On July 17 severe flooding hit China’s Henan province, killing at least 58 people and displacing around 250,000. As rescue efforts are underway, reporters for foreign media outlets were harassed by hostile crowds who accused them of slandering China.
Alice Su, Beijing Bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, wrote on her Twitter account that on July 24 she and German correspondent Mathias Boelinger were “surrounded by an angry crowd” while reporting from Henan’s capital Zhengzhou. The crowd were “shouting things like this is China, get out of China!”
Though Boelinger is fluent in Mandarin, she tried to “de-escalate” the situation by translating what the crowd were saying.
As Su recounts, an angry man pulled out a phone with “a blurry screenshot of another white man” and yelled “This is him! It’s him!” She told the crowd that Boelinger was not the person on the picture.
They later found out that the man on the photo was BBC correspondent Robin Brant. Chinese netizens on Weibo – China’s version of Twitter – had been calling for a “manhunt to catch the ‘rumormongering foreigner’” due to his reporting on the flooding and its aftermath.
One woman wearing a black cap told the two journalists that foreign media were slandering China. She claimed that Henan people were very united, recovery in Zhengzhou was fine and they should focus on reporting on rescue efforts. “She insisted we take the contact of a rescue team and go film them instead,” Su wrote.
“Prior to this we had been chatting [with] people on a street where several huge holes [had] opened in the road,” she added. “Shopkeepers were distressed about insufficient [government] help to drain water from their underground stores, [with] all their goods still submerged after four days.”
According to Su, there were many people eager to talk with foreign journalists. But the crowd who surrounded them had a different message. Some of them said: “We must protect China” (“我们要捍卫中国”).
Mathias Boelinger explained on Twitter that the “angry mob” that surrounded them “kept pushing me yelling that I was a bad guy and that I should stop smearing China. One guy [tried] to snatch my phone.”
Only when the mob were convinced that he was not Robin Brant did they calm down, and some “even apologized”.
“There is a vicious campaign against the [BBC] in nationalistic circles and state media,” Boelinger pointed out. “I don’t know what would have happened had it really been him. The media environment in China right now is frightening.”
Chinese state media and nationalistic netizens have launched a concerted campaign against foreign media on the ground.
The Henan Chinese Communist Party Youth League wrote on its official Weibo account, which has 1 million followers, that netizens should follow BBC journalists and take pictures of them. Some netizens commented: “Where did the white-skinned pigs who entered Henan come from? We don’t need them.” “The crowd should surround and beat them.” “If you fabricate rumours, you go to jail.”
Katrina Yu, China correspondent for Al Jazeera, was also harassed. “Sad sign of increasing anger and suspicion towards foreign media in China,” she wrote. “When we filmed in front of the #hengzhou subway crowds were recording us and calling the authorities. [A] post on Weibo warns residents ‘don’t accept interviews from foreign media, don’t be used!'”
Weibo accounts, including the Communist Youth League’s, have been using the hashtag “The BBC fabricates rumours” (“BBC 造谣”).
In September 2013, China’s highest judicial authorities issued a joint legal interpretation of existing laws that criminalized online “rumours”. Hundreds of people were subsequently detained during the “anti-rumour” crackdown, which was part of president Xi Jinping’s assault on free speech.
Associated Press journalist Dake Kang and Agence France Press reporters were also reportedly harassed in Henan.
“The Communist Party is very good at manufacturing ‘outrage'”, commented BBC China correspondent Stephen McDonell on July 25. “[S]ocial media is used because then it can all be chalked up to the supposedly spontaneous response of ‘netizens'”.
China analyst and author Mareike Ohlberg wrote on Twitter: “[The Ministry of Foreign Affairs] has been threatening foreign correspondents with this type of violence for several years now (‘Our people are so emotional, if you keep reporting like that, we can’t guarantee your safety’). This is the next step, I guess … Needless to say this kind of thuggish party-state behavior goes back much further; the only difference is that foreigners are now also affected more regularly.”
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