WASHINGTON - A U.S. nongovernmental organization accused of instigating Hong Kong's pro-democracy "Occupy" street protests says it is engaged in normal cooperation with civic groups in the Chinese territory and has nothing to hide.
Chinese state media and pro-Beijing news outlets in Hong Kong have published a series of articles in recent days, accusing the National Endowment for Democracy of funding and advising the protesters, who have occupied major Hong Kong streets since September 28. Those media also have portrayed NED as an agent of U.S. foreign policy.
Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying added his voice to the foreign interference allegations this week. In a report published Wednesday, the South China Morning Post quotes Leung as saying he will disclose evidence of "foreign forces participating in the Occupy movement" at the "appropriate time."
NED responds to criticism
In an exclusive interview with VOA, National Endowment for Democracy's vice president of programs for Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, Louisa Greve, dismissed the accusations as an insult to Hong Kong people, whom she said have their own desires for a "democratic basis for their government."
NED receives U.S. federal government funding as well as private donations in pursuit of its stated global mission of supporting other NGOs working to "strengthen democratic values, processes, and institutions." It also has an independent board of directors who allocate those funds.
"NED has a budget which is paid for by American taxpayers, but its decision making is not part of American foreign policy," Greve said.
The Washington-based organization says it provides more than 1,000 grants a year to partner groups around the world, giving them an average of $50,000. NED's three partners in Hong Kong include the U.S.-based Solidarity Center and the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, which receive grants of around $150,000, and the U.S. National Democratic Institute, which has a $400,000 grant for work in Hong Kong and mainland China.
Greve said NED does not engage in democracy-promotion work in Hong Kong itself.
"We really don't have offices around the world -- we have staff who take a look at proposals [from partner groups], have to understand the politics in the countries [where those partners operate], and then provide project support based on the groups' own proposals," she said. "Based on competition, because [our] money is limited, we try to support the best projects. We don’t control them."
But NED does assess its partners' performance to decide whether it should renew their grants.
In a program broadcast by Hong Kong's Asia Television on October 14, Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor director Law Yuk-kai said his organization must send a year-end report of its activities to NED. "We just say what we have done. We are not reporting to the U.S. government," Law said.
Greve said the information-sharing work of NED-funded groups is an activity protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
"In trade, commerce or scientific cooperation, it's normal for NGOs to have cooperation with foreign institutions. The same is true for civil society groups cooperating for common goals," she said.
History of US support
NED has been funding democracy-promotion programs in Hong Kong for about two decades with grants totaling several million dollars. Greve said the level of support has been consistent during that period.
"[NED's Hong Kong project] is not very large compared to some places in the world. It is a city that can rely on its own resources," she said.
NDI, one of NED's four core grantees, has been working in Hong Kong since 1997. It says its programs have facilitated research and dialogue related to governance, at the request of local organizations.
Accusations of NED-affiliated groups meddling in Hong Kong affairs have been publicized for years.
"NDI has had lots of negative press in Hong Kong [from Chinese state-run and pro-Beijing media]," Greve said. "It's not unusual for governments that are authoritarian and lack popular legitimacy through a vote to blame foreigners for citizens' discontent."
Hong Kong pro-democracy advocates also have long been labeled by their opponents as foreign agents.
Greve said those activists know the risks of working with NED partners. "But they still say, ‘international cooperation is legitimate.’ So nobody regrets their choice - I haven't heard of such a thing."
Lee Cheuk-yan is one such activist. He leads the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) and serves in the Legislative Council as a lawmaker for the Labor Party.
Labor unionist draws attention
HKCTU released a statement last week, saying it has received $540,000 in financial support from Solidarity Center, another NED core grantee, over the past seven years.
The Washington-based group is affiliated with the U.S. labor federation AFL-CIO and says it strives to "assist workers around the world who are struggling to achieve safe and healthy workplaces, family-supporting wages, social protections and a voice on the job."
HKCTU leader Lee has been a prominent supporter of the Occupy movement. Pro-Beijing Hong Kong media have depicted him as a protest leader and a U.S. puppet for accepting American money.
Greve said Solidarity Center has given the bulk of its funds to HKCTU to help it with labor organizing work, something she described as a pillar of civil society.
"NED's support to Solidarity Center, and Solidarity Center support to HKCTU is completely separate from Lee Cheuk-yan's political work [as a lawmaker], which is a separate role that he plays, and the money doesn't mix between the two," she said.
In its statement, HKCTU denied using Solidarity Center funds for political purposes and threatened to pursue legal action against media groups whom it accused of slandering Lee.
NED partners defiant
In a statement emailed to VOA, NDI also denied providing any support to political groups associated with Hong Kong's Occupy protest movement.
"These reports are not only false, they distract from the issue at hand, which is: Hong Kong residents expressing their desire for universal suffrage in an election that provides a meaningful choice of candidates," NDI said.
The organization also said it takes a nonpartisan approach to its Hong Kong programs, which include recent public forums on political reforms. "Representatives of Hong Kong’s major political parties, including those described as pro-Beijing, have participated in these forums," NDI said.
Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor director Law said his NED-funded volunteers are focused on local issues as they pursue the group's mission of promoting better human rights protections for city residents.
"If we contribute to the democratization of Hong Kong, and this also is in the interests of the U.S. government, then I would congratulate the Hong Kong public for having support... from other parts of the world," Law told Asia Television.
Greve said NED-sponsored projects in Hong Kong are meant to foster a public debate that includes "all voices" in local politics. She declined to offer specifics when asked to provide examples of accomplishments by NED partners.
"We're happy to see that the groups we've supported continue to actively pursue the protection of civil liberties, and frankly, citizen participation in what Hong Kong's political governance framework should be," she said.
Listen to Michael Lipin's interview with the NED's Louisa Greve