'A cop said I was famous': China accuses foreigners in Hong Kong of being 'agents'
Chinese state media and pro-Beijing lawmakers post images of westerners to stoke suspicions of ‘external forces’
Westerners living in Hong Kong are being targeted online by China’s state-owned media and local pro-Beijing politicians who have accused them of stoking demonstrations that have now run into their eighth week.
Images showing foreign workers at the site of protests are being circulated, sometimes alongside speculative text questioning why they are there.
Some images have been circulated so widely that one foreign worker and long-term Hong Kong resident said he was now recognised in the street, including by police. “I now sometimes have to pose for CIA selfies with protesters,” he said, referring to a post which asked if he was a member of US intelligence.
The online tactic reinforces the assertion by Beijing that “foreign forces” are behind the protests. On Monday, the People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist party, published an editorial warning citizens against “provoking external forces” that “lead the wolves into your home and hurt the country”.
The move also comes amid ongoing protests. On Wednesday, dozens of protesters faced court accused of rioting in the wake of Sunday’s violence.
In one example, Ann Chiang, a Hong Kong pro-Beijing lawmaker, shared a video of a foreign worker who regularly livestreams the protests and tweets under the name Hong Kong Hermit, and questioned why he was at every protest as a “commander”.
He now fears he might lose his job, or that he might be at risk of getting targeted by either the police or triads. “My boss now knows about it,” the worker told the Guardian. “And an angry cop on Sunday night, between rounds of tear gas, told me he knew who I was as ‘you are internet famous’. I also wait to see if this makes me more or less at risk of harm from the police at protests.”
In another case, an American academic living in Hong Kong, whose name is being withheld to protect his privacy, found out last month that his photo and name were being circulated on social media, along with accusations of instigating violence.
After the attacks on protesters by thugs in Yuen Long on 21 July, he received a warning from a friend that the triads “believe the narrative about western meddling”, telling him that he’d be targeted. He said messages like that “really changed my mind about what’s happening here”.
“I’ve been warned by locals in my neighbourhood that I could be in danger if pro-Beijing people knew that was me in that photo [being circulated],” he added, explaining that the area where he lived was a stronghold for a local pro-establishment party. His wife has asked him if their family is in danger.
Even journalists have been targeted. Ta Kung Pao, a Chinese state-owned newspaper based in Hong Kong, described the movements of a New York Times employee as “suspicious”, publishing a photograph of him as well as a close-up image of his phone, showing the text message conversation he was having about the protests with colleagues. Several other state-owned publications ran similar stories.
The same Ta Kung Pao article mentioned that Austin Ramzy, a New York Times reporter in Hong Kong, had written “18 reports”, “most of which have criticised Hong Kong police officers and the HKSAR government while turning a blind eye to the illegal activities of the mobs”. Ramzy later commented about the experience.
On Monday, the top Chinese government body for Hong Kong and Macau affairs denounced “external interference”, accusing western politicians of formulating a “plot” to “destroy Hong Kong and turn it into trouble for China, thereby restricting or curbing China’s development”.
And on Sunday, state-owned media outlet China Daily compared the Hong Kong protests to the revolutions instigated in the Middle East and North Africa, saying that local anti-government actors were “colluding with external forces to topple governments”.
The moves are all part of a strategy, suggested China researcher Adam Ni. “By blaming the current crisis on outside forces, it negates or neutralises stories about internal troubles,” said Ni.