In July 2018, the Enforcement Directorate (ED), during an investigation, found that the leftist-propaganda website NewsClick (active in India) received funds from China. The flow of funds was traced to an American millionaire, Neville Roy Singham, who is closely associated with the propaganda arm of the Communist Party of China (CPC). The findings also claimed that the money was transferred to Bappaditya Sinha, a CPM IT Cell executive. The ED observed that some ‘Anti India’ elements were “part of a conspiracy to demean the country and target the ruling Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government”.
Readers may recall the days after the Rafale deal, NewsClick was running anti-government propaganda by spreading lies through their articles. Joining the site were others like Wire, Scroll, Newslaundry, Hindu, AltNews and others.
Almost two years later, the New York Times (NYT) published an investigation report on August 5, 2023. This report claims that the founder of the leftist website NewClick, Neville Roy Singham, is a member of nonprofit groups and shell companies that are funding several news publications across the world (including India) to peddle Chinese propaganda.
As per the details available, Singham works closely with the Chinese government media machine and is financing its propaganda worldwide.
From a think tank in Massachusetts to an event space in Manhattan, from a political party in South Africa to news organisations in India and Brazil, the NYT tracked hundreds of millions of dollars to groups linked to Singham that mix progressive advocacy with Chinese government talking points.
“In New Delhi, corporate filings show, Singham’s network financed a news site, NewsClick, that sprinkled its coverage with Chinese government talking points,” the NYT said.
The NYT investigation revealed how China has been able to deflect international criticism of its human rights abuses and how its talking points on global matters are being weaved into international discourses through this network.
“It is part of a lavishly funded influence campaign that defends China and pushes its propaganda. At the centre is a charismatic American millionaire, Neville Roy Singham, who is known as a socialist benefactor of far-left causes,” the NYT said.
Who is Neville Roy Singham?
Singham is a 68-year-old American tech tycoon and the son of a prominent intellectual. He made a fortune through Thoughtworks — a software design and IT consulting company which he founded in the early 1990s.
Of mixed Sri Lankan and Jamaican heritage, Singham has long held an ideological affinity with the Chinese Communist Party, dating to his youthful membership in the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, a Mao-influenced group based in Detroit, Michigan. In his capacity as a cadre of the organization, Singham took a job at the Detroit Chrysler plant in 1972 at the age of 18.
According to a biographical note on the Chinese recruitment platform Boss Zhipin, Singham worked with Chinese tech monolith Huawei from 2001 to 2008 as a strategic technical consultant. During that period, he raved about China’s economic model, telling Fortune magazine’s senior editor David Kirkpatrick in 2008, “China is teaching the West that the world is better off with a dual system of both free-market adjustments and long-term planning.” Two years later, Thoughtworks’ Fifth Agile Software Development Conference was held in Beijing, with Singham proclaiming his own influence on Huawei in his opening speech.
Thoughtworks has since expanded to 17 countries, taking on clients in the business world while showing an interest in pro bono work for progressive media such as the news organization Democracy Now! and the Grameen Foundation, a well-regarded nonprofit focusing on microloans to the world’s poor.
In 2017, Singham sold ThoughtWorks to Apax, a British private equity fund, for an undisclosed price (although thought to be in the hundreds of millions) and left the company altogether. Apax recently took Thoughtworks public on the Nasdaq stock exchange, in September 2021, with a valuation that nearly reached 9 billion dollars.
In a blog post, about the sale from August that year, Thoughtworks’ chief scientist, Martin Fowler, cited Singham’s increasing involvement in his activist work as one of the reasons for the sale.
“[As] I saw [Singham] spend more energy on his activist work, it was apparent it would be appealing to him to accelerate that activism with the money that selling Thoughtworks would bring.”
As an article in the online magazine New Lines described, several Thoughtworks employees “began jumping ship” and turning up at various US-based charitable organisations linked to Singham. These began funnelling money to his various causes across the world, including New Frame and others in South Africa.
Key among the US donor foundations is an organisation that received tax-exempt status in the US in 2017 – the People’s Support Foundation (PSF).
Funding via unregistered organisations
The NYT reported that hundreds of millions of dollars have been traced to groups, linked to Neville Roy Singham that “mix progressive advocacy with Chinese government talking points”.
The NYT untangled the web of charities and shell companies using nonprofit and corporate filings, internal documents and interviews with over two dozen former employees of groups linked to Singham. Some groups, including No Cold War, do not seem to exist as legal entities but are tied to the network through domain registration records and shared organizers.
None of Singham’s nonprofits have registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, as is required of groups that seek to influence public opinion on behalf of foreign powers. That usually applies to groups taking money or orders from foreign governments. Legal experts said Singham’s network was an unusual case.
At present, Nevilla Singham is in Shanghai. One of his network outlets is co-producing a YouTube show, partly financed by Shanghai’s propaganda department. Two other outlets of the tech mogul are working in close association with a Chinese university to “spread China’s voice to the world.”
In July, Neville Roy Singham attended a Communist Party workshop about promoting the party internationally.
How did the network function?
In 2021, the Center for Information Resilience (CIR) released a report stating how fake identities are created on social media with zero backdrops to promote communist China’s ideology. CIR discovered how a network of fake social media profiles was being used to push pro-China narratives, discredit those seen as opponents of the Chinese government, and boost China’s influence and image overseas.
The networks, though not found to be directly linked to the Chinese government, were discovered to resemble pro-China networks previously taken down by social media platforms Twitter and Facebook.
In the investigation by the NYT it came to light Neville Roy Singham’s network showed the process of how disinformation influenced mainstream conservative discourses.
His group produced YouTube videos that promote pro-Chinese messages. The videos, all together, have garnered over millions of views. The influence does not end on the internet, and it is not just about praising Chinese virtue. These networks have their tentacles in world politics as well.
Some of Neville Roy Singham’s groups sought to influence real-world politics. The group members met with congressional aides and trained politicians in Africa, ran candidates in South African elections, and organised protests in London’s Chinatown.
The report says, “He and his allies are on the front line of what Communist Party officials call a “smokeless war.” Under the rule of Xi Jinping, China has expanded state media operations, teamed up with overseas outlets and cultivated foreign influencers. The goal is to disguise propaganda as independent content”.
The NYT observed, “The result is a seemingly organic bloom of far-left groups that echo Chinese government talking points, echo one another, and are echoed in turn by the Chinese state media.”
From black to white
The network where Singham worked is built on the back of American nonprofit groups, the NYT said, with its probe revealing the web of charities and shell companies. Some groups, like No Cold War, do not exist as legal entities but are instead tied to Neville Roy Singham’s network through domain registration records and shared organisers.
The report says, “None of Singham’s nonprofits have registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, as is required of groups that seek to influence public opinion on behalf of foreign powers. That usually applies to groups taking money or orders from foreign governments. Legal experts said Singham’s network was an unusual case.”
While other millionaires and billionaires have their names stamped on nonprofit organisations, Neville Roy Singham chose to conceal his ties to them.
Four non-profit organisations, with names like “United Community Fund” and “Justice and Education Fund, were found to have almost no real-world footprints. Their addresses were listed as UPS store mailboxes in Illinois, Wisconsin and New York. But these four non-profits threw out “a shower of money from an invisible source”.
Singham is not listed as a board member or donor in the public filings by these nonprofits. In fact, he has categorically denied controlling them. “I do not control them,” he said in his statement, “although I have been known to share my opinions.”
The largest of the four nonprofits is run by Singham’s wife, Jodie Evans. The group’s founding bylaws say that Singham can fire Evans and the rest of the board. The bylaws also require that the group dissolve after Singham’s death.
The other three groups have been founded by former Thoughtworks employees, the NYT probe revealed. Thoughtworks is a Chicago-based IT consulting company founded by Singham in the 1980s.
One of them is the Massachusetts-based think tank Tricontinental. Its executive director, Vijay Prashad, recounted Singham’s financing in 2021. “A Marxist with a massive software company!” he wrote on Twitter.
Though Singham claimed that he is not associated with these four organisations, the NYT claimed that he has ties with all of them.
Because American nonprofit groups do not need to disclose individual donors, these four nonprofits worked like financial geysers, throwing out a shower of money from an invisible source.
Influence of the network in different countries
Millions of dollars flowed from these nonprofits, with the money being tracked to a South African political party, YouTube channels in the United States, and nonprofits in Ghana and Zambia.
“In Brazil, records show, money flowed to a group that produces a publication, Brasil de Fato, that intersperses articles about land rights with praise for Xi Jinping,” the NYT reported.
The groups work in coordination with each other, all the while refraining from disclosing their ties. They cross-post articles, and share each other’s content on social media- all to seemingly give off the perception of “independent content”.
Apart from these, these nonprofits have donated millions of dollars for training at Nkrumah School, set in a popular safari area in South Africa. The school hosts boot camps around the year which are attended by activists and politicians from across Africa.
As per US tax records, one of the UPS store nonprofits, the People’s Support Foundation, donated at least 450,000 dollars for training at the school. Jodie Evans, Neville Roy Singham’s wife, shared a photo of the grounds as “Roy’s new place.”
The NYT probe also revealed that in South Africa, the foundation has sent 5.6 million dollars to groups that run the school; a news organization; and the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party, a fringe party launched ahead of the 2019 election.
An interview with party members revealed that the focus of the party seemed to be China, and not the issues of employment and poverty plaguing Africa. The party members were also not allowed to question the Chinese state’s behaviour.
Meanwhile, at the boot camp, Chinese topics quietly seeped into the curriculum.
Apart from this, the tax records also showed that nearly 1.8 million dollars flowed from one of the UPS store nonprofits to a Chinese media company called Maku Group. Maku Group, which says its goal is to “tell China’s story well,” shares the office with Neville Roy Singham in Shanghai.
Not just this, a few years ago, Singham had emailed his friends to introduce a newsletter, now called Dongsheng News, that covers China in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. Dongsheng “provides unique progressive coverage of China that has been sadly missing,” Singham had told friends.
Follow the party
While Neville Roy Singham’s networks have been accused of having ties to the Chinese government, the tech mogul has denied the charges.
“I categorically deny and repudiate any suggestion that I am a member of, work for, take orders from, or follow instructions of any political party or government or their representatives,” he wrote in an email to the New York Times. “I am solely guided by my beliefs, which are my long-held personal views.”
NYT reported, Singham shares the office with a Chinese media company called Maku Group, which says its goal is to “tell China’s story well,” a term commonly used for foreign propaganda. In a Chinese-language job advertisement, Maku says it produces text, audio and videos for “global networks of popular media and progressive think tanks.”
His associates confirmed Singham’s admiration for Maoism, the Communist ideology that gave rise to modern China. In the past, Singham praised Venezuela under the leftist president Hugo Chávez as a “phenomenally democratic place”, and had said the world could learn from China’s governing approach.
Majdi Haroun, a former employee at Thoughtworks, recalled Singham lecturing him on the Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara. Haroun said employees sometimes jokingly called each other “comrades.”
Singham funded left-wing causes while at Thoughtworks. He sold the company to a private equity firm in 2017, by which time it had 4,500 employees across 15 countries, including South Africa and Uganda. A copy of the sale agreement put the price at 785 million dollars, the NYT reported.
“I decided that at my age and extreme privilege, the best thing I could do was to give away most of my money in my lifetime,” Neville Roy Singham said in his statement.
On the personal front, Singham’s wife, Jodie Evans, who helped form Code Pink, was once a strident critic of China’s authoritarian government. “We demand China stop brutal repression of their women’s human rights defenders,” she wrote on Twitter in 2015.
But Jodie Evans now voices support for China, casting it as a “defender of the oppressed and a model for economic growth without slavery or war.”
“If the US crushes China,” she said in 2021, it “would cut off hope for the human race and life on Earth
While world leaders and human rights experts have condemned China’s internment of Uyghurs, Evans describes the Uyghurs as terrorists and defends their mass detention. “We have to do something,” she said in 2021.
As per the New York Times probe, the Chinese state media accounts have retweeted people and organisations in Singham’s network at least 122 times since February 2020, mostly accounts connected with No Cold War and Code Pink.
The NYT quoted, “Maku’s website shows young people gathering in Singham’s office, facing a red banner that reads, in Chinese, “Always Follow the Party.” Resting on a shelf is a plate depicting Xi Jinping.”
His ties to the propaganda machine date back at least to 2019, when, corporate documents show, he started a consulting business with Chinese partners.