Friday, October 30, 2020


Martin Aspen, mysterious Mister Pixel-man






It’s hard to know what to believe these days, as weaponized tweets and deliberate disinformation spread around the world like wildfire, leaping from the internet to traditional press outlets, sowing confusion in the public commons.


In these harried days before the November 3, 2020 US election, a loose coalition of anti-communist agitators and Trump supporters in Asia have made a number of clumsy, last-minute attempts to tilt opinion against candidate Joe Biden in favor of incumbent Donald Trump by focusing on the Biden family’s connections to China.


Desperate for an October surprise with which to turn the course history, pro-Trump outlets such as Fox News, Bannon's War Room, Apple Daily and others have breathlessly swallowed up poorly-sourced news from dubious sources and thus churned out flawed stories attacking Biden, the most egregious recent case being a “dossier” produced by Martin Aspen at Typhoon Investigations detailing the China business connections of Joe Biden’s son Hunter.


The Typhoon report has been exposed by sharp-eyed journalists at NBC News (link) of being authored by a fake person, the spurious photograph of whom is a realistic avatar created by AI.


The 64-page "Martin Aspen" dossier is a fraudulent project, fraught with slimy intrigue throughout. 


For starters, there is no such person as Martin Aspen, self-identified Swiss security analyst. There does exist a Twitter account under that name which contains postings and some interaction with other users.


Real persons and organizations followed by the fake account include: Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, “Stand with HK”, "HKDemocracyNow" and “FiveDemandsNotOneLess.”


On Martin Aspen’s home page appears the photo of what appears to be a reasonably rugged, handsome man. Demonstrated to be an AI creation by NBC, it is composed of pixels and nothing more. It turns out Aspen’s photo of his new home in Italy was lifted from a travel blog. His Swiss company never heard of him; no one by that name even lives in Switzerland.


Not real, doesn’t exist. Pure fiction.


So who is the puppet-master behind this fictitious person?


Martin Aspen’s Twitter activity offers some clues, given the predominance of names associated with the Hong Kong protest movement. 


But it should be noted that at least one of the followers appears to be a fake persona based on a well-known fake persona, that of Ron Vara, which is an anagram-inspired name of White House China advisor Peter Navarro. (link) 


Is there a Navarro connection? Is it the tip of an iceberg or just the tip of the hat?


The Ron Vara account is attributed to a self-described “Intelligence Expert” and “China Hand” residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Harvard PhD.


But is Martin Aspen’s Ron Vara the same fictitious personage as Navarro’s Ron Vara? Reading through the posts and links, it’s hard to see the Ron Vara account as anything but a tongue-in-cheek job. For example, Ron Vara’s Chinese name is the intentionally insulting Long Fuhua, which means Dragon Corrupt-China.


As for Martin Aspen’s followers on Twitter, some of them appear to be fake accounts following a fake account, while a few might be actual people with extremely small followings. Perhaps they were duped by the Martin Aspen persona, or perhaps are somehow complicit with it.


It’s a rabbit hole of Asian untruths with an American accent.


Peeking out from behind the mask of the fake Martin Aspen is the real Christopher Balding, an American researcher who studied economics at the University of California, Irvine when Peter Navarro was still teaching economics there. 


Balding, who peddled the mystery dossier to numerous media outlets, has alternately stood by his story and adjusted his story. In the process, he has taken at least partial credit for the misrepresentation.


In a flurry of tweets defending his connection to the tainted project, Balding seemingly betrays his co-conspirators when he points to the office of Jimmy Lai, publisher of Apple Daily and founder of Next Digital, as being somehow involved in the hoax.


Jimmy Lai, a prominent anti-China, pro-Trump publisher, denies any knowledge of the scheme. The research project, priced at $10,000 according to Lai, was apparently too small to require him to sign off on.   


But Jimmy Lai’s right-hand man in Taiwan, Mark Simon, an American political operative and a well-known anti-communist ideologue, has resigned, taking some of the heat and some of the credit for the contrived dossier and ill-fated scoop that backfired so badly.


Christopher Balding ironically claims that extraordinary secrecy was necessary to protect the identify of author “Martin Aspen”  because as an American researcher he had an “understandable worry about foreign disinformation.”


Foreign disinformation?


Is it okay if the disinformation is American, not foreign? Does any researcher in his right mind really think piling on more disinformation is a credible way of guarding against disinformation?


It is unclear from the mealy-mouthed mea culpa of Christopher Balding if he is the sole author of the 64-page dossier or if this was something he collaborated on with Next Digital’s Mark Simon, and perhaps others.


Balding shares with the mythic Ron Vara (and his real-world counterpart Ron Navarro) a connection to the economics department at the University of California, Irvine. Not only were they in the same field, but Balding, like Navarro, made a failed bid for electoral office in California. 


Balding has since worked as a professor in Shenzhen and most recently in Ho Chi Minh City. His most recent former employer, Fulbright University Vietnam, has gone on the record saying, “Regrettably, Dr. Balding’s action does not reflect the values of this institution.”


Balding has been described as a political grifter, and that’s not entirely derogatory or unfair since he is working in the footsteps of Donald Trump, Peter Navarro, Steve Bannon, all of whom play fast with the facts and have, through their toxic tweets and retweets, podcasts and broadcasts, created “editorial space” to disseminate faulty information such as the Hunter Biden dossier. 


Balding recently appeared on a recent Steve Bannon podcast along with self-proclaimed anti-Biden specialist, Rudy Giuliani.


An Apple Daily connection is also palpable, even if it proves to have been a rogue effort by one or more employees without the knowledge or approval of Next Digital boss Jimmy Lai.


The author/s of the dubious dossier seem to share the Taiwan-based Next Digital’s obsession with Hong Kong, even though the report is reputedly about mainland China. The name of the fake company, Typhoon Investigations, is set against a stormy Hong Kong backdrop, and the fake Twitter accounts among other clues, point to an obsession with the Hong Kong protesters such as Joshua Wong and Nathan Law.


The aura of mystery created by the dashing fictitious persona of Martin Aspen, and the political desperation to smear Biden by any means possible, eclipses the dull, pedantic information provided in the report itself. It’s a Steele Dossier wannabe, full of innuendo, hoping to hurt, but with none of the firepower, pizzazz or salaciousness of the Steele document, itself a dubious piece of work.


Typhoon Investigations appears to have relied mostly on public sources for its doleful, obsessive tracking of Hunter Biden’s movements in China.


It’s full of innuendo and smoke, but no smoking gun. Balding offers much of the same in this TV appearance for "China Unscripted:-How the Chinese government targeted Hunter Biden" 


(link to video)


Yet innuendo seems to be Christopher Balding’s modus operandi, judging from a recent appearance on a “China Unscripted” podcast in which he suggested that China, wink wink, might have salacious material on Hunter Biden.


His proof? A personal knowledge of  "how China works.”


Rather than providing even a shred of evidence he tells his credulous right-wing hosts:


“Until you’ve lived in China…it sounds like complete fantasy but that’s how China works. I’m not making any speculations other than saying China probably had video on him every moment he was in China.”


China "expert" Christopher Balding (on right) talking to "China Unscripted"


With Balding's credibility in question, his previous attacks on Huawei and Zhenhua, both of which got ample play in the mainstream media, have to be taken with a big grain of salt. He speculates. He dresses up the facts. He fantasizes. He tells bald-faced lies. Finally, he made a bumbling mess of a covert operation and got caught at it.


Producing and peddling fake news in the service of an anti-China narrative is not just a mockery of journalism and academics, it's bad intelligence work.


But it back-fired.


The trumped-up anti-China narrative has become an anti-Trump narrative.








Monday, October 19, 2020






Youthful demonstrators across Thailand linked by little more than smartphones and smart-aleck attitudes have found a way to gather, taunt and disperse with subterfuge and speed.


Airing widely shared grievances about what may be the most unequal society in the world, a small, quirky group of idealistic students, against great odds, have made major inroads into winning the support of the larger population.


The street rebels may attract, annoy, impress and repel in turn, but they touch on topics of heartfelt concern to most Thais, including taboo topics that many privately obsess about but rarely give public voice to.  


What makes the activists stand out is a willingness to speak, a willingness to offend a vision of a new kind of Thailand.


It takes a special kind of trust between student leaders and the student-led to organize mass rallies of the kind that drew in tens of thousands of supporters just hours after the government banned free assembly and free speech and arrested the best known speakers. 


The youthful crowd knows the lay of the land intimately, what’s more, they see it as theirs to occupy. They know the transportation networks inside out from long hours of shuttling between home, school and shopping districts, and they are finding ways to use this quotidian knowledge to great advantage. They are experts at hiding in plain sight, dressing for comfort, blending in with Bangkok’s millions until they are ready to strike the streets. Ready to recede, too.


Clearly cognizant of past protests, they have made history come alive by choosing locations with larger resonance, whether it be Sanam Luang, where demonstrations raged decades ago during the twin Octobers of the 1970’s, or camping out at monuments that point to clashes even older than that, such as the Democracy Monument and the Victory Monument, which commemorate events of 1932 and 1941 respectively.


Among the protest sites they have chosen, there are nods to more recent struggles, too, such as Black May 1992 at Ratchadomnern, and Red May 2010 at Ratchaprasong. The royally-named thoroughfares reflect an elite tradition, but with just a slight shift in orthography, they have been dubbed streets of the people, or ratsadorn.


The “people” are everywhere and nowhere at once, floating like butterflies from one venue to the next.


Although the number of talking points may vary from rally to rally, the twin demand of nudging both the monarchy and military out of politics is consistently voiced.


It represents a paradigm shift in the practice of Thai politics.


As the Internet-savvy, phone-linked protesters sweep across town, popping up here and there, ducking low when appropriate, the map of Bangkok has become a giant whack-a-mole board.


Thongchai Winichakul, a veteran activist from the October 1976 generation wrote a history book entitled “Siam Mapped.”


A book about “Bangkok Re-mapped” begs to be written for the new era.


Inasmuch as it’s a David vs Goliath struggle, it’s hard not to wish the students well, especially when they are up against heavily armed police with nothing more than three-fingered salutes and bare hands. But the regular use of rude language and undisguised insolence has angered some elders and caused others to withhold support.


Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha has not handled the situation well. Clumsy crackdowns at Government House and Siam Square strengthened the victim-victimizer narrative and won essential mass support for the students. A hastily-announced but weakly-implemented “extreme emergency decree” banning free assembly and speech, backfired badly.


Not only was it not enforced, which suggests that law enforcement is not necessarily on the same page as the premier, but it set off a big round of demonstrations.


What started as a spark at Thammasat University is now a country-wide conflagration. Not only have demos erupted across the length and width of Bangkok, but up and down the provinces as well. Small cities unaccustomed to mass protest have become mini-Bangkoks in which key public plazas are used to rail against the regime.


But even though there’s something joyous in seeing peaceful demonstrations pop up in unexpected places, dangers mount.


A bloody crackdown remains a real possibility if there’s no change in thinking at the top. Simply put, the students don’t stand a chance in any kind of kinetic conflict. They are grievously out-gunned and have been so from day one. 


Their sole pathway to success is to win so many hearts and minds that the crackdown crumbles and stalls out due to ambivalence within.


After the October 18 demonstrations, a policeman reportedly quit his job because he couldn’t in good conscience carry out orders to combat fellow civilians. Multiply that act of social disobedience by a thousand and the chances of changing the old regime go from zero to merely incredibly daunting.


The specter of an external crackdown has haunted the movement from the start, but there are internal dangers as well. Passion for the mission carries with it an almost obligatory willingness to sacrifice. Reckless, even suicidal actions can’t be discounted when emotions run high.


But stooping to violence to fight violence is a slippery slope and should be strenuously avoided.


The protest movement in Hong Kong, which got off to a promising start, eroded its moral high ground when it condoned, even encouraged, acts of violence. Umbrellas were meant as a symbol of shelter and solidarity, not crude weapons with which to beat people.


The ends don’t justify the means.


So far, the Thai student movement has done a creditable job of keeping things honest and peaceful. They deserve credit for taking on the unthinkable and doing it well.


Led by an assortment of ordinary nobodies who no one knew or paid heed to just months ago, a group of college kids thrust themselves into the national spotlight by the virtue of speaking the unspeakable and tackling taboos with humor and verve.


Heated discussions that first took place in a campus dorm in suburban Rangsit then moved onto a downtown campus which served as the springboard for the storied plazas of central Bangkok.


The story of this sudden rise against the odds is a compelling narrative about the power of ideas. A loosely bound, phone-linked coalition of student idealists, human rights activists, democracy seekers and even a few bold republicans have come together to issue a clarion call for change.


“Let it end with our generation!” is the battle cry.


Older generations may be prompted to groan, sigh, cry or tear their hair out upon hearing the young ones declare that they are a generation like no other, that they will finish the unfinished business of their elders, but it’s no laughing matter.


Pluck, self-confidence and a certain blindness to the cost of sacrifice are key attributes when it comes to overturning an old order.


When activists feel there is nothing left to lose, doing the impossible is no more daunting than doing nothing.


True, there are egos both callow and callous at play among self-centered young rebels. And they are by and large too inexperienced to realize just how much they don’t know. They are not ignorant of past tragedies, but it’s book knowledge, not visceral.


Willful naivety is both a blessing and a curse, a double-edged sword.


There never would have been a Tiananmen uprising had China’s youth been fully mindful of the bitter lessons of the Cultural Revolution, nor, for that matter, would there have been a revolution in 1949, had earlier generations not had similar, seemingly insane moments powered by the crazy naïve belief that they could change the world.


Writing at this delicate juncture, perhaps on the cusp of great change, there’s no saying which way the dice will fall.


Hopefully a historic compromise is in store, but a crackdown cannot be discounted. Even just muddling through has its consequences.


It’s just a matter of time before the old order is replaced by something new, even if that which will replace it has yet to come fully into view.






Saturday, October 17, 2020



The search for meaning in the NBT Evening News show of Oct 17, 2020


by Phil Cunningham 



The evening news on this tumultuous day of citywide demonstrations in Bangkok is introduced by a pair of skilled news anchors, one male, one female, who give a brief traffic update before seguing into he politics of the day.


The background montage features the Thai flag unfurled with various politicians clustered in the background.



Photographs of Prime Minister Prayut and Deputy Prime Minister Prawit are central to the montage, and it’s an appropriate visual at this juncture because calls are growing for the current government to step down.


The NBT news report doesn’t say as much, it’s a state news service after all, but a distinct discontent with the Prayut government can be discerned in the framing of the news.


In an hour-long broadcast, the prime minister got exceedingly little air time, the lion’s share of which was devoted to “illegal” street protests. Since protests were banned, and coverage of the same strongly discouraged, to lavish such intense coverage on the protests is itself a quiet act of rebellion. Or maybe it’s just good journalism.


What’s more the staid state TV service deployed three reporters to the field and each of them, though prompted to say good things about the police, also gave strong indications that the protesters were behaving in a peaceful, orderly and rational manner.


The PM was left to defend the all but indefensible water cannon attack on a peaceful crowd at Siam Square the night before, and he didn’t do a good job of defending it. The camera cut from him to the file footage and the pictures spoke louder than words.


Protester calls for the prime minister to resign were repeated in the broadcast.


The evening news show is underway. Demonstrations are the big story, but there will also be reports about flooding and a Covid update later in the broadcast.


The anchors discuss transportation woes. They mention that numerous BTS stations had been temporarily closed, but that service would be restored when things quieted down. 


Intrepid field reporter Seksom is on the scene at Ladprao with a camera crew for a live link. He is shown strolling down a road devoid of vehicular traffic. Protesters are milling about excitedly.


He takes pains to note that the protesters won’t let police officials in. Even though they only want to go in to help, protesters won’t grant them access. At the five way intersection of Lard Phrao, “the officers who maintain stability and peace” are nowhere to be seen, just protesters.


Though rather orthodox in his views as state functionary, Seksom's stroll through the crowd creates a visceral “I-was-there” dose of reality. Unfortunately, he is prone to editorialize, and launches into a spirited defense of police actions so far, including the controversial water cannon incident at Siam Square. His intransigent musings get drowned out by crowd organizers with megaphones. 


“That’s the voice of the crowd leadership,” he bristles, then notes that some protesters are wearing helmets and glasses to protect against use of tear gas.


Oh, look. Here’s a performance! He and his cameraman approach a group playing drums, beating upturned pink buckets with drumsticks. The percussive blast fades as the crowd gets instructions from a man with a megaphone is calling on people to move back.  


Seksom continues his uneasy amble through the jumpy crowd.


“This is a live broadcast from Phaholyothin Road,” he says, concluding his impromptu standup. "Protesters are regrouping, going to a designated meeting spot.”


The female anchor asks Seksom about crowd movements but his answer is drowned out by the din of the crowd. “I don’t see any authorities where you are," she follows up. "Who is responsible for safeguarding the peace?”


“No one, none around here. They tried coming in but were blocked. The local police station did some cursory crowd inspection for safety on the periphery but here the crowd is basically guarding itself.”


Thank you Khun Seksom. Now for a look at Bang Na, where Khun Woraphat is on the scene.


“The crowd is swelling,” Woraphat reports. “The starting point was Udomsuk intersection, but it moved away from there, about 700 meters, now near Bang Na intersection. Unlike other protests, there is no sound truck here, but they are using small megaphones to communicate.”


Speaking against a murky background, he says that members of crowd are invited to express themselves by standing up in front of a group to address those gathered. He notes there was a small disturbance at 5pm when they first tried to close down the inbound lane of Sukhumwit. The leaders were worried the police might disperse the crowd at the Bang Na-Trat intersection, so there was a change in course. 


Finally, it was announced that should the police show up, the crowd should leave on their own accord and regather at another time.”


The male anchor puts a query to the reporter in the field. “The leaders have announced that 8pm is the time to go home, at least in other points in town. Is that also the case where you are?”

“Well, I haven’t heard a cutoff time announced here, but as I said, the plan is to disperse if police show up for sake of safety.”

Where are they going next?

“Not clear. The crowd here might go to Central, it depends, if there is trouble, they will go home.”


And it's back to the studio. And now,  a report from Wongwian Yai: 

Khun Patraporn?  


Phone in one hand, mic in other, Miss Patraporn looks into the lens and commences a standup on a busy section of road. “This is near the BTS station…and now you can see the crowd. They are still allowing vehicles to pass, people are mostly gathered near the sidewalk. Things got jammed up near Taksin Intersection for a while."


When asked about the protest leaders, she explains. “Today’s group, what they’re saying, they're saying that there’s no core leadership, only crowd representatives. Everyone’s a leader.”


Wow.  Even the ragtag rebels are beginning to sound like seasoned politicians.


Chants and shouting can be heard on the darkened street. “They are calling for the prime minister to step down,” Patraporn dutifully reports. 


Thank you. Any sign where they are headed next?


“There are various things being said on the grapevine, but I’m on the edge of the crowd, and I can’t get inside, so I can’t say for sure. There’s been some talk of taking it to Wongwian Yai by the statue of King Taksin." 


Loud shouts emerge in background, the signal breaks up

“Thank you Khun Pataraporn, there seems to be a slight technical issue.”


The newsroom anchors turn to each other to sum up some tentative findings. They note the strategy of organizers of breaking the crowd into smaller groups for logistics and ease of movement and give credit to the resolve of crowd not to get into conflict with authorities. They also note that plans are not clear and subject to change according to circumstance. The studio crew cuts back to Bang Na one last time to see if the protesters there are holding ground or dispersing.


Woraphat is still in the field, the murmur of passing voices audible despite the dark background. Yes, they are dispersing now. The leaders told them to go home and prepare for another day.”


Next up is a police presser. Under pressure to explain use of water cannon previous day, they basically say it wasn’t dangerous and was done in accordance with policy. Police must do their duty, given emergency decree, and a stern official reminds viewers that demonstrations are illegal.


“We used a gentle water spray with some added chemicals perhaps, but not at all dangerous. It was on a low-pressure setting. At worst it just soils the skin and clothing.” 


No tear gas was used, the police spokesman emphasized.


Another police official reminds viewers that it is strictly illegal to block or close roads, interrupting transportation is illegal and a serious offense. 


A hospital official reports that five police were injured, hit by rocks and other things, and were in hospital, another ten were lightly injured and inspected on the scene. 


Two protesters were hospitalized for hyperventilation and another for a chemical irritant.


Police doctor dispels rumor


An earnest police doctor cites a story going around on social media about an ambulance allegedly delayed by crowd. He said it was reported that a pregnant mother and child died, but this is incorrect. It was a false report. An older woman was aboard the ambulance and it got her to the hospital and she is fine now.


The police doctor spoke like a true journalist, dispelling an incendiary false report and coolly setting the story straight.

PM Prayut makes a scripted appearance, but only gets about ten seconds of screen time. We don't hear his voice, his message is paraphrased. He is shown removing a blue mask and stepping up to mic in snappy yellow jacket. With file footage of the Siam Square conflict running on screen, he reiterates that the previous night’s crackdown was done in accordance of law and was carried out to prevent extremists from creating a more serious situation.


The Prime Minister stresses that people shouldn’t distort that facts for political purposes, though he seems to be distorting the facts for political purposes himself. While he talks, dramatic and disturbing footage of the water cannon incident at Siam Square is clearly at odds with his own statements.

“No winners or losers,”  Prayut is said to have lamented. “But it’s a loss for the Thai people and the Thai nation.” 


In closing, he asks people to cooperate by not joining protests, which are illegal.

“Trust the government, peace will be restored soon.”