BEIJING — After weeks of escalating warnings alleging a covert U.S. role behind the protests in Hong Kong, the tone in Communist Party-backed media outlets is turning darkly acrimonious, with publications attacking a U.S. diplomat in Hong Kong and releasing her personal information.

The pro-Beijing newspaper Ta Kung Pao on Thursday published a photo of opposition activists meeting in a hotel with Julie Eadeh, a political section chief at the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong, along with details of Eadeh’s State Department career and the names of her husband and teenage children.

The report, which was recirculated by Chinese state media, emerged as Beijing doubled down on a familiar strategy of framing the nine-week-long protests as a U.S. intelligence plot to spark a “color revolution” to destabilize China.

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The publication of information about the diplomat drew a furious response from the State Department, which accused China of “thuggish” behavior. U.S. diplomats around the world often meet with opposition figures and groups, occasionally drawing rebukes from governments.

The unusual pinpoint attack on the diplomat in Hong Kong underscores China’s growing frustration over the protests and their anti-Beijing message.

Airport demonstrations

On Friday, hundreds of protesters flooded into Hong Kong’s airport terminal to stage another sit-in and vowed to continue it through the weekend. The territory’s embattled leader, Carrie Lam, made a fresh appeal to the public by citing the economic toll of the disturbances.

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Lam said she had met with a broad section of society — entrepreneurs, doctors, teachers — and believed that a “violent minority” of protesters “had no stake in society.”

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China’s aviation overseer, meanwhile, ordered Hong Kong’s flagship carrier Cathay Pacific Airways to suspend any personnel who take part in or support the protests.

In Beijing, the propaganda attacks pillorying the United States were not aimed at Washington. But they represented a classic Communist Party influence effort to shore up public opinion in Hong Kong, said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS University of London.

After the first month of protests — when authorities in Beijing censored all mention of record-breaking crowds surging into Hong Kong’s streets to oppose an extradition bill — Chinese state television began to flood the airwaves with scenes of protesters in Hong Kong clashing violently with police and defacing China’s national emblem and flag.

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“That is exactly what they would call the United Front approach. We would call it divide and rule,” Tsang said, referring to the Communist Party wing that is responsible for political influence campaigns in China and abroad. “They want to isolate the protesters from the bulk of the Hong Kong population and say, ‘This is all about foreign interference.’ ”

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With few good options to swiftly restore order to Hong Kong’s streets, the Communist Party was urgently looking to cement its ties to political allies in the city and “win over the wavering middle,” Tsang said.

Chinese officials this week held a seminar in the border city of Shenzhen with “500 friends from Hong Kong,” including prominent business and political figures.

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China's warnings

In 2014, pro-government media sought to isolate Hong Kong protesters waging a civil disobedience campaign called Occupy Central. At the time, pro-Beijing social media accounts floated theories that protest leaders were receiving military training from the CIA, said Yuen Chan, a lecturer at City University of London.

But the tactic may encounter more resistance this time around, Chan said.

The 2014 movement, which sought broader voting rights, was “a much more polarizing issue compared to this year, when there is so much consensus within Hong Kong society,” Chan said.

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Since early June, the protests have drawn millions of people onto the city’s streets, including first-time demonstrators, white-collar professionals, retirees and civil servants. What began as opposition to a proposal for extraditions from Hong Kong to the mainland has bloomed into anger against what many see as an out-of-touch Hong Kong government, a heavy-handed police force and the growing encroachment of the Communist Party leadership in Beijing.

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The Chinese government has maintained its support for Lam, dismissed the protests as the work of an extreme minority and escalated its rhetoric against Washington. A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman in Beijing this month criticized U.S. officials such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and warned that “those who play with fire will be self-immolated.”

After the Ta Kung Pao article, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus described China’s behavior as irresponsible.

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“I don’t think leaking an American diplomat’s private information, pictures, names of their children — I don’t think that is a formal protest. That is what a thuggish regime would do,” Ortagus told reporters in Washington late Thursday. “American diplomats meet with formal government officials; we meet with opposition protesters, not just in Hong Kong or China. This literally happens in every single country.”

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Joshua Wong, one of the pro-democracy activists who were pictured meeting with Eadeh, said on Facebook that he met with the consulate to discuss a bill in the U.S. Congress and to seek a ban on exports of U.S.-made tear gas to Hong Kong police. 

In a lengthy report, Ta Kung Pao dissected Eadeh’s experience in Middle East conflict zones and alleged that she was well-versed in “psychological warfare” and “infiltrating local society in her so-called diplomatic work.” 

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The People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s official mouthpiece, published five consecutive front-page editorials on Hong Kong this week — a rare occurrence that demonstrated Beijing’s concerns about the protracted unrest.

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Shibani Mahtani in Hong Kong contributed to this report.

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