Let It Xi: Former Beatles Manager Paid Millions to Boost Chinese Regime in U.S.

Former Beatles manager Peter Brown / Getty Images
June 1, 2020

The Beatles manager who orchestrated the ill-advised wedding between John Lennon and Yoko Ono is now the Chinese government's pointman to build ties between Beijing and American journalists and officials.

Peter Brown, who managed the world-famous band until its disbandment in 1970, now uses his public relations skills to advance the interests of the Chinese regime. Brown, through his firm BLJ Worldwide, has arranged dozens of American reporters to visit China on all-expenses-paid trips and placed pro-Chinese op-eds in top U.S. outlets.

The Chinese embassy in the United States and the China-U.S. Exchange Foundation (CUSEF)—a registered foreign agent with close ties to the Chinese Communist Party—have paid nearly $4 million to Brown's firm since 2016. As part of the contract with the embassy, Brown's team provided media training to Chinese diplomats, monitored news reports about China, and assisted "crisis communications" on key issues such as the trade war and the annual Communist Party Congress.

"The protectionist and economically nationalist approach leads to no solution. A trade war is absolutely a wrong choice, which will only destroy trade itself," read a 2018 Time magazine op-ed written by Chinese ambassador Cui Tiankai. Brown's firm helped place that op-ed in the magazine.

Rep. Jim Banks (R., Ind.), who sits on the GOP China Task Force, blasted Brown's decision to work with Beijing as "shameful."

"Peter Brown profited off of America's openness and now does the bidding of totalitarian communists who never would have tolerated a band like the Beatles. It's shameful," Banks told the Washington Free Beacon. "Maybe he took songs like 'Back in the U.S.S.R.' a little too seriously, but the song 'Money' probably gets closer to his motivations."

Brown did not respond to a request for comment.

This is not Brown's first rodeo with an authoritarian government. He has rubbed shoulders with the leaders of dictatorial regimes worldwide, working with controversial clients, including the family of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad and Libya's late dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

Brown has embraced the notoriety—and the millions—that comes with aiding dictators abroad. "I would love to take on Iran as a client," he once told the Financial Times in 2011. "There are areas of commonality that ought to be exploited."

Brown, who took over as the Beatles manager after his predecessor's untimely death in 1967, was intimately involved in the personal life of its members, serving as the best man for Lennon and Ono's wedding. The former manager continued to capitalize on the band's fame after it disbanded, publishing an explosive tell-all book in 1983 that People magazine said was teeming with "malodorous spirit." In the book, Brown revealed many dark secrets about the band—such as the existence of Paul McCartney's illegitimate 19-year-old son—enraging the band members.

Brown launched his public relations outfit in 1983, the same year he published his tell-all book. BLJ Worldwide has grown into a high-end boutique P.R. firm, raking in millions of dollars by participating in an illicit "black ops" smear campaign on behalf of Qatar's soccer World Cup bid, placing photoshoots of Bashar al-Assad's wife in Vogue magazine, and organizing Gaddafi's 2009 visit to U.N. headquarters.

The U.S. branch of the company has taken on several Chinese clients in recent years, signing off on a deal with CUSEF in 2016 and the Chinese embassy in 2017.

BLJ Worldwide's latestForeign Agents Registration Act (FARA) disclosures—signed by Brown himself in 2019—show that the two Chinese entities are the only foreign government clients for the firm's U.S. operations. The disclosures show that CUSEF has paid Brown's firm $3,341,156 in consulting fees and expenses since 2016, while the Chinese embassy paid $624,000 since 2017.  BLJ Worldwide declined to comment, referring all questions to its FARA disclosures.

CUSEF, which was established to promote "constructive dialogue" between the United States and China, has faced accusations that it is a conduit of Chinese influence operations in the United States. Such allegations mostly stem from the fact that the nonprofit is led by former Hong Kong chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, who also serves as the vice chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, one of the highest political bodies in the Chinese government.

"Operating as a pseudo-philanthropic foundation, CUSEF's ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are an issue of grave concern," Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) wrote in 2018.

The disclosures reveal how Brown's firm has helped CUSEF overcome its controversial origins and befriend American journalists. Since 2016, BLJ Worldwide has helped organize trips to China for journalists working for more than a dozen outlets, including the New Yorker, CNBC, Vox, and Financial Times. The company offered similar CUSEF-backed trips to at least five former members of Congress and arranged meetings on behalf of CUSEF with 11 other media organizations, such as the Washington Post, Associated Press, the Economist, and the Atlantic. CUSEF did not respond to requests for comment.

Some of these trips have resulted in favorable coverage of the authoritarian country. In 2018, a Vox journalist participated in a CUSEF-sponsored trip to China, which took place during President Donald Trump's summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un. He wrote an article that declared China "the big winner of the Trump-Kim summit," citing quotes from a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs official who BLJ helped make available to reporters.

When the Trump administration took over in 2017 and pivoted toward a more confrontational China policy, the Chinese embassy turned to BLJ to manage its public outreach efforts. Brown's team helped amplify the voice of Chinese ambassador Cui Tiankai, placing his op-eds in CNN and Time magazine. The firm also offered at least six media-training sessions for Chinese diplomats and provided "talking points" and "advice" about trade and tariffs issues, according to the disclosures.

The company also surveys the internet on behalf of the Chinese embassy, submitting twice-daily social media monitoring briefs and once-daily end-of-day media monitoring reports. BLJ Worldwide also runs the social media accounts for the regime, overseeing the launch of the embassy's Facebook page in 2017. The Chinese embassy did not respond to requests for comment.

"BLJ has endeavored to provide the Embassy with constant monitoring of key issues, and conduct crisis management and communications when necessary," read the August 2019 disclosure.

Neither Ono nor the surviving Beatles members responded to requests for comment.