By William Nee
On July 20, in the central plains of Henan province, one of China’s most important regional cities, Zhengzhou, received a record-shattering 622mm of rainfall within a 24-hour period. It was described as a “once in a millennium” event in Chinese media.
As the rains fell, videos of unimaginable devastation and heroic rescue efforts poured on to social media. In one video, a person sprinted through waist-deep water to save a child rapidly floating downstream. In another video, a group of people formed a human chain to cross the street despite fast-flowing currents, saving elderly people who might have died had they been alone.
Western journalists reported on these heroic efforts to save lives and shared the videos on Twitter. With similar intense floods occurring in Germany and Belgium, much of the foreign coverage of the Henan floods noted that they were a part of a worldwide pattern of intense and extreme flooding, most likely exacerbated by climate change.
But curiously, Western reporters on the ground in Henan experienced hostility, even as the Western media largely framed the floods within the context of factual descriptions of damage and climate change.
One reporter for Deutsche Welle, Mathias Boelinger, was encircled by a crowd as he reported from one of the worst hit parts of Zhengzhou. People in the crowd angrily told him to get out of China and accused him of spreading rumours.
However, it turned out that the angry crowd thought Boelinger was Robin Brant, a BBC reporter. In March, Chinese Communist Party social media accounts and Chinese diplomats launched a large, coordinated social media campaign to discredit Brant and the BBC, after the BBC published a detailed report on extralegal detention in Xinjiang, which included firsthand allegations of rape by male camp guards.
Ten men encircled this “Brant”, who was actually Boelinger, and blocked him from leaving the scene. The tense, and potentially violent, standoff was only defused when another journalist, Alice Su of the Los Angeles Times, clarified that Boelinger was not, in fact, Brant.
A targeted campaign
However, subsequent posts by prominent nationalists on Weibo directed anger at both Boelinger and Su, calling them “anti-China” and “rumour-mongering attackers of China” and asking for them to be investigated.
More importantly, the Weibo account of the Henan Communist Youth League, in a post that generated at least 6.2K likes, asked users to report Brant if they found him “creating rumours” in Henan. One post said, “our group has 400 people right now…everybody is competing for the first kill!”
In other words, even though Brant was not on the scene, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) fueled a xenophobic social media campaign to incite locals, who were grieved and emotional after days of hardship and loss, to go on a witch-hunt and find a foreigner who was supposedly out to destroy the reputation of the city and of China. There were real death threats made.
But why did CCP outlets in Henan encourage suspicion of the foreign media right after the floods?
On one level, it could be that local authorities simply wanted to limit critical reporting about the floods and about the authorities’ missteps. After all, it wasn’t just Boelinger and Su who experienced hostility at the scene.
A reporter on the scene from AP said he was reported to police. And a journalist from Al-Jazeera said crowds yelled at her when she started to film and that there were Weibo posts urging people not to be interviewed by foreign media outlets.
But regardless, it is unlikely that these journalists would have experienced such hostility if it weren’t against a backdrop of the toxic campaign against the BBC and foreign media more generally. On almost any day, one can browse nationalist outlets like the Global Times or Guancha and see articles railing against the “Western media” and their allegedly biased coverage of China. It’s a theme that is also taken up by China’s assertive “Wolf Warrior” diplomats.
Obviously, given China’s massive censorship system, repeating non-stop that the foreign media cannot be trusted is a clever tactic, since Beijing can effectively inoculate its population against the hard truths that may only be reported through the foreign press.
The Western press can’t be trusted. It’s all lies. Move on.
While the discrediting of foreign media has been happening for years, the personal nature of the campaigns against particular foreign reporters is arguably new. But, sadly, these nationalist campaigns are part of a bigger pattern to silence diverse voices.
In April, nationalist “Red Vs” helped in getting many prominent Chinese feminists banned on social media sites Weibo and Douban, and in June, many of the same nationalists targeted the WeChat accounts of LGBTQ university clubs.
A shadow on the Beijing Olympics
The nexus of xenophobic and personalised social media campaigns targeting foreign journalists violates human rights. The right to freedom of expression encompasses the notion of a free press, the ability of journalist to report without harassment, and the right of a citizen to impart and receive information across national boundaries.
Twenty years ago, in its bid for the Olympics, China promised that there would be “no restrictions on media reporting and movement of journalists up to and including the Olympic Games”. Optimists assumed that respect for freedom of expression would gradually grow in China. Pessimists thought reporting restrictions would continue.
Few could have imagined the CCP stooping to the level of running campaigns against individual news reporters and outlets, resulting in harassment and death threats against foreign reporters.
It is long past time for China to respect the right to freedom of expression, and for foreign governments and the IOC to raise the alarm bells about the deteriorating situation that global journalists will find themselves in once again in just a few months, at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
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