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China steps up information war targeting Hong Kong protests, media

Hong Kong protests (Ka Hei Mak/WikiCommons)
August 18, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party’s state propaganda machine shifted into top gear on Thursday, with the People’s Daily newspaper calling for a gathering on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to honor a “hero” of the Hong Kong protests: a state media reporter who was detained by anti-extradition protesters and restrained with cable ties during a sit-in at the Hong Kong International Airport on Tuesday evening.

The man was later identified as Fu Guohao, a reporter for the nationalist tabloid Global Times, which has close links to ruling party mouthpiece the People’s Daily. He was beaten, then restrained with cable ties and accused of being a mainland police officer.

He told the crowd in Mandarin, which isn’t widely spoken in Hong Kong: “I support the Hong Kong police. Beat me up if you want.” He later said he had refused to reveal his identity at the time for fear of reprisals, in an apparent reference to a string of highly negative coverage of the Hong Kong protests by his paper.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) issued a statement condemning the treatment of two mainland Chinese journalists, including Fu, by protesters.

But an angry group of pro-Beijing protesters showed up outside the HKJA headquarters on Thursday, saying the organization had failed to thoroughly condemn the violent treatment of Fu.

HKJA chairman Chris Yeung said Fu’s failure to show his press card had been inappropriate, and had contributed to the suspicion around him.

Shift to strident editorial line

He said the protest outside the association’s offices was likely linked to a shift in the editorial line on Hong Kong followed by mainland Chinese news media, which had become far more stridently nationalistic and anti-Hong Kong in recent days, and appeared to be focused on counteracting the Hong Kong protesters’ narrative of police violence, abuse of power and suspected use of Chinese agents provocateurs.

“We are very concerned,” Yeung told RFA on Thursday. “The central government and the Hong Kong government must now do their utmost to end the demonstrations as soon as possible.”

“It seems that [the authorities] are now trying to discredit the Hong Kong media, so that the public will question whether their reports are true,” he said, adding that many Hong Kong media reports had recently focused on investigating specific allegations of police misconduct, including the alleged planting of offensive weapons on protesters by officers making arrests.

“The relationship between Hong Kong and mainland China is quite tense now, especially in the last couple of days, after the central government started describing Hong Kong as showing early signs of terrorist activities,” Yeung said.

“The entire political atmosphere has gotten more tense, in particular towards some [Hong Kong] journalists stationed in mainland China,” he said.

Chinese political scholar and U.S.-based dissident Wang Juntao said China is certain to be engaged in an intelligence-gathering operation in Hong Kong right now, and that protesters have good reason to be highly suspicious.

“Of course the Communist Party has entered Hong Kong and is gathering intelligence; they are probably hidden all over Hong Kong, coming in on special passes, and then concealing themselves among the protesters to start their work,” Wang said.

“Some of them will even have contact with the Hong Kong police, for example, some kind of signal that they can’t be touched … so they won’t get beaten up,” he said. “It’s also entirely possible that China is sending in rioters to infiltrate the protesters.”

“It could have been [Chinese government] infiltrators who beat up that journalist,” Wang said.

‘Black hands’ blamed

Official Communist Party media have ramped up anti-protest commentaries in recent days, focusing in particular on chaotic scenes at Hong Kong’s airport after thousands of anti-extradition protesters clad in black staged a five-day sit-in that only ended with intervention from riot police on Tuesday night.

“Compatriots in Hong Kong should take action to stop the radicals,safeguard their homeland and prevent Hong Kong from sinking into an abyss,” party mouthpiece the People’s Daily wrote in a recent commentary.

Another op-ed piece claimed that the protests against plans to allow extradition to mainland China that have rocked Hong Kong since early June were the work of “black hands,” a reference to alleged hostile foreign interference.

“Certain people have attempted to interfere in China’s internal affairs by stirring up trouble, creating chaos and instigating riots in Hong Kong,” the People’s Daily said.

“It is not the first time that foreign forces have interfered in Hong Kong affairs …They [have] instigated extreme radicals to make trouble, trained them, provided them with weapons, and made false speeches to ignite hostile emotions among the people,” it said.

And an Aug. 14 article in state news agency Xinhua picked up on official descriptions of the protests as “terrorism” following the attacks on the two mainlanders during the airport sit-in.

“The radicals’ violent attacks on innocent citizens are tantamount to an act of terrorism that should be condemned in the strongest terms possible,” the article said.

Chinese state media have also claimed that the five demands of the protesters — the formal withdrawal of the extradition law amendments, an amnesty for arrested protesters, an end to the description of the protests as ‘riots’, an independent inquiry into police abuse of power and fully democratic elections — command scant public support in Hong Kong, imagining a “silent majority” who support the police and oppose the anti-extradition movement.

Yet pro-police demonstrations have struggled to muster more than a couple of hundred supporters, while more than a million have marched on at least two occasions in support of the five demands, with widespread support across different industries and social groups.

A recent public opinion survey carried out by researchers at several Hong Kong universities found that around 80 percent of those interviewed believed that the protests should continue if the government did not make further concessions beyond the current verbal promise that the amendments to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance are “dead.”

It found that anger over police violence meted out to protesters was the second most commonly reported motivation after opposition to extradition to mainland China.