In a raw display of Beijing’s mistrust of Washington, the Chinese Communist Party has seized on diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks as evidence of anti-China plotting by U.S. diplomats and a “Gang of Four” comprising prominent Hong Kong pro-democracy figures.

Portraying the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong as a nest of spies and subversive busybodies, articles in local media controlled by the party have adopted an unusually harsh tone at a time when both China and the United States pledge a desire for smoother relations — but keep getting stuck in polemics.

The latest blast, in Tuesday’s Hong Kong edition of the China Daily, accused American diplomats in the former British colony of playing “dirty tricks” and “manipulating” Hong Kong opinion, asserting that “Uncle Sam is actually . . . fomenting anti-government sentiment and social conflict.”

U.S.-Taiwan arms package

The article appeared a day after Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi met U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in New York and demanded that Washington reconsider its decision to upgrade Taiwan’s aging F-16 fighters. The upgrade fell far short of what Taiwan had requested — scores of new, more advanced jets — but has nonetheless stirred angry outbursts by Beijing.

Yang, according to the official Xinhua News Agency, told Clinton that Washington “grossly interfered in China’s internal affairs and seriously undermined China’s security.”

Similar complaints have dominated what has become a campaign of denunciation directed at the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong, a rambunctious territory of about 7 million people that in 1997 became a “special administrative region” of China.

The leaked cables relating to Hong Kong contain no dramatic revelations and consist mostly of humdrum reports on meetings between diplomats and various locals, including well-known supporters of greater democracy and critics of Beijing.

The U.S. Consulate said it could not comment on material released by WikiLeaks but denied any improper behavior by its diplomats. “We categorically reject any assertion that the behavior of U.S. diplomatic and consular staff has been anything other than appropriate and in keeping with long-standing diplomatic and consular law and practice,” Consulate spokesman Joseph Bookbinder said.

New ‘Gang of Four’

Media outlets that reflect the views of the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department, however, assert that the cables expose U.S. meddling in cahoots with an alleged “Gang of Four” — lawyer Martin Lee, publisher Jimmy Lai, former senior civil servant Anson Chan and Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, a Roman Catholic cardinal and former bishop of Hong Kong.

An article in Ta Kung Pao, one of the party’s main mouthpieces in Hong Kong, lambasted what it called their “traitorous actions” on behalf of “foreign masters.”

The term “Gang of Four” is particularly insulting in Chinese political rhetoric, as it originally referred to some of the party’s most reviled figures: the hated widow of Mao Zedong and three radical Maoists who were arrested after Mao’s death in 1976 and jailed for life. All are now dead.

Lai, the publisher — whose media outlets in Hong Kong and Taiwan are far more popular and profitable than those of the party — dismissed as “ridiculous” claims that he and the others take orders from Washington. There is no conspiratorial gang, he said, only “friends who are very concerned about keeping Hong Kong’s fundamental values of freedom of speech and religion and the rule of law.”

Hong Kong has largely retained its freedom of speech and other liberties since its handover to China from Britain in 1997, but it has been divided for years over the pace of change toward a more democratic system.

Beijing’s official representative in Hong Kong this week joined the attack on U.S. “meddling” in the process, albeit in a more diplomatic manner than the party’s propaganda machine. In comments posted on the Web site of the Commissioner’s Office of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, an unnamed spokesman said that, if accurate, the leaked cables indicate that the U.S. Consulate had “overstepped” norms established by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

“We have reason to be deeply concerned and unhappy with this and demand that the American side stop this kind of incorrect practice,” the spokesman was quoted as telling the China News Service. China, he added, had complained to the U.S. Consulate and expressed its “resolute opposition” to outside meddling in Hong Kong’s affairs.

The furor comes as Hong Kong is awash with speculation about who will take over as its chief executive next year. The new leader will be selected by committee, but direct elections for the chief executive and a local legislature are scheduled for 2017 and 2020.

China has been particularly resistant to even modest calls for political change since anti-authoritarian uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, which official Chinese commentators often paint as being directed by Washington. In their criticism of the U.S. role in Hong Kong, pro-Beijing media have adopted the same line, alleging that Consul General Stephen Young, who previously served in the former Soviet Union and Taiwan, wants to bring a “color revolution” to China.

Citing what it called the “embarrassing fallout from WikiLeaks,” the China Daily said the U.S. diplomatic mission in Hong Kong should “take this humiliation as food for thought, stop manipulating its Hong Kong avatars behind the curtain, stop playing dirty tricks and interfering with other countries’ internal affairs.”