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China compares Hong Kong democrats to Mao-era 'Gang of Four'

Demonstrators hold a sign reading "Sorry For The Convenience We Are Fighting For The Future of Our Home" during a protest at the Hong Kong International Airport on Aug. 13, 2019.

KYLE LAM/BLOOMBERG

By SHERYL TIAN TONG LEE AND DANDAN LI | Bloomberg | Published: August 19, 2019

Four senior Hong Kong democrats have found themselves labeled by Chinese state media as a new "Gang of Four" as Beijing seeks to assign blame for the largely leaderless protest movement rocking the city.

A string of state media editorials have compared the long-time opposition figures -- including former Chief Secretary Anson Chan, former Democratic Party chief Albert Ho, Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai and Democratic Party founder Martin Lee -- to the group of Mao Zedong allies prosecuted after his death in 1976. The media outlets carrying such pieces include the official publication of the Communist Party's highest law enforcement body, the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission.

An edition of the party's People's Daily newspaper aimed at an overseas audience called the four "secretive middlemen and modern traitors." "Places and nails have been saved for them on shame pole of history," the commentary said.

The choice of targets underscores Beijing's struggle to get its hands around the loose coalition of opposition groups that have orchestrated 11 straight weeks of flash-mob sit-ins, worker strikes, police station sieges and historically large marches. While Chan, Ho and Lee remain active commentators and Lai's media network backs the protests, it's been years since any has been seen as a central opposition figure.

"It's really a joke. I don't know on what basis do they elevate me to that level," Ho told Bloomberg News. "Probably they are just finding somebody to blame for the protests."

Mark Simon, group director for the media company Lai founded, Next Digital Ltd., said that Lai wasn't concerned about such Communist Party "labels."

The editorials represent some of the most direct personal attacks leveled as China attempts to discredit the protest movement that has ground on for weeks in the former British colony. While Chinese officials have compared the protests to terrorism and a "color revolution" they've generally stopped short of blaming particular individuals for the unrest.

The Gang of Four moniker was first used to describe Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, and three other figures who came to power during the decade-long period of political upheaval known as the Cultural Revolution. "The Gang of Four conspired to usurp the party and seize power," the People's Daily said in November 1976.

More recently, it was used by some party cadres to describe a quartet including Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai and other officials prosecuted for corruption. State media had also applied it to a similar group of Hong Kong officials in 2013, with local Catholic leader Joseph Zen standing in for Ho.

Naming the new Gang of Four in Hong Kong dovetailed with Beijing's effort to attribute the protests to the "black hand" of American influence. As senior members of pro-democracy movement's establishment wing, they're often sought out by American diplomats, officials and journalists for insights into the city's politics.

The piece published under the Political and Legal Affairs Commission, which is led by Politburo member and former public security chief Guo Shengkun, refers to Lai as a "running dog" of the U.S. and a conduit for "black money," without elaborating. Last month, several senior Trump administration officials including Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton met with Lai, 70, in Washington.

The editorial described Lee, 81, who sat on the committee that helped write Hong Kong's Basic Law before its return to China, as the "father of Hong Kong independence." Although Lee has sometimes been called the "father of democracy" in Hong Kong, he hasn't backed the more extreme position of independence.

"When they call us names, that shows how weak their position is," Lee said Monday. "So many people take to the streets, but the government can't say it's their fault. So they put the blame on the Gang of Four, together with foreigners, to narrow it down and justify their position. It's such a convenient excuse."

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