The recent arrest of a Chinese state TV journalist on suspicion of assault on the fringes of a U.K. political event highlights Beijing's expectation that its journalists act as a "shining sword" for the ruling Chinese Communist Party, analysts said on Tuesday.
British police released a journalist with the Chinese state broadcaster CCTV without charge late on Monday after she was accused of slapping a volunteer during a fringe event of the ruling Conservative Party conference in Birmingham.
A video of the incident posted by the rights group Hong Kong Watch showed CCTV reporter Kong Linlin hitting the hand of party member and conference volunteer Enoch Lieu as he repeatedly put his hand on her upper arm, prodding her and ordering her to leave.
Lieu and Benedict Rogers, who chairs the Conservative Party human rights committee and Hong Kong Watch, which hosted the discussion of human rights and the erosion of freedom of speech in Hong Kong, said Kong had also slapped Lieu in the face before the video began.
Kong was then restrained by another volunteer before being arrested on suspicion of assault by Birmingham police, prompting a diplomatic protest from China. She was later released without charge "after diplomatic pressure," CCTV said in a statement.
The incident began when Kong stood up towards the end of the panel discussion and shouted at Rogers, who was refused entry to Hong Kong last year, likely at Beijing's behest, calling him a liar for claiming to be "pro-China."
"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, who had an accredited press pass for the event, shouted, according to an account posted on the Hong Kong Watch website.
A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in London called on the event organizers to apologize to Kong, adding that the Chinese Communist Party strongly objected to the content of the panel, which included pro-democracy politicians Nathan Law, Martin Lee, and Hong Kong University law lecturer Benny Tai, one of the founders of the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement, who has been lambasted by the pro-China press for discussing the concept of independence for the city in public.
"The fringe event of the Human Rights Committee of UK Conservative Party during the Party's annual conference boosted the arrogance of the anti-China separatists," the Chinese Embassy spokesman said. "It was a cause for grave concern and strong objection."
"China firmly opposes interference in Hong Kong's internal affairs by anyone or any organization in any form," he said.
A shining sword
CCTV called on the U.K. government "to safeguard the legitimate rights of Chinese journalists and ensure that such absurd incidents do not happen again."
Political commentators linked the incident to President Xi Jinping's insistence that the state media are an extension of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, sharing its aims and political goals, and acting as its mouthpiece, and that China should act with more "self-confidence" in world affairs.
Nathan Law, one of six elected lawmakers stripped of their seats in Hong Kong's Legislative Council after Beijing ruled their oaths of allegiance invalid, said via his Facebook page: "Whenever there are overseas events, the pro-China media have to show up, shout, and crack the whip, which only reveals their ignorance and guilty conscience."
Bruce Lui, senior journalism lecturer at Hong Kong's Baptist University, said state media reporters are increasingly using their professional status to promote the views of the Chinese government.
"Some mainland Chinese journalists can get very worked up, and they completely espouse the Chinese official view of things," Lui said. "They use the privilege of their press credentials to act on their government's behalf."
"This is deeply ingrained, and has a lot to do with [President] Xi Jinping's demand that [the state media act as] a 'shining sword'," he said.
Getting into disputes
Political commentator Lam Kei said the incident showed that China under Xi Jinping, who was granted an indefinite term as president by the country's rubber-stamp parliament in March, has no intention of returning to the low-key diplomacy of the past.
"Faced with a trade war with the United States, far from going back to the ... old diplomatic strategy, the Chinese Communist Party has been getting into disputes left, right, and center lately, and making enemies all over the world," Lam wrote in a commentary for RFA's Cantonese Service.
He drew a parallel between the U.K. incident and a diplomatic spat last month in which China accused Swedish police of human rights violations after they ejected three Chinese tourists from a hotel in Stockholm where they had showed up a day before their booking began.
"After the [U.K.] incident, not only did the Chinese Communist Party not lay into the reporter's words and actions; it actually piled into the fight on her behalf," Lam wrote.
"Clearly, the Chinese government thinks it has too many friends in the world, and not enough enemies."
Last month, the U.S. Justice Department demanded that China's official Xinhua News Agency and state-owned international broadcaster CGTN register as foreign agents, which could limit their access in Washington, according to reports in The Wall Street Journal and by Bloomberg news agency.
Similar measures have already been applied to the U.S. affiliates of Russia's state-run RT television network and its government-controlled Sputnik Radio, after the organizations were accused by U.S.intelligence of being part of a Moscow-led effort to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Xinhua News Agency is directly controlled by the ruling Chinese Communist Party and answers to the country's cabinet, the State Council, while CGTN is the English-language network of Beijing-based state broadcaster CCTV, under the direct control of the ruling party's Central Propaganda Department.
Hong Kong political commentator Liu Ruishao said Kong's actions were "unacceptable in a civilized society."
"Regardless of her motivation ... she should express her views in a calm and reasonable manner, not by causing a disturbance," Liu said. "These sorts of actions actually run counter to Beijing's policies."
A mixed reaction
Reaction to the incident was mixed on China's tightly controlled social media platform, Sina Weibo.
"CCTV should recruit heroes like Kong Linlin in the tens of thousands and send them off to the biggest cities in the world, where they can create disturbances and assault staff at events and meetings that go against our views," wrote user Chenggong Shang'an, in an apparently humorous comment to a CCTV post on the story.
"That way, the slaps of China could resound all around the world..."
But many others responded with support for Kong Linlin's political opposition to the panel discussion, using thumbs-up emoticons and images of the Chinese national flag.
Some agreed with her ideas but found her behavior inappropriate. "Politically correct but not done in the right way," commented user Aya Aruba.
Others were unhappy that the video and photos of the event showed Kong being manhandled by conference staff.
"The foreigner's hand is on the reporter's chest," one complained.
"Actually, if it were me, I might hit him," wrote a user called Donuts0retailer-department. "Because if as a lady, I was restrained by a strange man, and he still pointed at me with his finger like that, it would make me feel invaded ...It is very impolite."
"That would be enough to make me angry, regardless of the talk about national sovereignty issues."
Reported by Gao Feng for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Pan Jiaqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.