BEIJING — After weeks of escalating warnings alleging a covert U.S. role behind the protests in Hong Kong, the tone in Communist Party-backed media outlets is turning darkly acrimonious, with publications attacking a U.S. diplomat in Hong Kong and releasing her personal information.
The pro-Beijing newspaper Ta Kung Pao on Thursday published a photo of opposition activists meeting in a hotel with Julie Eadeh, a political section chief in the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong, along with details about Eadeh’s State Department career and the names of her husband and teenage children.
The report, which was recirculated by Chinese state media, emerged as Beijing doubled down on a familiar strategy of framing the nine-week-long protests as a U.S. intelligence plot to spark a “color revolution” to destabilize China. The disclosures this week, which marked the first time China claimed to possess concrete evidence of covert U.S. activity, drew a furious response from the State Department, which accused China of “thuggish” behavior.
The propaganda attacks pillorying the United States were not aimed at Washington but represented a classic Communist Party influence effort to shore up public opinion in Hong Kong, said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS University of London.
After the first month of protests — when mainland authorities censored all mention of record-breaking crowds surging into Hong Kong’s streets to oppose an extradition bill — Chinese state television began to flood the airwaves with scenes of Hong Kong protesters clashing violently with police and defacing China’s national emblem and flag.
“That is exactly what they would call the United Front approach. We would call it divide and rule,” Tsang said, referring to the Communist Party wing responsible for political influence campaigns in China and abroad. “They want to isolate the protesters from the bulk of the Hong Kong population and say: ‘This is all about foreign interference.’”
With few good options to swiftly restore order to Hong Kong’s streets, the Communist Party was urgently looking to cement its ties to political allies in the city and “win over the wavering middle,” Tsang said.
Chinese officials this week held a seminar in the border city of Shenzhen with “500 friends from Hong Kong,” including prominent business and political figures.
On Friday, as hundreds of protesters flooded into Hong Kong’s airport terminal to hold another sit-in, the city’s embattled leader Carrie Lam made a fresh appeal to the public by citing the economic toll of the disturbances.
Lam said she had met with a broad section of society — entrepreneurs, doctors, teachers — and believed that a “violent minority” of protesters “had no stake in society.”
Officials made similar appeals in 2014, when pro-government media sought to isolate Hong Kong protesters waging a civil disobedience campaign called Occupy Central. At the time, pro-Beijing social media accounts floated theories that protest leaders were receiving military training from the CIA, said Yuen Chan, a lecturer at City University of London.
But the tactic may encounter more resistance this time around, Chan said. The 2014 Occupy movement, which sought broader voting rights, was “a much more polarizing issue compared to this year, when there is so much consensus within Hong Kong society,” Chan said.
Since early June, the protests have drawn millions of people onto the city’s streets, including first-time demonstrators, white-collar professionals, retirees and civil servants. What began as opposition against an extradition proposal has bloomed into anger against what many see as an out-of-touch Hong Kong government, a heavy-handed police force and the growing encroachment of the Communist leadership in Beijing.
The Chinese government has maintained its support for Lam, dismissed the protest as the work of an extreme minority and ratcheted up rhetoric toward Washington. A foreign ministry spokeswoman in Beijing this month called out U.S. officials such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and warned that “those who play with fire with be self-immolated.”
On Twitter this week, a prominent Chinese diplomat and state media reporter seized on the Ta Kung Pao article as evidence that the United States had finally been caught red-handed stirring up unrest. Chinese officials swiftly lodged a protest with the U.S. Consulate, according to state media.
State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said China had not lodged a complaint, and she described its behavior as irresponsible.
“I don’t think leaking an American diplomat’s private information, pictures, names of their children, I don’t think that is a formal protest; that is what a thuggish regime would do,” Ortagus told reporters in Washington late Thursday. “American diplomats meet with formal government officials; we meet with opposition protesters, not just in Hong Kong or China. This literally happens in every single country.”
Joshua Wong, one of the pro-democracy activists who was pictured meeting with Eadeh, said on Facebook that he met with the consulate to discuss a bill in the U.S. Congress and to seek an export ban on U.S.-made tear gas to Hong Kong police.
In a lengthy report, Ta Kung Pao dissected Eadeh’s experience in Middle East conflict zones and alleged that she was well-versed in “psychological warfare” and “infiltrating local society in her so-called diplomatic work.”
The People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s official mouthpiece, published five consecutive front-page editorials on Hong Kong this week — a rare occurrence that demonstrated Beijing’s concerns about the protracted unrest.
But in Hong Kong, protesters show no sign of backing down as they took their message for the second time to international visitors.
On Friday, thousands of protesters again took over the airport —a symbol of Hong Kong’s status an efficient and stable business hub. They handed out pamphlets to arriving passengers and occupied the terminal for a sit-in where they plan to stay for three days.
Shibani Mahtani in Hong Kong contributed to this report