U.S. President Donald Trump talks to senior staff Steve Bannon during a swearing in ceremony for senior staff at the White House in Washington, DC January 22, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
The hedge fund man behind pro-Trump media’s new war on China

This article was co-published with The Daily Beast.

A fortune made at a secretive hedge fund led by Robert Mercer — one of Donald Trump’s biggest donors — appears to be fueling a push for a confrontation with China across a number of connected media properties.

A tax document not intended for public disclosure reveals that a branch of the Epoch Media Group — a conservative media empire controlled by Falun Gong, a Chinese spiritual movement with a stated goal of destroying the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) — received over $900,000 from and was formerly led by one of Mercer’s longtime employees, Huayi Zhang, at the hedge fund Renaissance Technologies.

Most of Epoch Media Group’s work has been devoted to portraying China in the most dangerous and sinister ways possible and the emergence of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan played directly into their narrative. The outlet has branded the novel coronavirus as “CCP Virus.” 

But Epoch has expanded outside of its hawkish anti-Beijing editorial line, emerging as one of the most prolific pro-Trump media outlets. Its newspaper, Epoch Times, has become a reliable Trumpist mouthpiece. In August 2019, Facebook banned future ad buys from the Epoch Media Group after it spent over $9 million on ads, including approximately 11,000 pro-Trump Facebook advertisements, more than any other organization other than the Trump campaign. Facebook said that Epoch evaded the company’s transparency rules for political advertising and “repeatedly violated a number of our policies, including our policies against coordinated inauthentic behavior, spam and misrepresentation, to name just a few.” 

NBC News, which reported extensively on Epoch’s pro-Trump Facebook ad-buys and the subsequent ban, spoke with former Falun Gong members who told the network “that believers think the world is headed toward a judgment day, where those labeled ‘communists’ will be sent to a kind of hell, and those sympathetic to the spiritual community will be spared. Trump is viewed as a key ally in the anti-communist fight.”

Trump, for his part, doesn’t seem like a natural ally for Falun Gong or Epoch Media. He swings between praising Chinese President Xi Jinping at one moment and playing to a xenophobic audience by amplifying the labels “China Virus” or “Wuhan Virus” in the next. Nevertheless, Falun Gong’s media empire dramatically shifted its focus to promoting Donald Trump, both through paid advertising and its own reported and editorial output — a massive change in focus and resource allocation for the little-known news outlet.

An IRS filing showing the largest contributors to Universal Communications Network — a nonprofit that operates as “New Tang Dynasty Television,” the digital media and TV producer for the Epoch Media Group — sheds light on the group’s funding and its tangential ties to one of Trump’s deep-pocketed funders.

The document reveals that a couple, Huayi and Siuling Zhang, contributed $909,500 to New Tang Dynasty between 2012 and 2016. Zhang also served as chair of the organization’s board in 2004, 2005 and 2007 to 2010. He was listed as a director in 2006.

Scarce information is available about Huayi and Siuling Zhang, but a now deleted biography for Huayi that was published on New Tang Dynasty Television’s website in 2010 and accessed via Archive.org says that Huayi worked at Mercer’s hedge fund and is associated with Falun Gong. 

“Dr. Huayi Zhang is a principal of Renaissance Technologies,” says the biography. “Dr. Zhang joined Kepler Financial Management, the predecessor of Renaissance’s equity arm, in 1989 and became a principal researcher in devising the company’s mathematical trading system. Dr. Zhang is a Trustee of the Dongfang College. He is also on the Board of the Asia Vision Foundation.”

Both Dongfang College and Asia Vision Foundation are Falun Gong related entities.

Zhang leans to the right in his political giving, contributing $5,000 to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012, $500 to the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2018, and $500 to Rep. Lee Zeldin’s (R-NY) reelection campaign in 2018. Zhang’s wife, Siuling, contributed $10,000 to Romney’s 2012 election efforts.

Huayi Zhang also listed Renaissance Technologies as his employer in campaign contributions, suggesting he was still an employee at the fund until at least 2018.

Renaissance Technologies is a highly secretive hedge fund specializing in quantitative models to guide systematic trading and has over $100 billion under management. It gained notoriety as the source of wealth for Trump mega-donor, Robert Mercer, who served as co-CEO of Renaissance from 2009 to 2017. Mercer stepped down from his co-CEO role following backlash against the firm over Mercer’s extensive political activism on the far-right.

Those activities included investing at least $10 million in Breitbart News in 2011, which at the time was led by Steve Bannon. Breitbart — a virulently anti-immigrant and conspiracy theory promoting outlet —  offered highly favorable coverage to Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, funded “Clinton Cash,” an error riddled book and documentary making bold claims about Bill and Hillary Clinton’s finances, and contributed $2 million to Secure America Now (SAN), a group that ran mock travel ads propagating an Islamophobic conspiracy theory that Muslims are seeking to overrun western countries like France, Germany, and the United States.

There is no evidence that Zhang and Mercer, through their shared affiliation with Renaissance Technologies and their respective affiliations with right-wing media outlets Epoch Media and Breitbart, coordinated their efforts to drive a hawkishly anti-Beijing agenda and develop two of the most prolific pro-Trump megaphones on the Internet. But the largely parallel stories of two men with backgrounds in mathematics, fortunes made with the secretive quantitative trading systems at Renaissance Technologies, and an ideological tilt toward right-wing politics, appears to have produced eerily similar outcomes in the pro-Trump mediasphere.

When contacted about Zhang’s roles as a major donor, chairman and a board member of Universal Communications Network, Jenny Chang, New Tang Dynasty’s Vice President of Broadcast Programming, said, “Huayi Zhang does not hold any leadership role at Universal Communications Network or any other Epoch Media Group-related entities. He has not been involved with Epoch Media Group for at least seven years.”

We are also not aware of any donations from any other employees of Renaissance Technologies,” she added. “No one from Renaissance Technologies has any involvement in any Epoch Media Group-related entities.”

Zhang did not respond to a request for comment. But Mercer and Zhang’s media funding overlap in their respective promotion of Bannon, who served in Trump’s White House as chief strategist. Bannon, despite suffering a reported falling out with Mercer, continues to receive generous promotion by Breitbart (Robert Mercer’s share is now owned by his daughters) and SAN.

That promotion of Bannon is closely mirrored by Epoch Media’s positive coverage of him. 

Bannon embraced hyper-nationalistic and anti-Beijing messages long before the COVID-19 pandemic, and he has continued since. “The devastation, not just human lives which has been horrible, but the devastation economically, the devastation on capital markets will literally take us 10 years,” he said on a recent SAN podcast in March. “It will take us a decade to go through the carnage that the Chinese Communist Party visited on the rest of the free world.”  

In October, Bannon’s new feature film, “Claws of the Red Dragon,” premiered on the pro-Trump One America News Network, offering his unique spin on the legal battle following the arrest in Canada of a Huawei executive. The film tells a story of how Huaxin, a fictional company clearly based on Huawei, works toward “the realization of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) government’s global cyberspace dominance,“ according to a synopsis on the film’s website, and concludes with Canada on the brink of a clash with China.

New Tang Dynasty Television, the group Zhang funded and chaired for several years, funded Claws of the Red Dragon, The Daily Beast previously reported.

And Falun Gong’s Epoch Times and New Tang Dynasty Television have emerged as significant platforms for Trump allies seeking friendly interviews and uncritical coverage of the administration’s policies, striking a similar tone to the anti-Beijing and hyper-nationalist messages emerging from Mercer-linked groups like Breitbart and SAN.

Bannon and current and former Trump confidantes including Trump’s daughter-in-law Lara Trump, former Deputy Assistant to the President Sebastian Gorka, White House Innovation Chief Brooke Rollins, former White House Director of Strategic Communications Mercedes Schlapp, Acting Director of the Office of Management and Budget Russell Vought, Fred Fleitz, former Chief of Staff to National Security Adviser John Bolton, and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson have all sat down for extended one-on-one interviews for Epoch’s “American Thought Leaders” online interview series.

At the end of March, Bannon, who has appeared on multiple Epoch Media outlets for interviews, sat down for a half hour interview about COVID-19 with New Tang Dynasty and appeared to be speaking directly to Falun Gong members, who want to overthrow the Chinese Communist Party. “This is the most important thing in the twenty-first century,” said Bannon. “We now have to assist the Chinese people in their freedom from the Chinese Communist Party. If we do that, if we assist the Chinese people in their freedom and their quest for freedom, the rest of the century is gonna take care of itself.” 

Bannon concluded, echoing Epoch Media’s language, “[The Chinese Communist Party] has proven they are an illegitimate government by what they allowed to happen in this pandemic and the CCP and the spread of the CPP virus.”

(Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly said The Epoch Times utilized the “CCP Virus” terminology since 2005.)

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