FT reporter punched while interviewing Sichuan quake mother: video by mattsteinglass
May 15, 2009, 11:40 am
Filed under: China, Media

The Financial Times has a terrific video up by reporter Jamil Anderlini, who tried to do a video interview with the mother of a child killed in the Sichuan earthquake, only to have a black-clad man emerge from an unmarked black sedan, punch him in the face and try to take his camera. The segment continues as more plainclothes secret police surround him and hit him, he calls the police, the police arrive and do nothing to protect him, and he finally leaves out of concern for the safety of the mother. The video tops it all off with a sequence from a press conference of the Vice Head of Propaganda for the Sichuan Party Committee denying that any reporters have been interfered with.

In fairness to the Vice Head and to the Chinese government, it is true that attitudes among local officials tend to lag far behind those of more progressive officials in metropolitan centers in Communist countries like China and Vietnam. There are genuinely forward-looking people in Beijing and Hanoi (and Chengdu, one assumes) who believe in the role of the press in exposing malfeasance; China’s new national rules (introduced last year) allowing freedom of operation to foreign correspondents are probably not a deliberate sham, but a progressive move that’s being resisted by other actors in the system. If local officials in Sichuan are responsible for shoddy school construction that led to student deaths in last year’s earthquake, they obviously don’t want to comply with directives from Beijing to allow reporters to find that out.

But it’s also true that these issues run much deeper than a few progressive rule changes by well-meaning officials can go. We’re talking about a society-wide, culturally embedded antipathy to freedom of information and expression — not perhaps among the educated classes and intelligentsia in Beijing and Shanghai and Ho Chi Minh City, but among average people in the provinces. When I was in China two weeks ago I tried to interview people who were involved in the big Yang Zhimou-directed light-and-dance show in Yangshuo, “Impression Liu Sanjie”, basically for a puff piece. First I got in touch with the office manager. He said he’d need approval from the big bosses, he was busy, he stopped responding to phone calls. Then I contacted two Zhuang-minority dancers. They said yes, then said they’d have to ask their bosses, who said no. I finally ended up interviewing an electrician who works on the lighting. He responded to various innocuous questions for twenty minutes or so, then asked: “Why are you asking me all these questions?” I had to repeat that I was writing an article for the foreign press. Then he withdrew his cooperation with the interview. If his bosses saw it, he said, he’d get into trouble. I finally calmed him down and he agreed to let me use his responses, for what they were worth. But it was an even higher level of anxiety than I’m used to encountering in Vietnam, just severe press-phobia. Entirely rational, given the potential consequences, but ultimately a debilitating attitude for a society to take towards its own ability to speak publicly.


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