On November 27, Chinese police assaulted and arrested a BBC journalist covering a COVID-19 protest in Shanghai, according to the British national broadcaster. Video of the incident had circulated on social media.
The arrest came as protests swept China following public outrage over a deadly fire in an apartment building in Urumqi, the capital of far western Xinjiang province. Many in China believe that the COVID-19 restrictions delayed firefighters’ rescue efforts.
Demonstrators voiced fury over China’s increasingly costly zero-COVID policy, the stringent approach to the pandemic championed by President Xi Jinping. Protests in Shanghai and Beijing even called for the removal of Xi and the ruling Communist Party. The widespread protests became a show of public defiance unprecedented since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
After the BBC condemned reporter Edward Lawrence’s arrest as unjustified, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian objected.
On November 29, Zhao accused the BBC of “twist[ing] the story,” and BBC journalist Lawrence of “refus[ing] to cooperate with the police’s law enforcement efforts” and “act[ing] as if he were a victim.” Then he compared the case to how “the British government treat journalists”:
“You probably recall that a few years ago, [a] Chinese journalist was repeatedly hampered and even physically assaulted and eventually convicted by a British court, only because she had exercised her legitimate right as a journalist and raised a question to express her opinions at a fringe event of the Conservative Party’s conference.
“Graham Phillips, a UK journalist, became the first British citizen placed on the country’s sanctions list, only because he had created media content not to the liking of the west.”
Trouble is, Zhao twists the fact about those examples, leaving out important context to create a false equivalence. Let's look at what’s missing.
CCTV's Kong Linlin
Though he did not name her, Zhao was apparently referring in the first example to the widely reported case of Kong Linlin, a journalist with China’s state broadcaster CCTV.
Kong was convicted in November 2019 of slapping a volunteer at an event devoted to “the erosion of freedom, the rule of law and autonomy in Hong Kong” held at the Conservative Party of Britain’s annual conference in September 2018.
Although Kong denied assaulting volunteer Enoch Lieu and claimed that Lieu manhandled her first, the Birmingham Magistrates' Court found Kong guilty of assault.
Here is what happened, according to multiple news reports and video evidence of the incident presented in the court.
At a September 30, 2018, panel discussion hosted by the U.K. rights organization Hong Kong Watch, Benedict Rogers, a British human-rights activist, concluded his speech by saying: “I am pro-China, not anti-China. I want China and its people to succeed.”
Kong, covering the event for CCTV, started heckling Rogers: “You are a liar. You are anti-China. You want to separate China. And you are not even Chinese.”
“The rest are all traitors,” Kong shouted, referring to the Hong Kong pro-democracy activists on the panel. “You guys are trying to separate China,” she shouted, calling the panelists “Hong Kong puppets” and “fake Chinese.”
Lieu then approached Kong and asked her “in a neutral tone” to “please leave” the event, according to Lieu’s testimony in the court.
Shortly after the incident, Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported:
“Video of Sunday’s incident appeared to show Lieu gently pushing Kong away as she heckled a speaker at the event. ‘Leave me alone,’ she told Lieu before appearing to slap him, the video showed. ‘You have no right, I am a journalist,’ she was heard to say.”
Lieu told the court that he was slapped on the left cheek.
“He said the slap had such force that it was heard eight seats away by another delegate, who turned to see Kong’s hand raised up to her own ear as she was following through on the strike,” The Guardian reported.
In the video, Kong was heard repeatedly shouting “Hong Kong puppet” at Lieu before hitting his elbow. “Oh, how democratic U.K.! You’re so proud of it,” Kong shouted, as she was restrained by security and removed. She was arrested and later released pending an investigation.
According to Hong Kong-based news website Hong Kong Free Press, Kong’s lawyer said in the court that “what had happened was that this lady had been shouting out questions to the panel – journalists do that in order to get information. You stepped in and confronted her. The simple reality is that you started to manhandle her.”
Lieu denied the allegation, insisting he did not put a hand on Kong.
Delivering his verdict on November 29, 2019, District Judge Shamim Qureshi said:
“I conclude the defendant responded in two ways. The first was by slapping Mr. Lieu, and the second was by later pushing his arm away. The first clearly amounts to a criminal assault, but the second does not. In my view, it was in the heat of the moment that the defendant lost her cool professionalism as a journalist and instead became an impassioned heckler.”
Qureshi sentenced Kong to a 12-month conditional discharge and ordered her to pay a victim surcharge and £100 compensation, totaling £2,115, the BBC reported. Kong’s lawyer told the judge that she would appeal the conviction and sentence.
China’s Embassy in London had called the incident “unacceptable” in 2018.
“In a country that boasts freedom of speech, it is puzzling that the Chinese journalist should encounter obstruction in such a way and even assault at the fringe event when she simply raised a question and expressed her opinions,” the embassy said.
The embassy also urged “the UK side to take concrete steps to protect our journalist’s legitimate rights and avoid such absurd incidents from happening again.”
Zhao called Graham Phillips “a UK journalist” whom the British government sanctioned “only because he had created media content not to the liking of the West.”
That portrayal is grossly misleading.
Phillips is a British video blogger known for his pro-Kremlin reporting from Russian-occupied territory in Ukraine.
“Phillips – the first UK citizen to be added to the growing sanctions list – has long been a controversial figure, receiving medals from the Russian state for his reporting. He has consistently toed the Russian line on the war, suggesting in recent weeks that Ukraine is run by Nazis and that the massacre of Ukrainians in Bucha was staged.”
In a statement explaining the move, the British government described Phillips as “a video blogger who has produced and published media content that supports and promotes actions and policies which destabilise Ukraine and undermine or threaten the territorial integrity, sovereignty or independence of Ukraine.”
In April, Phillipps was accused in the British parliament of potential war crimes for his video interview of Aiden Aslin, a British national captured by Russian forces while fighting with the Ukrainian troops in the besieged city of Mariupol.
Aslin, then facing death penalty, appeared in a 45-minute video posted on Phillipps’ YouTube channel. He was handcuffed while Phillips questioned him.
Aslin’s relatives and his local member of parliament, Robert Jenrick, said Aslin was interviewed “under duress” after having been physically injured. Jenrick accused Phillips of breaching the Geneva conventions on the treatment of prisoners and said Phillipps was “in danger of prosecution for war crimes.”
Then British Prime Minister Boris Johnson condemned the interview, describing it as a pro-Russian “propaganda message,” The Guardian reported.
YouTube removed the video and halted advertising revenue to Phillips' account, according to the BBC.
On September 17, 2016, Phillips conducted an abusive interview of Ukrainian soldier Volodymyr Zhemchugov, who had been blinded and lost his arms on the battlefield, during an exchange of prisoners in Russian-occupied Donbas.
Phillipps questioned and verbally assaulted Zhemchugov minutes before he was reunited with family members after nearly a year of Russian captivity.
In a five-minute video, Phillips repeatedly called Zhemchugov a “zombie” and said he was “not that smart of a guy clearly” since he had lost his arms in battle.
“Who brainwashed you? You speak like a brainwashed zombie … Who needs you now, with no arms?” Phillips can be heard saying in the video.
Phillips has a track record of producing pro-Kremlin, anti-West videos as early as 2014, following the Russian invasion of Crimea. He was briefly employed by the Kremlin-backed broadcaster Russia Today as a freelance videographer.
Polygraph.info has previously reported on how Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao falsely claimed that “the reporting environment for foreign correspondents in China is open and free.”