, not Singham. But close. The Bridge is funded by CGTN.