In China, the state media has a long history of using Cultural Revolution-style stock phrases to marginalize protests. “Mass incidents” are usually framed as unfortunate results of “masses who don’t know the truth” being provoked by “a small group of people with ulterior motives” and “evil forces plotting behind the scenes.” Such evil forces with ulterior motives, more often than not, refer to oversea anti-China individuals or groups. This weekend, a not-in-my-backyard protest in the Southern city of Ningbo put on a live show of how the “evil forces” and “the masses who don’t know the truth” came to work together.
This past weekend, hundreds of residents in Zhenhai, Ningbo, took to the streets to protest the expansion of a refining and petrochemicals fancily run by a unit under the state-controlled Sinopec Group. On Sunday, hundreds of protesters marched the streets of Ningbo and formed a standoff with riot police in front of the city’s municipal government building. There were reported cases of violent clashes with police, use of tear gas and arrests. As of now, local government seemed to bow to protests and already agreed to suspend the project. Protests seemed to wane down, too, after government announcement.
In retrospect, a scene in front of Ningbo municipal government on Sunday probably reveals a much more telling story about Chinese society today than the protest itself – the appearance of two foreign journalists was welcomed by protesters like saviors.
British reporter Angus Walker talked to an old lady in front of Ningbo municipal government building.
According to people who were at the scene, the two journalists (one is found to be Angus Walker from ITV) were welcomed by protesters like long-lost family members. Like netizen Ccccccccbr, a protesting student at the scene, commented: “Seeing those foreign journalists is like seeing long-lost beloved ones. The people of Ningbo welcome you.”
And Ccccccccbr wasn’t along. 我们呛声 remembered: “The crowd willingly made room for the two British journalists. Some even lifted the camera man up so that he can have a better view. It was such a touching moment. When they were about to leave, an old lady said to them, ‘Please don’t leave. As soon as you guys leave, they [riot police] will start beating protesters.’” Why did the old lady say so? Netizen 果果陈 described a scene that may explain: “Seeing two foreign journalists approaching with cameras, the riot police retreated behind the gate of the municipal government headquarter. People started to cheer. An old gentleman besides me said, ‘After so many years of liberation, we still need to depend on foreigner.’”
It seemed that, in the sight of foreign journalists, Ningbo riot police restrained from what they’ve been doing, probably out of the fear of leaving another “China violently cracked down environmental protesters” picture in the hands of foreign media. But such retreat didn’t earn them any credit. Netizen 深蓝兔 thus summarized her protesting experience on Sunday: “It’s sad. Chinese citizens, the people of Ningbo, needed to reply on foreigners for protection. It’s a woe for all Chinese.”
Camera man held up by protesters
The woe also lies in the non action on the part of local Chinese media, either due to government censorship or self censorship. Many netizens asked: “In a event like the Ningbo NIMBY protest, where are Chinese journalists?” 何光伟, a Chinese journalist, commented: “I feel so uneasy after seeing Ningbo people eagerly lifted foreign journalists up. China is undergoing a peak time of controversial news. Yet news killers are many. Nowadays in China, we only have media professionals, but no real media. Most media professionals work with chains on hands. This is truly a national woe.”
A very disheartening lesson from this scene is that Chinese people, especially those in trouble, trust foreign media way more than official voices, or any voices at all, in China. Like Internet celebrity and popular liberal intellectual 五岳散人 commented: “Those people in Ningbo eagerly lifted the foreign journalists up so that they can have a better view to record Chinese government’s wrong-doings.”
There is an urban legend in China that back in the last few years of Qing Dynasty, when the Eight Nation Alliance was trying to climb over Beijing’s city walls to invade the city, local residents helped support ladders for the Allied Force soldiers. Today’s scene in Ningbo where protesters held up a foreign camera man easily reminded many of what may have happened in Qing Dynasty. In a time when Chinese people need to read foreign press for news on their own corrupted officials, it’s a no-brainer that foreign media, with the help of censorship in China, has established themselves as the trusted source of information among Chinese people.
The masses may not know the truth, nor would they recognize who are the evil forces, but they clearly know who can bring them help when they are in need. After all, the Chinese people are known for being pragmatic. Like an old Chinese saying goes “when the country sees no people. The people will see no country.”