For more than five years, Kong Tsung-gan was a name that turned up regularly as a Hong Kong protest activist and writer quoted frequently by foreign media.
Now, the revelation that “Kong” is in fact a pen name of possibly an American named Brian Kern has ignited debate over the legitimacy of using a pseudonym in Hong Kong’s highly charged political environment.
The controversy was sparked recently by an American alternative news website that accused Kern of adopting a fictitious identity as an ethnic Chinese grass roots activist as a “deceptive ploy” to “disseminate anti-China propaganda”.
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“Kong” later responded to the article by admitting he had been using a pen name all along, but did not confirm his true identity. His defenders claimed he had to operate incognito for his own safety. He had 32,000 followers on Twitter, with a photograph of a Chinese man accompanying his anti-government tweets, and “Kong Tsung-gan” has appeared in reports on Hong Kong by CNN, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Agence France-Presse and Guardian, among others.
A columnist for the Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP), he also wrote books and his most recent, about last year’s social unrest, was praised by the last British governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten.
On August 8, news website The Grayzone reported that Kong was in fact Brian Kern, an American who worked with human rights group Amnesty International before moving to Hong Kong to teach.
The site, run by American journalist and author Max Blumenthal, accused Kern of using his fake identity to spread anti-China propaganda through his writing.
On Monday, HKFP published a letter from Kong admitting he used the pen name when he started writing about the city’s protests after the 2014 “umbrella movement”.
While not confirming he was in fact Kern, he denied The Grayzone’s allegation that he was a “foreign force”, insisting he was a Hong Kong permanent resident who had lived in the city for years.
Kong’s Twitter followers include pro-democracy activists Joshua Wong Chi-fung, Sunny Cheung Kwan-yang and Jimmy Sham Tsz-kit.
He has called for sanctions against Hong Kong to pile pressure on China and, in a tweet last week, said the US administration “got just the right people” when it sanctioned 11 Hong Kong and mainland officials.
“We’ve been fighting long & hard to get these particular individuals sanctioned as a means of beginning to hold them accountable for abusing #HK people’s autonomy & rights,” he tweeted.
Attempts to contact Kong were unsuccessful. He has been a regular writer for HKFP, the free news site formed five years ago by blogger Tom Grundy, and which raised HK$2.6 million (US$335,000) in 2018, according to its latest annual report.
We’ve been fighting long & hard to get these particular individuals sanctioned as a means of beginning to hold them accountable for abusing #HK people’s autonomy & rights
A recent ‘Kong Tsung-gan’ tweet on 11 sanctioned officials
Grundy told the Post that the site had updated its references to Kong to indicate it was a pen name. The site had also published articles by Brian Kern, but Grundy did not say if he was aware that Kong and Kern were one and the same person.
Last December, however, Grundy threatened legal action against a Hong Kong newspaper, The Standard, after it published a column by writer Nury Vittachi that said Kong was American.
In a Facebook post on Monday, Hong Kong-based Vittachi recalled that Grundy demanded the removal of his article.
“Mr Grundy’s letter ignored the main issue – the fact that Hong Kong Chinese people did not want a white male activist pretending to be them all over the world’s media,” he said.
Vittachi said he learned the truth about Kong’s identity last year at “a secret meeting with local Hong Kong people who were upset” an American was passing himself off as a Hongkonger.
Grundy told the Post that the HKFP adopted a code of ethics in March, under which pseudonyms were allowed in “very exceptional circumstances”, such as when an author’s safety or job security may be compromised.
As for why it had only now declared that Kong was a pen name, he said: “I regret the lag, but it’s impossible to retrospectively apply today’s code to 16,000 previous pieces of content.”
As a writer, Kong gained attention for commentaries on various platforms and frequent tweets on protests and political incidents.
He wrote three books about Hong Kong’s political movement, including one titled Liberate HK: Stories from the Freedom Struggle published in June by the Mekong Review literary quarterly.
Patten, the last colonial governor, described the book as “a fascinating insider’s look at what has happened, which will be a defining issue for China’s place in the 21st century”.
Sydney-based Mekong Review founder Minh Bui Jones said the company was seeking legal advice when asked if they knew that Kong was a fake name or had tried to verify his identity.
In his letter in HKFP, Kong claimed he did not intend to deceive anyone about his ethnicity, but created the fake identity out of unspecified security concerns.
He said he left Hong Kong as threats to him and his family spiked in late May, ahead of the city’s new national security law. He did not say what those threats were.
“I will continue to do whatever I can for the freedom struggle from outside,” he said, adding that he would continue using Kong as his byline because he was known by that name.
It appears obvious that Kern established a false Chinese identity to confer on his writing a sense of credibility which he did not believe he could attain under his own Anglo name
Max Blumenthal, founder of website The Grayzone
Tim Hamlett, who regularly edits contributors’ copy for HKFP, said he was a bit surprised to learn that Kong was not who he appeared to be.
“I must say, I thought he was Chinese from the name,” he said.
The Grayzone, which identified Kong as Kern, describes itself as “an independent news website dedicated to original investigative journalism and analysis on politics and empire”. It is led by Blumenthal, who is described as “founder, editor-in-chief and reporter”.
While the site accused Kern of being anti-China, Blumenthal himself appears on mainland Chinese media and has sparked controversy by talking down allegations of China’s mistreatment of minority Uygurs in Xinjiang province and coming out strongly against the conspiracy theory that the Covid-19 coronavirus escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan.
He thought it disingenuous of Kong to claim he needed a fake identity to protect himself.
“It appears obvious that Kern established a false Chinese identity to confer on his writing a sense of credibility which he did not believe he could attain under his own Anglo name,” he said.
A spokesman for Amnesty International confirmed that Kern worked for its human rights education team in London in 2007.
The following year, he joined Hong Kong’s Chinese International School as an English teacher and ran a human rights club for students, according to a 2012 Post report.
Kern, who is believed to be in his 50s, has appeared in other news reports over the years since then.
He was spotted at protests during the umbrella movement of 2014, and last year, he was seen at anti-government rallies.
On one occasion he was filmed shouting at police officers on the street and, last August, he was photographed going to a rally with his wife and two daughters.
An expert in media law and ethics, Dr Yan Mei-ning, said that writing under a pseudonym has become common in the digital era and it is difficult to know a person’s true motive for concealing their identity.
Did he want to protect himself from nuisances, or make his viewpoints look more convincing under a different ethnicity? It’s hard to tell
Dr Yan Mei-ning, media law and ethics expert
Referring to Kong, the adjunct associate professor at the University of Hong Kong’s law school added: “Did he want to protect himself from nuisances, or make his viewpoints look more convincing under a different ethnicity? It’s hard to tell.
“But it would be the duty of journalists to judge whether his viewpoints are still valid, even if his identity cannot be verified.”
In July, SCMP deleted articles by a writer named Lin Nguyen when it was unable to verify the authenticity of the author, soon after the case was brought to the publication’s attention.
Associate Professor Kaman Lee, associate head of Hong Kong Shue Yan University’s journalism school, could not comment specifically on Kern’s case, but said: “Speaking generally, while it is common for columnists and authors to use all sorts of pen names, journalists must use their real names and take responsibility for what they write.”
She said journalists had to do that even at the risk of being criticised. “By using real names, journalists say, ‘We are reporting this with integrity, we hope you can comment with integrity too’,” she said.
Additional reporting by Kristin Huang
Note: This report has been edited to reflect attempts to contact Kong and SCMP’s approach to pen names.