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It looks like I can workaround this problem by adding an extra escaped backslash whenever I have a backslash:
return "hello: \\\\\" test";
(that's 5 backslashes) seems to get a string with backslash-quote in it back to JS.
Any idea what's going on? Someone must be using the literal string returned from Flex to instance a new String as part of the transition between Flex and JS? Wonder who it is...
This is a bug or should be documented.
Further testing reveals that only the leading bracket, <, is a problem. Escaping this character with a backslash allows it to pass into the ActionScript function, as in "A\<B>".
As to the cause, my suspicion is that this has to do with the XML translation used by ExternalInterface. See