What you need to know
The CIA would have to cut corners to pay for the ongoing protests in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong's anti-extradition movement has now reached its third month with no end in sight, as millions of protesters took to the streets to assert their demands for freedom and democracy and opposition to Beijing’s authoritarian incursion.
“Liberate Hong Kong; revolution of our times,” a phrase demonized by Beijing as a “Hong Kong independence” slogan, is now the most popular rallying cry passionately chanted by protesters across the city amid tear gas and rubber bullets.
So far the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership, together with its propaganda outlets, pro-Beijing forces in Hong Kong and elsewhere, have directly and repeatedly accused the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of masterminding and financing the whole movement.
Pro-Beijing media in Hong Kong even published photos highlighting “Western faces” in the crowds, supposedly proving that CIA agents were the “commanders” leading the protesters, which often created hilarious results as foreign journalists and random expat workers in the photos rushed to brag on social media about how they became CIA agents overnight.
As a thought exercise, let’s assume this was no conspiracy theory, and the CIA was indeed behind the Hong Kong protests.
How much U.S. taxpayers’ money would it cost for the CIA to create this massive spectacle in Hong Kong?
Since we assume the protesters were paid by the CIA, our first task is to figure out how many protesters were there. Kong Tsung-gan (江松澗), a Hong Kong author who writes about human rights, has compiled a detailed account showing that, as of August 18, a total headcount of 7,564,441 protesters have taken part in 61 demonstrations since the beginning of the first protest on March 31.
(Note that this number counts each occurrences rather than the total number of protesters across Hong Kong population. Since one person can participate in multiple protests, but will be expected to be paid multiple times.)
The biggest protests among which were the three marches organized by Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF) on June 9, June 16, and August 18, which drew 1 million, 2 million, and 1.7 million crowds respectively. For an institution headquartered in Langley, Virginia to successfully create and coordinate a 2 million people on the other side of the Earth in one day, you got to give it to the CIA for the meticulous planning involved and the extraordinary diligence and efficiency of its agents.
But since they were fake protesters, how much would the CIA have to pay each one of them?
I do not have an exact answer. CIA surely wouldn’t tell me, nor would Chinese government for that matter. But an unscientific survey of all the fake news and conspiracy pieces across pro-Beijing media outlets suggests that an average Hongkonger would be paid HK$3000 (US$400) to participate in each protest.
To borrow from my personal experience working in Taiwan’s political campaigning, US$400 is quite a lot of money. Taiwanese politicians sometimes accuse each other’s campaign for paying supporters to show up at campaign rally, a practice known as “hire-a-crowd” (走路工). The running price for one person in Taiwan is said to be about NT$1000 to NT$2000 (about US$35 - US$70).
But Hong Kong’s per capita income is twice of Taiwan’s. And unlike those “hire-a-crowd” in Taiwan that are only paid to stand around and doze off in a campaign rally, the ones in Hong Kong had to actually march on the street to confront waves of riot police, dodge tear gas and rubber bullets, get beaten by police baton, and could even get shot in the eye and blinded by beanbag round. Surely they deserve a bigger payment — higher risk comes with higher reward, right?
7,564,441 protesters × HK$3,000 = HK$22,693,323,000
Campaign rallies in Taiwan have to supply supporters with posters, flyers, small items like pen and tissue paper. But CIA would need to supply Hong Kong protesters with even more costly stuff like black shirt, umbrella, the signature yellow protective helmet, not to mention some essential gears like 3M gas mask, gas filter, and eye masks to shield them from tear gas. Many of these gears are now reportedly sold out across Hong Kong. As prices vary, it’s difficult to estimate how much an average person would cost. For the sake of calculation, let’s put it at around HK$1,000 (US$150).
7,564,441 protesters x HK$1,000 = HK$7,564,441,000
HK$22,693,323,000 + HK$7,564,441,000 = HK$30,257,764,000
In other words, CIA must have spent at least HK$30 billion (US$3.8 billion) in the last three months to hire and equip Hong Kong protesters on the streets!
But the CIA also needed agents on the ground, i.e. Jason Bourne-style operatives to dispense cash and equipment, as well as to serve as “foreign commanders” among the protesters. Again, borrowing from my experience in Taiwan, a peaceful campaign rally usually calls for about one dedicated staff or volunteer to organize and help with every 200-300 expected participants, and that is already at a bare minimum.
Considering the volatile situations in Hong Kong, we’d expect that ratio to go up to about 1:100. So for every 100 protesters on the street, we need at least one Jason Bourne.
7,564,441÷100 = 75,644 Jason Bournes
Now, how much would it cost CIA to send 75,644 Jason Bournes to Hong Kong?
Let’s first assume all our Jason Bournes flew from the Washington Dulles Airport and endured 16-hour flight on economy seats. According to the U.S. Federal protocols on the General Service Administration website, the government would pay US$1366 for a round-trip plane ticket to Hong Kong. As for hotel and food we can look at the U.S. State Department's travel allowance table, which shows a per diem rate of US$355 for lodging and US$180 per day for meal and incidental expenses. Assuming a mission trip to Hong Kong lasts three days, that’s US$1605.
US$1,366 + US$1,605 = US$2,971 / HK$23,178 per Jason Bourne
But since it’s Jason Bourne style mission we are talking about, CIA got to equip them with some 007-style fancy weapons and gadgets right? Our Jason Bournes have to face hardcore adversaries like the Hong Kong riot police, the elite ‘raptor squad’, and even the pro-Beijing Triad gangsters, U.S. government would be wise to purchase some high-risk work insurance or even war insurance coverage for them. I have no idea how to calculate the average costs for 007-style gadgets, insurance, overtime etc, so let’s just assume all these cost about US$2500 combined for one trip.
US$2,971 + US$2,500= US$5,971 / HK$46,574 per Jason Bourne trip
75,644 Jason Bournes × US$5,971 expenses = US$451,670,324 / HK$3.5 billion
So it would cost about US$451 million or HK$3.5 billion to send 75,644 Jason Bournes to Hong Kong to conduct a “foreign commander” mission. Add to the money paid to protesters and their gears, it comes to a jaw-dropping total of HK$33.5 billion or US$4.2 billion.
What does this number mean? Well, considering that an average U.S. school lunch cost is about US$3, CIA’s dedication to Hong Kong just costs U.S. taxpayers an equivalent of 1.4 billion school lunches, enough to feed tens of millions of elementary school, middle school, and high school kids for weeks.
But here comes the billion-dollar question, could CIA actually afford it?
The bad news is the CIA’s annual budget is classified so we don’t know the exact numbers. The good news is we at least know that the annual U.S. non-military intelligence budget known as National Intelligence Program (NIP) is US$59.9 billion for 2019. But don’t get excited too soon, because NIP budget is shared by Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), National Security Agency (NSA), National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and about dozens of other U.S. intelligence agencies and departments. CIA only gets a slice of it, though it’s without question the biggest slice.
Thanks to earlier leaks by world-famous whistleblower Edward Snowden who is now enjoying a cool summer in Russia, we know that the CIA’s share of U.S. intelligence budgets in 2013 was US$14.7 billion, or 28 percent, of the total NIP budget of US$52.6 billion that year.
Let’s assume CIA’s share has stayed at 28 percent over the years, it would be US$16.6 billion this year.
In other words, the CIA would have to shell out US$4.6 billion, 25 percent of its total annual budget in just three months to “create” those millions of protesters in Hong Kong. But according to Snowdan’s same leak from 2013, only US$2.5 billion were allocated to "covert action programs" while the rest were spent on things like employee salary, signal intelligence.
The CIA could perhaps cut employee salary, retire most of its spy-drone fleet, stop paying money to its carefully planted Jason Bourne-style spies and operatives across the world just to squeeze out enough money to create the anti-extradition movement in Hong Kong.
It is understandable that for the Chinese who are living under the CCP's “Great Firewall” of overwhelming censorship and propaganda, quite a number of them would be led to believe that Hong Kong protesters are really just a bunch of CIA operatives. You can’t really blame them, for they have no other way of viewing the world for what it is except through the telescope that CCP approved and provided – which is distorted beyond recognition.
The bigger question is whether the CCP rulers and propagandists actually believe in the conspiracy they are telling. The answer is probably yes. It is always easier, more comfortable for those on a power trip to imagine themselves as the popular ones, while the people that dare to question or oppose their power are imagined to be the extremes, the outcasts, or even “foreign forces.”
When one tells enough lies, the lies become the new reality. That is how, in the minds of some, Jason Bourne becomes the CIA agent stirring up protests in Hong Kong.
This article was originally published in Chinese on The News Lens Taiwan Edition, translated by the author himself.
TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)
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