On Saturday (July 24), several foreign journalists were harassed by locals in the city of Zhengzhou in the Henan province of China. The hostile confrontation came after a BBC correspondent named Robin Brant questioned the local government over the flooding situation in Zhengzhou.
As per reports, the metropolis has witnessed a year’s worth of rainfall in the past week. This led to massive floods that claimed the lives of 69 people. While covering the news on Thursday (July 22), journalist Robin Brant quizzed the local government over its failure in containing the floods and the weak emergency response. “We don’t know why they were left so vulnerable,” he said over the death of a dozen people in a train carriage filled with water. In his report, he emphasised that Beijing had cautioned local governments to examine metro regulations and their preparedness.
However, Chinese netizens were miffed at BBC’s coverage of the flooding situation in Zhengzhou. On microblogging site Weibo, they accused Robint Brant of ‘factual distortion’ and ‘rumour-mongering.’ A post on Weibo read, “BBC reporter Robin Brant has appeared in disaster-stricken areas of our city many times, and has seriously distorted the facts. If you find this person, please call the police immediately.” Many posts were abusive in nature and threatened to leak the personal information of the journalist.
Foreign journalists harassed by Chinese citizens over ‘mistaken identity’
As a consequence, Deutsche Welle (DW) correspondent Mathias Boelinger was stopped on the streets and gheraoed by an angry crowd after they mistook him for Robin Brant. In a Twitter thread, he narrated, “They kept pushing me yelling that I was a bad guy and that I should stop smearing China. One guy [tried] to snatch my phone. What I did not know at the time was that a manhunt was on after (Brant)…There is a vicious campaign against the BBC News in nationalistic circles and state media.” He had also shared a video of the incident, wherein he was reprimanded by another man for not having a positive view of China.
Boelinger was also accompanied by LA Times journalist Alice Su when the confrontation took place. At that time, they were interviewing local shopkeepers about the challenges or the ‘inadequate governmental help’ received by them. In a tweet, Alice Su wrote, “This is Mathias Boelinger and me in the streets of Zhengzhou yesterday. We were surrounded by an angry crowd shouting things like this is China, get out of China! I tried to de-escalate by “translating” the crowd’s message (Mathias is actually fluent in Chinese).”
This is @mare_porter and me in the streets of Zhengzhou yesterday. We were surrounded by an angry crowd shouting things like this is China, get out of China! I tried to de-escalate by “translating” the crowd’s message (Mathias is actually fluent in Chinese) https://t.co/uE7glR1kBS— Alice Su (@aliceysu) July 25, 2021
In visuals shared by Su, it could be seen how the crowd had been intimidating the duo. While commenting on the video on Weibo, Chinese netizens had called for their deportation from the country. A similar treatment was meted out to Katrina Yu of Al Jazeera. She wrote, “Sad sign of increasing anger and suspicion towards foreign media in #China. When we filmed in front of the #Zhengzhou subway crowds were recording us and calling the authorities. This post on Weibo warns residents “don’t accept interviews from foreign media, don’t be used!”
There’s been an orchestrated campaign against the foreign media in #Zhengzhou, fuelled by the Communist Youth League. So the strategy to try to make it a patriotic duty to harass those doing real reporting to distract from criticism of bad infrastructure not coping with flooding? https://t.co/dwdsCMxgYc— Stephen McDonell (@StephenMcDonell) July 25, 2021
While commenting on the vitriol faced by the foreign media in China, BBC journalist Stephen McDonell tweeted, “There’s been an orchestrated campaign against the foreign media in #Zhengzhou, fuelled by the Communist Youth League. So the strategy to try to make it a patriotic duty to harass those doing real reporting to distract from criticism of bad infrastructure not coping with flooding?”
Screenshots of vitriolic posts on Weibo shows the growing anti-foreign media establishment amount Chinese netizens. Communist accounts with 100K+ followers have accused DW and BBC of spreading rumours and emphasised that the journalists need to be thrashed.
Chinese State media’s defence and growing censorship
China has been criticised for peddling the myth of Zhengzhou being a sponge city. The Chinese government had spent 50 billion Chinese Yuan in infrastructure to prevent flooding in the metropolis. However, the disaster wrecked by the flood shows otherwise. While foreign media has exposed the mismanagement by Chinese authorities, lapdog media network Global Times has come to the Communist Party of China (CCP’s) rescue.
It claimed, “Chinese observers refuted the reports, noting that these media reiterated the loss, but neglected one fact, that the floods in Zhengzhou is a once-in-a-century occasion and beyond any city’s bearing capacity. They noted that the Zhengzhou government has made its best efforts to limit the loss.”
Reportedly, Chinese media has been specifically instructed to report only authoritative information and not draw connections to past events or take a sorrowful tone. The growing influence of the Chinese regime has made it difficult for the foreign press to operate in the country. To add to it, the Communist government had expelled 20 foreign journalists so far in the past 2 years over ‘critical reporting.’