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The Unlikely American Target of China’s Conspiracy Theories on Hong Kong

HONG KONG — Many explanations have been put forward to explain why Hong Kong, a city famous for its orderly ways, has been convulsed by nine weeks of increasingly violent protests.

The most immediate is fury at a proposed law that would have allowed extradition to mainland China. There is also anger at astronomical property prices fueled by wealthy buyers from mainland China, and revulsion at heavy-handed police tactics involving the regular use of tear gas and rubber bullets.

On Thursday, however, China’s ruling Communist Party identified a novel reason for the unrest: the secret machinations of an American woman working as a diplomat in the United States Consulate in Hong Kong.

The woman, Julie Eadeh, a political counselor, has become a central figure in a growing Chinese narrative that Hong Kong’s protests are the work of traitors who are being directed by foreign, particularly American, “black hands” bent on fomenting an uprising in the former British colony.

CCTV, China’s state broadcaster, described Ms. Eadeh on Thursday as “the behind-the-scenes black hand creating chaos in Hong Kong.”

Ta Kung Pao, a Hong Kong newspaper controlled by the Communist Party, published a photograph, taken on Tuesday, of the diplomat standing in the lobby of a luxury hotel with pro-democracy student leaders under the headline “Foreign Forces Intervene, Seek to Stir ‘Color Revolution.’” It said it had received the photo from unidentified patriotic “netizens.”

ImageCreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times

The newspaper described Ms. Eadeh, a graduate in Arab studies from Georgetown University, as “a mysterious and low-profile expert on subversion.”

The same newspaper, as well as other Hong Kong outlets, last month published a photograph of a non-Chinese man it described as a “foreign commander” of the Hong Kong protest movement. The image showed the man, who was said to be providing information about police movements to protesters, sitting on the steps of a pedestrian walkway with his cellphone. The man was in fact an editor at The New York Times, Kevin Roche, and he was communicating at the time with a Times reporter.

A State Department spokesman, asked about the accusations against Ms. Eadeh, said that American diplomats “meet regularly with a wide cross-section of people across Hong Kong” and that on the day of her encounter with student activists, “our diplomats also met with both pro-establishment and pan-democratic camp legislators, as well as members of the American business community and the consular corps.”

The spokesman added, “We categorically reject the charge of foreign forces as being behind the protests. It is not credible to think that millions of people are being manipulated to stand for a free and open society.”

The “black hand” allegations aired on Thursday against Ms. Eadeh mimic almost word for word Chinese propaganda 30 years ago against the leaders of the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square.

Few analysts expect the People’s Liberation Army, which has a garrison in Hong Kong, to be called out to stage a repeat of the Tiananmen massacre in Beijing and quash the demonstrations. But the barrage of propaganda casting the protests as a foreign-inspired plot that threatens China’s national security has sent an ominous warning that Beijing wants the Hong Kong government to take tougher action to contain the crisis.

ImageCreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times

On Wednesday, Beijing’s top official for Hong Kong, Zhang Xiaoming, said that the protests had “the obvious characteristics of a color revolution,” a reference to the popular uprising that started in the Caucasus nation of Georgia in 2003 with the so-called Rose Revolution and brought pro-Western governments to power in a number of former Soviet republics.

The accusations of foreign meddling are a sign that Beijing, already bitterly at odds with Washington over trade, has decided to add Hong Kong to its list of grievances against the United States.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s office in Hong Kong issued a statement on Thursday saying that it would make “solemn representations” to the United States over its consulate official’s “contacts with the ‘Hong Kong independence movement.’”

The ministry in Beijing first fingered the United States as a culprit in the Hong Kong unrest last month, asserting that unidentified American officials were behind an initial round of violent clashes.

But vague accusations of foreign meddling have now given way to a more detailed conspiracy theory featuring the supposedly “secret meeting” this week between Ms. Eadeh and the student activists.

Wen Wei Po, another Hong Kong paper controlled by the Communist Party, also published the photograph of Ms. Eadeh at the meeting, along with a picture that showed the diplomat, who earlier worked in Baghdad, wearing a flak jacket and helmet and surrounded by military hardware during a trip to the Iraqi city of Mosul.

ImageCreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times

The newspaper also published a list of American officials and politicians it accused of interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Vice President Mike Pence and the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi.

The Global Times, a Beijing tabloid also controlled by the Communist Party, picked up the Hong Kong reports, describing Ms. Eadeh as “a so-called diplomat” who had previously worked in the Middle East “planning subversive activities on the grounds of human rights and democracy.”

Joshua Wong, a pro-democracy student leader who appears in the hotel photograph, scoffed at the reports of a conspiracy in a post on Facebook: “They are saying this again. The protesters can handle things like press conferences, which dirty cops and the chief executive cannot, so there must have been secret training!”

The Standard, a Hong Kong newspaper, quoted him as saying he had met with Ms. Eadeh to urge the United States to stop exporting tear gas and rubber bullets to Hong Kong.

“What’s so special about meeting a U.S. consul?” he said.

The belief that the State Department is coordinating and even orchestrating the Hong Kong protests feeds into a narrative that dates back to the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union each sought to subvert the other’s ideology and its proxy states with spies and subterfuge.

Ideological rivalry has now subsided, with even China, though nominally still wedded to communism, showing no interest in exporting Marxism through subversion. But both Moscow and Beijing have in recent years sought to blame outsiders for domestic troubles — notably when Russia alleged that Michael McFaul, the American ambassador to Moscow from 2012 to 2014, was an instigator of street protests against Vladimir V. Putin, who was then the prime minister.

China has until now mostly avoided attacking American diplomats by name, leaving this to nationalist bloggers like those who accused Jon M. Huntsman Jr., the former ambassador to Beijing, of trying to stoke a “Jasmine Revolution” in China in 2011 by appearing outside a McDonald’s restaurant in Beijing on the day of a proposed protest that never took place.


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