Argument

Beijing’s Paranoia Sees the CIA Under Every Rock

Chinese propagandists are throwing around wild allegations in Hong Kong—but the leadership may really believe them.

A policeman secures Terminal 1 after a scuffle with pro-democracy protestors at Hong Kong's International Airport on August 13, 2019.
A policeman secures Terminal 1 after a scuffle with pro-democracy protestors at Hong Kong's International Airport on August 13, 2019. Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images

I’ve never met U.S. diplomat Julie Eadeh, but I have some sympathy for her. As part of Beijing’s broader effort to paint the growing protest movement in Hong Kong as the pawn of so-called foreign forces, the Ta Kung Pao newspaper last week published a photo of Eadeh meeting with leading pro-democracy activists in the lounge of a luxury hotel in Hong Kong. The photo was published with the none-too-subtle headline, “Foreign Forces Intervene, Seek to Stir ‘Color Revolution’”—a favorite term of Chinese Communist Party-affiliated media outlets to describe supposedly U.S. government-inspired revolutions the party disapproves of. Other outlets soon followed suit, making use of the same photo to publish their own false and misleading reports. At least one outlet published private information about Eadeh, including the names of her children.

I too have had my picture land on the front pages of pro-Beijing propaganda sheets like the Ta Kung Pao and the Wen Wei Po. For several years, I’ve worked on human rights and rule of law in China. As a result, I’ve had to deal regularly with wild conspiracy theories and suggestions that my work was somehow connected to the U.S. government.

It can be a bit disorienting at first, to see a photo of yourself below a patently false and misleading headline, ascribing to you power and influence that you’ve never wanted, much less had. But then it can also be strangely compelling—it’s an unintended validation from Beijing of the importance of the work that you’re doing.

For many Westerners, such efforts come off as ham-handed and make Beijing look faintly ridiculous. As a State Department spokesman pointed out in an interview with the New York Times, “It is not credible to think that millions of people are being manipulated to stand for a free and open society.”

But there are good reasons for Beijing’s use of such seemingly clumsy tactics. Like U.S. President Donald Trump, Beijing long ago realized that outlandish claims can put your adversary on the defensive and at least partially distract from the substantive issue at hand. Rather than analyzing the genuine root causes of the pro-democracy protests and continuing to monitor events on the ground, the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong will have to spend some amount of time over the coming days debunking these conspiracy theories, and it will have to exercise even greater care and caution as it seeks to maintain contact with Hong Kongers from across the political spectrum.

Still, Beijing’s primary goal is to influence its domestic audience: It wants to encourage Chinese citizens to view the unrest in Hong Kong not as the result of the Communist Party’s unwillingness to embrace much-needed political reform, but rather as the product of Western—particularly American—machinations.

I personally have not met too many Chinese citizens who give credence to such conspiracy-mongering. Most of the academics, liberal intellectuals, and rights lawyers whom I come into contact with as a scholar of Chinese law and politics are all too familiar with Beijing’s propaganda outlets. Some of them have themselves been the targets of their smear campaigns. They know a wholly manufactured lie when they see one.

Still, an unknowable number of Chinese citizens do believe that China’s problems generally stem from plots hatched by black hands in Washington, London, or Tokyo. Since the beginning of the Hong Kong extradition bill crisis, mainland media outlets have presented a carefully censored, highly selective portrait of the protests, one that focuses very heavily on acts of vandalism and violence, and not at all on the legitimate democratic aspirations of the protest movement. No doubt many Chinese readers and viewers will find the Eadeh fabrications credible. As a result, they will see statements by Western governments supporting the protesters’ basic rights to free assembly and free expression in a much less positive light.

From Beijing’s perspective, there’s an additional, equally important goal: Innuendo-laden propaganda campaigns also smear the activists themselves, undermining their legitimacy and undercutting their efforts to win public sympathy and grow their movement.

At the same time, such propaganda stories also send a clear message to activists, especially on the mainland, that the party is aware of such meetings and takes a dim view of them. Mainland Chinese activists have told me that they have been taken to tea—a euphemism for a private meeting with Chinese state security agents—and threatened over their contacts with foreigners, including Western consular officials, United Nations representatives, and lowly foundation executives. The publication of photos like the one featuring Eadeh serves as a broader warning to Hong Kong activists: We’re watching, and we will remember who meets with whom.

But the bigger question is whether the party believes the lies that it tells. In this case, is it so blind to the forces—including frustration over the lack of progress on democratic reform since 1997 and concerns over growing income inequality and failed housing and welfare policies—driving the protests in Hong Kong that it somehow believes that professional diplomats like Eadeh are in fact directing them in some way?

For the most part, the party takes an instrumentalist, rather than an ideological, view of such conspiracy theories: They serve the party’s interests and so should be used if and when needed. Judging by their continued use, the party seems to find them effective. At times, though, I’ve detected a whiff of genuine emotion behind these attacks, a deeply troubling suggestion that, in fact, some of those in power actually do believe—at least in broad outline—their own propaganda.

After all, paranoia has long been a part of Chinese Communist Party politics. Think of the Cultural Revolution, when seemingly absurd accusations that respected party figures had been spies for the Kuomintang or the Japanese all along served as the stuff of daily political discourse. Or the party’s hysterical insistence in the aftermath of the June 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown that pro-democracy protests in Beijing and elsewhere had in fact been directed by “hostile foreign forces,” despite the fact that the George H.W. Bush administration was extremely eager to ensure that Tiananmen didn’t get in the way of stronger U.S.-China ties.

In other words, the attacks on Eadeh and others are not merely about scoring political points, truth be damned. Propaganda outlets such as Ta Kung Pao serve as a window into the darker corners of the Chinese Communist Party’s political psyche. There is a paranoid strain in Chinese politics, one that has grown stronger since General Secretary Xi Jinping took office in 2012. This week, Eadeh fell victim to it, but it’s almost certain that she won’t be the last foreign diplomat to be on the receiving end of such rough treatment. Regardless of what happens with the Hong Kong protests, the paranoid style of Chinese politics will be with us for a long time to come.

 

Thomas Kellogg is Executive Director of Georgetown Law Asia.

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