After extreme flooding in central China last week destroyed homes, engulfed subways and killed at least 73, the ruling Communist Party found a convenient outlet for the public’s pent-up emotions: the foreign news media.
A party organization in Henan Province issued a call to arms on social media to confront a BBC journalist covering the disaster there. A day later angry residents surrounded, pushed and yelled at reporters from Deutsche Welle and The Los Angeles Times. Then nationalistic commentators and news organizations used the videos and screenshots of the confrontation to wage a large-scale online attack on journalists working for foreign news outlets.
They described the Western news media’s China coverage as “fake,” “biased,” “slandering” and “evil.” They alleged that foreign reporting on the devastating floods focused on the damage instead of the rescue efforts by the government and the public. They were unhappy these journalists dared to call for transparency and accountability.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China said in a statement that it was “disappointed and dismayed at the growing hostility against foreign media in China, a sentiment underpinned by rising Chinese nationalism sometimes directly encouraged by Chinese officials and official entities.”
The vitriol aimed at the Western news media is the inevitable outcome of the cultural war against foreign influence and the anti-intellectualism campaign that the Communist Party has waged under the leadership of Xi Jinping.
During his nine-year tenure, the party has cracked down on liberal-leaning key opinion leaders, including journalists, intellectuals, lawyers and businesspeople. It has reined in boisterous social media conversations by censoring heavily and encouraging users to report on each other. It has told the people that ideas such as democracy, media independence and human rights are driven by Western forces hostile to China.
In their place, party propaganda and nationalistic sentiment rule the day. And Western news organizations’ critical coverage of China, which is usually no different from how they cover their own countries, stands out as the dissonant noise in the chorus of 1.4 billion people singing, “All glory to the Communist Party.”
It doesn’t matter that nearly all Western media websites are blocked in China and the public doesn’t have easy access to their reporting. The state news media and nationalistic commentators have been driving home the point, sometimes quoting former President Donald J. Trump, that journalists are the enemy of the people.
Foreign news outlets are facing more restricted access to the country and growing hostility among the Chinese public. Last year Beijing expelled more than a dozen mainland-based American reporters working for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post over a diplomatic spat with the United States. The world will have to brace for even less on-the-ground coverage of the second-largest economy and the main rival of the United States.
China has a history of officially sponsored war on foreigners. At the turn of the 19th century, the Boxer fighters, with the support of Empress Dowager Cixi, rose to eliminate foreign influence. They killed Christian missionaries and Chinese converts to Christianity.
During the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong’s Red Guards set fire to the British Embassy in Beijing while protesters chanted, “Kill! Kill!” A Reuters journalist spent two years confined alone to a house in the city.
In recent years, Beijing has grown increasingly aggressive in attacking the Western news media for its China coverage. Last week, “wolf warrior” diplomats at the Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka called the Reuters news agency “shameless” for using a photo of a Chinese Olympic gold medalist that the diplomats described as “ugly.” The photo, which had also appeared in the Chinese state news media, shows the athlete straining to lift weight.
“Don’t put politics and ideologies above sports, and call yourself an unbiased media organization,” the embassy said on Twitter.
Even so, it was shocking last weekend when Henan’s Communist Youth League asked its 1.6 million followers on the social media platform Weibo to report the whereabouts of the BBC journalist Robin Brant, who has become a target of online harassment. Many comments under the post are menacing.
“As a student, it’s quite reasonable to walk on the street with a wrench, isn’t it?” one goes.
“As a construction worker,” another says, “it should be reasonable for me to carry a brick.”
“As a student surgeon, it should be reasonable for me to carry a scalpel,” says a third.
The next day, residents of Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan, surrounded a German TV reporter on assignment for Deutsche Welle and a reporter for The Los Angeles Times after mistaking the German reporter for Mr. Brant. The crowd got physical with the German reporter, Mathias Boelinger.
Mr. Boelinger wrote on Twitter that a group of men kept pushing him while yelling that he was a bad guy and should stop smearing China. A woman who was filming him blocked his way. When he asked who she was, she responded, “I’m Chinese.”
When one of the men said, “It’s OK if you report truthfully, having a positive view of China. Just don’t attack us,” Mr. Boelinger asked, “Can I interview you?”
The man said yes. But when Mr. Boelinger held up his camera, he objected, “Don’t interview me. I dislike you.”
Mr. Boelinger said of Mr. Brant: “I don’t know what would have happened had it really been him. The media environment in China right now is frightening.”
The BBC issued a statement on Tuesday, calling on the Chinese government to take immediate action to stop the attacks on journalists.
Since Sunday, the China-based staff for the BBC, The Los Angeles Times and others have received death threats and intimidating messages and calls, according to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China. Al Jazeera’s crew were followed and filmed while reporting outside a Zhengzhou subway station, while journalists for The Associated Press were stopped and reported to the police during filming in a public area. Journalists reporting on a submerged tunnel for the news agency Agence France-Presse were forced to delete footage by hostile residents and surrounded by several dozen men, according to the correspondents’ group.
When a few passers-by saw journalists for The New York Times conducting interviews on the streets of Zhengzhou earlier this week, they yelled at interviewees not to talk, effectively ending the conversations.
“Of course, in this age, journalists will face abuse on social media, unfortunately,” William Nee of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a nongovernmental organization based in Washington, wrote on Twitter. “But it is dangerous when the State fuels these xenophobic worldviews to achieve its own political ends, instead of creating an enabling environment for reporting.”
It is impossible to explain why so many ordinary Chinese seemed eager to attack foreign journalists covering the floods. It was a serious natural disaster and probably difficult for any city to handle. But it serves the public interest to understand whether any deaths could have been avoided.
Some people probably took their cues from the government. Last week, the Zhengzhou government quickly posted banners on the sides of the submerged tunnel saying that gawking could damage the “image” of the city.
The online mob is even more ruthless to Chinese people who dare to be critical. A journalism professor asked on Weibo why the official Henan television station had not pre-empted its regularly scheduled programming to report on the unprecedented rainfall. One commenter said he must be asking on behalf of his “American master.”
A separate post by a Chinese journalist complaining about the Zhengzhou government’s lack of transparency drew so many hateful comments that she deleted it. Online critics soon migrated to her other flood-related posts, telling her to “Go change your nationality quickly” and “Hurry up to the United States.”
The Communist Party hasn’t always been so intolerant of criticism. Former Premier Zhu Rongji said in 1998 that it was acceptable if only 51 percent of media reporting was positive. It didn’t have to be 99 percent, he said.
In the following 15 years, investigative reporting blossomed at some semi-independent publications. One of the most prominent was the Guangzhou-based newspaper Southern Weekend, which Mr. Xi went after in early 2013 after the newsroom revolted over censorship.
In just a few years, all the newspapers, including Southern Weekend, lost their edge, becoming not much different from the party news outlets.
On Wednesday, the main article on the paper’s website was a collection of quotes from Mr. Xi’s speech this month commemorating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.
The headline on the most popular article, though, asked why, despite multiple early warnings of heavy rains, the Zhengzhou government had failed to close businesses and schools.
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