I am one of the many women Mike Bloomberg’s company tried to silence through nondisclosure agreements. The funny thing is, I never even worked for Bloomberg.
But my story shows the lengths that the Bloomberg machine will go to in order to avoid offending Beijing. Bloomberg’s company, Bloomberg LP, is so dependent on the vast China market for its business that its lawyers threatened to devastate my family financially if I didn’t sign an NDA silencing me about how Bloomberg News killed a story critical of Chinese Communist Party leaders. It was only when I hired Edward Snowden’s lawyers in Hong Kong that Bloomberg LP eventually called off their hounds after many attempts to intimidate me.
In 2012, I was working toward a Ph.D. in sociology at Tsinghua University in Beijing, and my husband, Michael Forsythe, was a lead writer on a Bloomberg News article about the vast accumulation of wealth by relatives of Chinese President Xi Jinping, part of an award-winning “Revolution to Riches” series about Chinese leaders.
Soon after Bloomberg published the article on Xi’s family wealth in June 2012, my husband received death threats conveyed by a woman who told him she represented a relative of Xi. The woman conveying the threats specifically mentioned the danger to our whole family; our two children were 6 and 8 years old at the time. The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos reports a similar encounter in his award-winning book, “Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China,” when the same woman told Osnos’s wife: “He [Forsythe] and his family can’t stay in China. It’s no longer safe,” she said. “Something will happen. It will look like an accident. Nobody will know what happened. He’ll just be found dead.”
The experience was especially terrifying because it came just months after the murder of a British businessman, Neil Heywood, who was poisoned by the wife of a senior Chinese leader, Bo Xilai, according to Chinese state media. His body was reportedly discovered in a hotel in the southwestern Chinese city of Chongqing. While our family spent the kids’ summer vacation in 2012 outside of China, Bloomberg executives kept my husband busy in nonstop conference calls about how to maintain our security. I had recurring nightmares about my young children getting beaten up or killed. I desperately wanted to speak publicly about the death threats, feeling it would give us stronger protection, but Bloomberg News wanted us not to say anything about it while the company conducted its own internal investigation. I had been loyal to the company ever since my husband and I married in 2002, and I didn’t want to jeopardize his job. I stayed silent until October 26, 2012, when another (unrelated) story was published in defiance of the Chinese government. I decided to tweet that we had received death threats after the Bloomberg story on Xi Jinping.
Within hours of my tweets — the original and my replies to questions — a Bloomberg manager called my husband and said, “Get your wife to delete her tweets.” I did not delete them, but I also did not tweet or speak publicly about the death threats again. I did not want to anger the company because we needed it to relocate us to Hong Kong, where our children would be safe. As we finished the remainder of our time in Beijing, applying for schools in Hong Kong and preparing for our move, I lived in constant fear. Would someone get to our children while they were on their way to or from school? Who was watching and listening to us? I obsessively pulled down all our window blinds at night in case Chinese security agents were watching us. I was careful not to speak loudly about our plans in our home or on my phone in case we were bugged.
In August 2013, I finally relaxed as we flew out of Beijing and moved to a temporary apartment in Hong Kong. I thought that our yearlong nightmare had ended. But things would soon get even worse.
My husband had been working for many months on another investigative report for Bloomberg about financial ties between one of China’s richest men, Wang Jianlin, and the families of senior Communist Party officials, including relatives of Xi. Bloomberg editors had thus far backed the story. A Bloomberg managing editor, Jonathan Kaufman, said in an email in late September 2013, “I am in awe of the way you tracked down and deciphered the financial holdings and the players. … It’s a real revelation. Looking forward to pushing it up the line,” according to an account published by the Financial Times.
Then Bloomberg killed the story at the last minute, and the company fired my husband in November after comments by Bloomberg News editor-in-chief Matt Winkler were leaked. “If we run the story, we’ll be kicked out of China,” Winkler reportedly said on a company call.
Mike Bloomberg, then New York City mayor and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, was asked on November 12, 2013, about reports that his company had self-censored out of fear of offending the Chinese government and he dismissed the question.
“Nobody thinks that we’re wusses and not willing to stand up and write stories that are of interest to the public and that are factually correct,” Bloomberg told a press conference.
Yet, days after Bloomberg made those comments to reporters in New York, Bloomberg lawyers in Hong Kong threatened to devastate my family financially by forcing us to repay the company for our relocation fees to Hong Kong from Beijing and the advance on my husband’s salary that we took out, leave us with no health insurance or income, and take me to court if I did not sign a nondisclosure agreement — even though I had never been a Bloomberg employee.
The law firm representing Bloomberg, Mayer Brown JSM, sent a letter to my lawyer on December 6, 2013, threatening a court injunction if I didn’t agree to their confidentiality terms within seven days.
I told my husband’s lawyer that I did not want to sign a gag order, so Bloomberg summoned me and my husband to a meeting on December 16 at Mayer Brown JSM’s office in central Hong Kong. We sat around a fancy conference table with some Bloomberg senior editors and Mayer Brown lawyers and spoke via videoconference with a lawyer from Willkie, Farr & Gallagher, representing Bloomberg in New York. My husband’s lawyer said that I did not possess any recordings or emails that might be damaging evidence about the company’s practices.
The thought of Bloomberg possibly ruining our family financially if I didn’t give in to their threats made me sick, but I was also infuriated that they had kept us in harm’s way.
“But what about all the evidence that is in her head?” said the outsized man on the video screen. When Bloomberg’s lawyer in New York uttered those words, I suddenly pictured him holding a giant vacuum cleaner, trying to suck all the memories out of my brain. I told everyone that I needed to leave the room and I walked out of the building, determined to go down fighting.
On December 20, they sent a letter to my husband demanding that I sign a nondisclosure agreement. If I didn’t agree, we might owe the company thousands of dollars. I might even have had to pay Bloomberg’s legal bills. The thought of Bloomberg possibly ruining our family financially if I didn’t give in to their threats made me sick, but I was also infuriated that they had kept us in harm’s way after we received threats, forbidden me from speaking publicly about the death threats we received in Beijing, and now were trying to take away my freedom of speech forever.
It was only when I hired Snowden’s lawyers in Hong Kong — Albert Ho and Jonathan Man offered me a low rate because it was a “good cause” — that Bloomberg finally backed off. In the meantime, they had sent me several more threatening letters. One letter from Mayer Brown JSM on January 8, 2014, spelled out that “by virtue of the knowledge that she retains (in her head) of our client’s [Bloomberg’s] Confidential Information she has an ongoing duty of confidentiality to our client.” They demanded that I sign away my right to speak out about things such as “unpublished drafts of an article prepared for our client; documents concerning our client’s newsgathering, editorial processes and editorial judgment …; any emails and other communications (including oral discussions) between and among our client’s employees concerning our client’s newsgathering editorial processes and editorial judgment.”
Ho, a veteran Hong Kong pro-democracy legislator and activist who has been assaulted twice over the years, told me that if Bloomberg didn’t back down, we could hold a press conference to shame them. Fortunately, it didn’t come to that and in February 2014, Bloomberg finally stopped sending me legal threats. I returned to Tsinghua University to finish my Ph.D. and published my first book about women in China. My husband joined the New York Times, re-reported the entire story on the Chinese businessman, Wang, which Bloomberg claimed was “not ready for publication,” and his story was published on the front page of the New York Times in late April 2015.
I never wanted to seek publicity about Bloomberg’s threatening behavior and was genuinely terrified of financial ruin, so in spite of preserving my freedom of speech, I have never written about my experience before. I am speaking out now because unlike so many other women, I am not bound by a nondisclosure agreement. Given the large number of women silenced by NDAs, it’s clear that there has been an environment of sexism at Bloomberg’s company. Bloomberg managers and lawyers treated me as though I were a piece of company property, an appendage of my husband, using intimidation and threats to try to bully me into submission. I agonized over whether to sign the NDA and I remember feeling physically suffocated, as though my mouth were stuffed with cotton balls. I haven’t met any of the other women, but I imagine that they, too, may have experienced the same terror of being threatened by a multibillion-dollar corporation, which could ruin their lives if they did not comply. Even now, I am nervous about the consequences of speaking out. But the more of us speak out, the stronger we are.