An American man with ties to Amnesty International and key Hong Kong separatist figures has been posing online as a Hong Kong native named Kong Tsung-gan. Routinely cited as a grassroots activist and writer by major media organizations and published in English-language media, the fictitious character Kong appears to have been concocted to disseminate anti-China propaganda behind the cover of yellowface.
Through Kong Tsung-gan’s prolific digital presence and uninterrogated reputation in mainstream Western media, he disseminates a constant stream of content hyping up the Hong Kong “freedom struggle” while clamoring for the U.S. to turn up the heat on China.
Whispers about Kong’s true identity have been circulating on social media among Hong Kong residents, and was even mentioned in a brief account last December by The Standard.
The Grayzone spoke to several locals outraged by a deceptive stunt they considered not only unethical, but racist. They said they have kept their views to themselves due to the atmosphere of intimidation looming over the city, where self-styled “freedom fighters” harass and target seemingly anyone who speaks out publicly against them.
In this investigation, The Grayzone connected the dots between Kong and an American man who has become a major presence in Western media and at protests around Hong Kong. Our research indicates that Kong’s editors and prominent protest cheerleaders were likely aware of the deceptive ploy.
Kong Tsung-gan bursts onto Hong Kong Twitter scene, becomes go-to source for anti-China content
The Twitter user Kong Tsung-gan (@KongTsungGan) first appeared in March 2015. Kong Tsung-gan’s earliest tweets featured commentary about Tibet and the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement.
At some point, Kong changed his Twitter avatar to a black-and-white headshot of an unknown Asian person. A search of the Wayback Machine internet archive shows that this photo remained up until sometime in late 2019.
Later, Kong changed his Twitter avatar to an image depicting Liu Xia, the wife of the late Nobel Prize-winning dissident Liu Xiaobo. Liu Xiaobo was a right-wing ideologue who celebrated the US wars on Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and was rewarded with the 2014 Democracy Award by the National Endowment for Democracy–the favorite meddling machine of the U.S. government.
As of August 2020, Kong Tsung-gan’s Twitter account boasts more than 32,000 followers. He live-tweets during protests, posts incendiary commentary about the Communist Party of China (CPC), likens the Hong Kong “struggle” to Tibet and Xinjiang, begs the United States to ram through sanction bills like the Hong Kong Safe Harbor and Hong Kong People’s Freedom and Choice Acts, urges NBA star Lebron James to “find out about our freedom struggle,” retweets Nancy Pelosi and other U.S. politicians, promotes his books, maintains an ongoing tally of arrests in his regular “#HK CRACKDOWN WATCH UPDATE,” and disseminates images of protest posters.
At around the time he created his Twitter account, Kong Tsung-gan published his first Medium post. He has since filled his Medium feed with protest timelines, lists of recommended human rights books and journalism (including a link to the questionable China “expert” Adrian Zenz), and “first-hand accounts” of his protest experiences on the ground. In one account, Kong Tsung-gan claimed he attended a Band 1 government school, implying he was a native Hong Kong resident.
Kong’s work has been amplified by Joshua Wong, the Hong Kong protest poster-boy who has enjoyed photo-ops with neoconservative Republican senators like Marco Rubio and Tom Cotton.
Thanks to his continual stream of content on Twitter and Medium, and his platform on the website Hong Kong Free Press, Kong Tsung-gan has become one of mainstream Western media’s go-to sources for soundbites.
Kong Tsung-gan: Darling of the Western press
Since bursting onto the Hong Kong Twitter scene, Kong Tsung-gan has been quoted by a who’s who of Western corporate media outlets. He has been described as an “author” (CNN, Globe and Mail, Time), “writer and activist” (New York Times, Washington Post), “activist and author” (LA Times),“activist” (AFP, Al Jazeera), “writer, educator and activist” (Guardian), “political writer” (Foreign Policy), “writer” (Vice), and “Hong Kong writer and activist” in an op-ed posted by the Nikkei Asian Review.
Kong has also been cited as a “Hong Kong journalist and rights activist” by Radio Free Asia and as a “rights activist and author” by Voice of America, two subsidiaries of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM). Tasked with a mission to “be consistent with the broad foreign policy objectives of the United States,” the USAGM budgeted around $2 million to support protests in Hong Kong in 2020.
When he is not churning out commentary on Twitter and Medium accounts, Kong Tsung-gan is a columnist at Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP) and publishes books about the Hong Kong “freedom struggle,” whose proceeds go directly to HKFP.
Hong Kong Free Press describes itself as an “impartial non-profit media outlet” and “completely independent.” The outlet also boasted that it “gets full marks” from a supposed journalism ethics verification initiative called News Guard, which happens to be overseen by a collection of former U.S. government national security and law enforcement officials.
HKFP editor-in-chief Tom Grundy has boasted of rejecting article pitches from deceptive figures operating behind false identities. At the same time, Grundy has provided a regular home for Kong’s commentary.
The Grayzone emailed HKFP to request a comment on Kong’s identity, but received no reply.
The distinctly American voice of Kong Tsung-gan
To burnish his reputation as a reliable source, Kong Tsung-gan has furnished audio interviews to Western outlets. In July 2019, Kong Tsung-gan was featured on Louisa Lim’s Little Red Podcast alongside National Endowment for Democracy fellow Johnson Yeung, lawmaker Eddie Chu Hoi-Dick, and former Hong Kong Chief Secretary Anson Chan.
Around the same time, an American man in Hong Kong named Brian Kern spoke to RTHK at a march commemorating the Tiananmen anniversary.
A close listen to both audio clips, along with an interview Kong furnished to an Italian interviewer, demonstrates that Kong Tsung-gan and Brian Kern are the same person.
Listen for yourself here, or in the video embedded at the top of this article:
- Hong Kong’s Dirty Little Secret: Is One Country Two Systems Dead?, Little Red Podcast (Kong speaks at 33:00)
- Hundreds join march ahead of Tiananmen anniversary, RTHK (Kern speaks at 00:13)
- LIVE Liberate Hong Kong, Una Montagna di Libri Cortina d’Ampezzo (Kong speaks at 19:00)
Indeed, the distinctively American voices of Kong Tsung-gan and Brian Kern are the same.
So why have news outlets like Hong Kong Free Press failed to disclose that Kong Tsung-gan is a pen name for an American man? Who is Brian Kern? And why is he yellowfacing as Kong Tsung-gan?
In plain sight: American teacher coordinating with Hong Kong protesters
Brian Patrick Kern has been a fixture at the Hong Kong protests since they erupted in 2019. He has been profiled by the Chinese press, photographed cleaning egg stains off the walls of the police headquarters and escorting his children to demonstrations.
Kern has even been filmed coordinating with protesters and rioters in videos circulating on social media.
In another video that went viral on social media, Kern was filmed screaming at the police: “You’re a communist puppet! … Kill us all!… With your bug gun, shoot me! I’m so violent! I’m a violent rioter! Shoot me! Your communist masters will love you!”
Brian Kern also writes for the HKFP as a guest contributor under his own name.
Clearly, Kern enjoys the spotlight, and has no apparent fear of local authorities.
But few people know that Brian Kern also hides behind the persona of Kong Tsung-gan, furnishing quotes to media outlets across the West as an expert native source on the Hong Kong “freedom struggle.”
Brian Kern publishes anti-China books under at least two pseudonyms
Not only does Brian Patrick Kern write as Kong Tsung-gan, which he romanized to seem like a Hong Kong native; he also writes under the pen name Xun Yuezang, romanized to appear as a Chinese mainlander. Writings under both aliases are filled with warnings of the “creeping control of the Chinese Communist Party.”
As Kong Tsung-gan, Brian Kern has published three books: Umbrella: A Political Tale from Hong Kong(Pema Press), As long as there is resistance, there is hope: Essays on the Hong Kong freedom struggle in the post-Umbrella Movement era, 2014-2018 (Pema Press), and Liberate Hong Kong: Stories from the Freedom Struggle (Mekong Review).
As Xun Yuezang, Brian Kern has published Liberationists (Pema Press), which “tells the story of a human rights worker who disappears while crossing the border between Hong Kong and mainland China.” One reviewer wrote, “like many debut novels, [Liberationists] a work weighed down by its own good intentions.” In the book, “Xun Yuezang” discloses that it was published under a pseudonym.
No matter which alias he is employing, Brian Kern’s mission is clear: To portray the CPC as one of the world’s most dangerous evildoers.
Kern’s books also are filled with clues exposing him as the man behind both Xun Yuezang and Kong Tsung-gan. Xun Yuezang dedicated the book Liberationists to Mayren “who struggled so long to be free.” Brian Kern’s mother is named Mayren.
Liberationists was also dedicated to someone referred to simply as “Y.” Similarly, Kong Tsung-gan dedicated Liberate Hong Kong: Stories from the Freedom Struggle to “Y, for the shared struggle.” The name of Brian Kern’s wife, Yatman, begins with the letter “Y.”
Pema Press is the publisher for the work by Xun and Kong. Brian Kern’s daughter happens to be named Pema–the same name as the publisher. (It is possible Kern named both his publishing house and his daughter after Jetsun Pema, sister of the Dalai Lama, with whom he and his wife worked in the Tibetan Children’s Villages charity.)
Kern’s Orientalist stunt could be compared to that of Michael Derrick Hudson, a white middle-aged poet from Indiana who struggled to get his work published until he began submitting it to journals under the pseudonym Yi-Fen Chou.
Unlike Hudson’s fake Chinese persona, however, Kern is a political actor posing as a native grassroots activist to spread propaganda. His ploy is therefore more reminiscent of the “Gay Girl in Damascus” hoax, in which Tom MacMaster, a 40-year-old American graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, posed as a Damascus-based lesbian activist named “Amina Arraf” to gin up left-liberal support for regime change in Syria throughout 2011.
Kern’s personal profile is similar to MacMaster’s as well. Both are activist-minded liberal internationalist types with PhDs in literature. But unlike MacMaster, who forged a career in academia, Kern also has a record of work in the human rights industry.
Amnesty and U.S. regime change links
Brain Kern grew up in Minnesota and completed his PhD in Comparative Literature at Brown University in 1996. In 1998, he began teaching at the Red Cross Nordic United World College (UWCRCN) in Norway, where he met his wife, Yatman Cheng.
Cheng graduated from UWCRCN in 2002 and received a Jardine Foundation scholarship to attend Oxford. In 2003 or 2004, as a university student, she volunteered with the Tibetan Children’s Villages in India on a trip organized by her college and led by Brian Kern.
In 2004, Cheng became a summer intern at the Hong Kong think tank Civic Exchange, which has received funding from the National Democratic Institute, a subsidiary of the U.S. government-funded National Endowment for Democracy. Cheng and Kern lived in London in 2007, where Kern worked for Amnesty International as a member of their education team.
In 2008, they moved to Hong Kong, where Kern began teaching at the Chinese International School and established its human rights club.
A few of Kern’s former students appear to work with him behind the cover of his false Asian identity. Several have translated work by Joshua Wong for Kong Tsung-gan’s Medium blog, and one designed the cover for one of Kong Tsung-gan’s books.
Where is Brian Kern now?
Brian Patrick Kern was last seen in public on May 24, 2020, marching with lawmaker Eddie Chu Hoi-Dick in a demonstration against China’s National Security Law.
Weeks later, Kong Tsung-gan published his next book, Liberate Hong Kong: Stories From The Freedom Struggle. Hong Kong’s last British colonial governor Chris Patten praised the tract as “a fascinating insider’s look at what has happened, which will be a defining issue for China’s place in the twenty-first century.”
Did Chris Patten know Kong Tsung-gan was a made-up person?
And how about Tom Grundy, the editor-in-chief of Hong Kong Free Press? Did he know that his columnist, Kong, was actually an American named Brian Kern?
Below, Kern can be seen warmly greeting Grundy during the June 2019 Wan Chai Police station siege:
This August, Kong Tsung-gan published a long-winded diatribe against China’s National Security Law in the Mekong Review, clamoring for harsh U.S. sanctions on Beijing. While acknowledging in small print at the end of the essay that Kong was a pen name, Kern continued to insinuate that he was a Hong Kong native.
“An indication of just how draconian the CCP edict is, is that I could be arrested, charged with ‘colluding with foreign forces’, and face up to life in prison just for calling for sanctions on CCP and HK officials,” he wrote.
In reality, the author was not colluding with foreign forces. He was the foreign force.
According to Hong Kong locals contacted by The Grayzone, Kern is rumored to have left the city.