China's state media has launched scathing personal attacks on leading pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong, labelling them the "new Gang of Four" that "colludes" with Western forces to instigate unrest and destroy the city.
In an escalation of rhetoric, the articles published over the weekend lashed out at media tycoon Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, Democratic Party founder Martin Lee Chu-ming, former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang and former lawmaker Albert Ho Chun-yan, calling them the "Gang of Four who bring ruin to Hong Kong".
The Gang of Four refers to allies of late chairman Mao Zedong, infamous for their role in the decade-long upheaval of the Cultural Revolution, who were eventually convicted in show trials for "counter-revolutionary crimes".
Lee, Chan and Ho dismissed the allegations, while Lai did not respond to a request for comment.
The propaganda assault was carried out on the social media account and overseas edition of Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily, and the official WeChat account of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, a powerful party arm that oversees law enforcement and the judiciary.
It is the latest move by Beijing to discredit and lay blame for the months of largely leaderless mass protests triggered by a contentious extradition bill. The bill, which would have allowed criminal suspects to be sent to the mainland's party-controlled courts for trial, was suspended in June, but the protests have continued and evolved into a wider movement to defend the city's freedoms and call for democracy.
After an initial period of near silence and blanket censorship on the demonstrations, propaganda efforts were ramped up last month on Chinese state media and social media, with radical protesters labelled as "separatists" and the movement a "colour revolution" incited by Western "black hands".
Since last week, the campaign has zeroed in on the four prominent pan-democrats, calling them "traitors" who act as intermediaries for "Western anti-China forces".
"If there were no 'traitors of the modern time' to supply the ammunition, shape public opinion and act as agents for Western anti-China forces, how could Hong Kong so easily descend into such chaos?" the front page of Monday's overseas edition of People's Daily read.
The articles cited, among other things, their trips to the United States seeking support to scuttle the bill and meetings with American diplomats in Hong Kong as evidence for the alleged "collusion".
In May, Lee led a delegation of democrats to Washington, where they testified before the US Congress and met Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Lee said he was merely sharing another angle on the situation in Hong Kong during the trip. The veteran pro-democracy leader also denied that he was behind the protests.
"How can a few elderly people control these youths? They themselves have no leader," the 81-year-old said.
Former chief secretary Chan said she deplored the "unwarranted smear campaign" launched by Beijing's "propaganda machinery" against her and other activists.
"The efforts to harass and intimidate me and members of my family is a shameless attempt to deflect the blame for the recent social unrest away from those who are principally responsible, namely the Chief Executive, Mrs Carrie Lam, and her team," she said. "Directed primarily at the mainland Chinese audience, this smear campaign will cut no ice with Hong Kong people who have minds of their own and can tell the difference between truth, lies and fake news."
Meanwhile Ho, a veteran human rights lawyer, called the reports "anti-intellectual" and their allegations unfounded.
The attacks came as hundreds of thousands of peaceful demonstrators braved heavy downpours on Sunday in the largest rally seen in two months, with the turnout estimated at 1.7 million by organisers in a huge show of support for the movement.
Steve Tsang, director of the University of London's SOAS China Institute, said the latest state media accusations were unreasonable and poorly grounded, but "above all unwise".
"If these four could organise the protests in Hong Kong, they could have controlled it and not risk having Hong Kong at the edge of the abyss, to use a term favoured by Carrie Lam," he said.
"Labelling them seems like a consequence of the (party) having decided to see events in Hong Kong as a 'colour revolution', for which they need to identify the key conspirators."
But the move also showed that Beijing refused to see the true nature of the protests, Tsang said.
"Chinese officials need to see the realities on the ground in Hong Kong so that they can work out appropriate responses to avoid an outcome that nobody wants. But their labelling of the four points to Beijing moving in the opposite direction," he said.
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