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Semafor LogoBen Smith
Ben Smith
media

A former employee’s complaint prompts Republican calls to investigate The China Project, an American news company

Ben is the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Semafor, coming over from the New York Times. Sign up for his media newsletter, out every Sunday night.

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Title iconThe News
Shannon Van Sant reporting from China for PBS in 2009
Whistleblower Aid

Shannon Van Sant’s career neatly tracks the American media’s romance and disillusion with China. Her journey began in 2005 when, after five years working in news for ABC and NBC, she scrolled through the basic web page of the state-run China Central Television and called the number at the bottom.

Van Sant, then 29, made an unusual career choice: She moved to Beijing in 2006 to host a CCTV documentary program on Chinese government policy. She traveled with a team from end to end of the country, and learned that her colleagues “saw themselves as one with the government.” They gave interview subjects scripted questions, while she pushed for American-style authenticity.

She left Chinese state TV for the American public broadcaster, PBS, which produced documentaries including one on the detention of whistleblowers. Her view of China darkened, and she moved back to the United States in 2017. In 2020 took a job as business editor of a small, influential American publisher now called The China Project whose “Sinica” podcast is a hub of the American conversation about China.

“The excitement I felt during my first few years in Beijing about China, its complexity, and its rise gradually gave way to fear and concern,” she wrote.

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Van Sant’s story appears in an 11-page sworn declaration focused on The China Project, that’s at the heart of a formal complaint now circulating on Capitol Hill. Her lawyers at the non-profit firm Whistleblower Aid cite her experience and her research to claim that there is “a reasonable belief” that The China Project has been influenced by the Chinese government and is acting as an “agent of a foreign principal” under federal law.

On October 21, they sent the complaint to the Department of Justice, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and Congress. Semafor obtained it from a source on Capitol Hill, where Van Sant’s case has been taken up by two leading China hawks, Republican Senator Marco Rubio and Rep. Chris Smith.

“Shannon Van Sant’s revelations underscore the extent to which Xi Jinping’s China seeks to shape narratives, corrupt the media and subvert truth-tellers,” the two legislators said in an emailed statement.

The incendiary charge directed at The China Project, which often represents the pro-engagement side of the U.S. debate, would group them with state-controlled media like the news service Xinhua and Russia’s RT. Foreign Agent registration isn’t a ban, but it’s a scarlet letter that brings with it cumbersome reporting requirements.

The China Project denies the allegations, which come at a moment when concerns about foreign influence in general and China’s rising power in particular have prompted an array of investigations and allegations under the long-dormant Foreign Agent Registration Act.

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Van Sant is a “disgruntled former employee” who is “exploiting the political atmosphere in Washington D.C. to seek revenge,” its editor-in-chief, Jeremy Goldkorn, said in an email.

The Complaint

Van Sant began work as the business editor of SupChina, as The China Project was then known, in April of 2020. The outlet was founded in 2015 by Anla Cheng, a Chinese-American who made a career investing in China. Van Sant wrote that she was looking forward to working with “fellow former Beijing expats.” But she quickly came to believe that her employer was pushing her to produce journalism that was favorable to China, according to her sworn declaration, which her lawyers said she made “in the interest of U.S. national security.”

Van Sant, who now lives in Europe and writes for Politico, said in the complaint that she clashed with her editors when she wanted to write more about Chinese human rights abuses. She also writes that Cheng instructed her to promote a book written by an American consultant who is a favorite of the Chinese state media, Peter Walker. On June 15, she writes, Cheng told staff that she had spoken to the China Association for Science and Technology in Beijing, and gotten a tip that a Chinese scientist was being wrongly investigated in the U.S., and then told her staff, “We have to protect him.” Van Sant was fired that day, after two months on the job.

Van Sant’s complaint also centers on an investor in The China Project, Clarence Kwan. Kwan is a longtime Deloitte executive whose LinkedIn biography names him as a director of the China Overseas Exchange Association, a nonprofit aimed at connecting with the Chinese diaspora that described itself on its website as being supervised by a government agency. The group has since been folded into an organization associated with China’s broad “United Front” propaganda efforts, according to a report from an Australian think tank.

The Response

The China Project, for its part, heatedly contests both some of the facts and the implications of Van Sant’s complaint. Goldkorn provided an email from Cheng acknowledging that Van Sant was uncomfortable writing about Walker, and suggesting that her pressure to write about Walker was less about ideology and more about fundraising: She aimed to help him “get some coverage so that he in turn he can help us – spread the word, get more donors and members and readers,” she wrote.

Goldkorn said Cheng’s discussion of the Chinese scientist was journalistically sound.

“We have since our inception covered the wrongful persecution of Chinese scientists in the U.S., which intensified under the now disbanded ‘China Initiative,’” he wrote of a set of FBI investigations, many of which fell apart after destroying the careers of their targets. “Where is the wrongdoing in being concerned about the unjust treatment of scientists?” he wrote.

Kwan, in an email sent through Goldkorn, said he did not believe at the time that the Chinese Overseas Exchange Association had ties to the United Front. His title, he said, was honorary, with “no salary or other payments, and no duties.” He noted that the group was subsumed into a United Front organization only after he ended his involvement.

“The closest thing we’ve ever had to a real Chinese Communist Party connection was when Ms. Van Sant herself worked for us: She was an employee of state-owned Party mouthpiece China Central TV (now CGTN) from 2006 to 2008,” Mr. Goldkorn said in an email.

undefined headshotBen's view

Van Sant’s declaration does not contain strong evidence that the Chinese government has any role in The China Project, and doesn’t claim to, though her lawyers and the Republican lawmakers are calling for an investigation.

The core question she raises is about the motives of people who are seeking a softer line on China at a moment when Chinese nationalism and power are on the rise. Americans are increasingly alert to the pressure on American business, including publishers and movie studios, to back Chinese views in order to protect their own business interests — part of the broad spectrum of Chinese Communist Party efforts to shape China’s image abroad.

Cheng was “doing a very classic thing which is trying to buy your way into the system’s good graces,” said James Palmer, a deputy editor at Foreign Policy who has criticized The China Project’s coverage of human rights and is familiar with Van Sant’s experience.

Palmer said he saw no evidence for the “foreign agent” charge. The China Project is “a legitimate part of the debate,” he said.

Cheng denied both direct and indirect Chinese influence.

“I have never felt pressure to steer away from any topics that are unwelcome in China, and neither has my team,” she wrote. “We consistently cover topics that are unwelcome in China, and that's why we're blocked / banned there.”

The China Project’s business, which leans heavily on revenue from events and a recent crowdfunding campaign as advertising has fallen, also don’t particularly suggest foreign support. In fact recent disclosures with the Securities and Exchange Commission indicate that the company is running out of money.

Title iconRoom for Disagreement

The emerging Washington consensus on China is closer to the view of Van Sant’s lawyers, Andrew Bakaj and Kyle Gardiner, who wrote that there is “reasonable belief” that The China Project should legally be considered an agent of China.

“American citizens acting as agents of a hostile foreign government should not be allowed to operate in the shadows by exploiting our laws and freedoms,” Senator Rubio and Rep. Smith said. “At a minimum, these actors should be forced to register under FARA, disclosing who they are ultimately working for and allowing others to act on that information accordingly.”

The China Project’s Goldkorn responded that “the China Project site, like Marco Rubio, has been BANNED in China since July 2018 for criticizing the Chinese government.”

“Had Senator Rubio spent even one minute looking at our website, it would have been clear that The China Project is an independent news and business research platform, not an agent of the Chinese government,” he wrote, and added a longer response on The China Project site.

Title iconThe View From Beijing

When The China Project launched a crowdfunding campaign earlier this year, it drew some rhetorical support from state media figures including Zichen Wang, then a reporter at Xinhua with an English-language Substack.

"Resourceful people with *imagination* and *creativity* should see it as a middle ground of some sort and contribute,” he tweeted.

But when an article about Chinese social media comments on Ukraine caught the attention of nationalists on social media, the fiery state-run Global Times denounced the China Project in a headline as a “West-backed anti-China organization.”

Title iconNotable
  • Shannon Van Sant’s declaration can be read in full here.
  • Jeremy Goldkorn's full response is available here.
  • The Trump Administration’s China Initiative ruined professors’ lives but failed to find spies, a pattern that “lends credence to the idea that the China Initiative was merely a formal gloss on a racialized moral panic,” Gideon Lewis-Krauss wrote in The New Yorker. “In its attempt to protect our technological supremacy, the government attacked the very people who underwrote our advances.”
  • The little-understood United Front is “a political model and a way for the party to control political representation,” Alex Joske wrote in a 2020 report for the Australian Strategic Policy Initiative,” warning that other governments should be alert to how “its overseas expansion is an exportation of the CCP’s political system.”
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