Western observer and HK protest

Source: NYT (10/30/14)

Western Observer Finds Himself a Player in Hong Kong’s Protest Drama

Pro-Beijing newspapers and politicians in Hong Kong have made Dan Garrett, center, a prime exhibit in their allegations of a Western conspiracy behind the city’s political tumult. CreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times

HONG KONG — Dan Garrett, a tattooed former Pentagon intelligence analyst, has attracted more stares than usual lately when he prowls the streets here with a camera fitted with a 300-millimeter lens, snapping images of pro-democracy demonstrations, signs and stickers.

“I don’t think it’s the tattoos anymore,” he said one recent morning before his daily ramble through Hong Kong’s protest camps. “I think they’ve read the things about me or seen the pictures online and they’re thinking, ‘What is he really up to? Is he that American spy?”’

Pro-Beijing newspapers and politicians in Hong Kong, as well as mainland Chinese media, have said he is, and have made him a prime exhibit in their allegations of a Western conspiracy behind the city’s political tumult.

Citing his professed past working for United States intelligence agencies, they have said Mr. Garrett has engaged in Washington-sponsored subversion, seeking to kindle revolt against the Chinese Communist Party. The claim is part of the effort by Chinese officials and state-controlled media to discredit Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement as an insurrection ignited from abroad.

“A plethora of evidence shows that the United States incited the students to boycott classes, in what was all too obviously a scheme to sow chaos in Hong Kong,” said a video commentary issued by Xinhua, China’s main state news agency, which displayed what it said were comments from Mr. Garrett.

“Garrett worked in intelligence for the United States Defense Department and various national intelligence agencies,” said the commentary. “He is without any exaggeration a top-level spy.”

Mr. Garrett, 47, a graduate student who favors shorts, sandals and a T-shirt, says he is vexed. “This is weird at several different levels,” he said. “I am not James Bond.”

A student at the City University of Hong Kong, Mr. Garrett is writing a dissertation on how the city became a battleground between rival political symbols. To his wry bewilderment, he has also become one of those symbols: cast as a spy fomenting insurrection among the protesters he studies, and an example of Western meddling.

He said the claims were based on outlandish and incorrect descriptions of his career and current work, and a false account of a meeting that he attended in early September, which brought foreigners living in Hong Kong together with democratic politicians and student activists.

“I am not and never have been a spy,” he said. “I’ve become used in a campaign to make people scared of being painted as collaborating with foreigners. It’s a war of innuendo.”

Even before pro-democracy demonstrations erupted into street occupations in late September, Chinese officials and media called the main pro-democracy movement, Occupy Central With Love and Peace, a Western-sponsored plot against Communist Party rule.

Beijing has bristled at even tepid comments about Hong Kong’s political tumult from Washington, London and other capitals, calling such comments meddling in China’s internal matters. But the accusations leveled at Mr. Garrett and other foreign residents go beyond merely alleging that they sympathize with the young protesters on the streets.

Pro-Beijing newspapers and the Chinese mainland media have said that the September meeting, about two weeks before the protests began, was evidence of the Western-inspired planning behind the protests, and that Mr. Garrett was a ringleader.

“The United States firmly supports the students’ strike and protest actions,” he is reported to have said, according to an account of the meeting in The Wenwei Po, a pro-Beijing Hong Kong newspaper. The reports also said he worked for the United States Consulate General in Hong Kong.

Mr. Garrett does not deny attending the meeting, but he and five other people who attended said the account of the discussion was bogus, either fabricating or grossly misrepresenting what they said, and describing an unexceptional political gathering as a conspiracy. Jennifer Eagleton, an Australian linguist and editor who was there, said she had also been incorrectly described in the reports as an employee of the United States Consulate, and said the reported quotes were a “pack of total lies.”

“What I call the ‘evil foreign forces’ argument just takes the focus off the real problems in Hong Kong,” she said. “It’s a red herring.”

Scott Robinson, a spokesman for the United States Consulate, said Mr. Garrett was not an employee. “Such linkages are fabrications,” Mr. Robinson said in emailed comments.

Mr. Garrett said he was born in Florida, and grew up in a poor family that worked for a traveling carnival. He joined the Air Force, spent six years stationed in Japan working as a signals intelligence collector and analyst, and became an analyst for the National Security Agency and Defense Intelligence Agency, with a stint between in the private sector.

The N.S.A. said it “cannot confirm or deny employment,” and the Defense Intelligence Agency did not respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Garrett has made no secret of his past government work, including on his busy Twitter feed, but says he has had no dealings with his former government employers.

The spying accusations were a bizarre distraction, he said, because he left the government in 2011 unhappy with many United States policies, including the torture of terrorism suspects. Asked about his ideological leanings, he said: “cyberpunk.”

His meticulous scouring of the streets does not appear to be the kind of research that would appeal to spies. He attends demonstrations and wanders busy city streets, recording images of protests with compulsive attentiveness. He said he had taken about 20,000 photographs since the protests started.

Pointing to a metal railing festooned with pro-protest stickers and yellow ribbons, another symbol of the demonstrations, he said, “I consider these the weapons of the weak.” At a stop sign, he pointed to another protest sticker, noting, “This one has been here for almost a year.”

The spying allegations were bizarre, he said, but fortuitously fit into his research.

“This whole experience will be addressed in my thesis,” he said. “It provides a great deal of empirical data.”

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