Unmasked Chinese fake quits HK - but keeps phony persona

Top News | Staff reporter 14 Aug 2020

An activist hiding his American voice behind a Chinese persona has left Hong Kong after he was called out for adopting and using a Chinese pen name without making a disclaimer.

The Standard columnist Nury Vittachi broke the news last December that "Kong Tsung-gan" - who is frequently quoted in the English-language press as a Hong Kong Chinese writer and activist - is in fact Brian Kern, a teacher from the United States.

This was confirmed in an investigative piece published this week in The Grayzone, a website run by American journalist Max Blumenthal.

The Grayzone reported that Kern grew up in Minnesota and worked in Norway and London, where he was a member of the education team at Amnesty International.

He moved to Hong Kong in 2008, where he taught at the Chinese International School and set up its human rights club.

The Grayzone said that Twitter user Kong Tsung-gan first emerged in 2015, with commentaries about the Occupy Movement. Until late last year, a black-and-white mugshot of an unknown Asian person was used as the account's avatar.

In one blog post, he claimed he attended a Band 1 government school - which led readers to believe he was a Hong Kong native.

"Kong," the author of Liberate Hong Kong: Stories From The Freedom Struggle, was popular with Western media who often referred to him as a Hong Kong writer and activist.

But Blumenthal questioned if people were aware that it was in fact a Chinese persona adopted by an American man.

Vittachi recalled that last December, he received a tip-off from readers that Kong is Caucasian.

In his column, he challenged Kern for presenting himself as a person with a different ethnicity.

"It is not illegal to publish material under a pen name, but journalistic ethics require publications to reveal that 'names have been changed.' Presenting yourself as a person with a different ethnicity is a whole step more controversial," Vittachi wrote back then.

After that, Hong Kong Free Press, where Kern is a columnist, threatened to take legal action against Vittachi and The Standard unless it removed the article.

Tom Grundy, editor-in-chief of Hong Kong Free Press, also threatened to report to the Hong Kong Journalists Association, the International Federation of Journalists and Hong Kong's Privacy Commissioner about "doxxing."

"It is very strange that they [HKFP] worked so hard to conceal his identity, along with the lawsuit. Their reaction seemed too heavy," Vittachi said.

He revealed that a local group, The Third Degree, also investigated the writer and was unhappy about the false ethnicity.

"You can't do this in the era of Black Lives Matter," a group member told Vittachi.

Readers of The Standard also discovered that Kern has a second pen name - "Xun Yuezang" - which he used for a novel about ill-treated activists.

Xun was interviewed in an article by-lined Kong Tsung-gan when they were, in fact, the same person.

In an article published in HKFP following The Grayzone report, "Kong" said he is a Hong Kong permanent resident. The pen name was given to him by a Chinese human rights activist many years ago. "I certainly have not intended to deceive anyone about my ethnicity," he wrote.

"I would say I understand the recent debate over identity politics and may have chosen a different name if I were making the choice for the first time today."

He said he considers himself a Hong Kong person and has no other home - but claimed he decided to leave the city following threats made against his family.

He continues to use the pen name and posted on Twitter about the arrest of Next Media founder Jimmy Lai Chee-ying.

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