Grabbed by heavy-handed riot police at Chinese protests

Angus Walker

Former ITV News Correspondent

Riot police marched in Ningbo as thousands protested chemical plant construction plans. Credit: Carlos Barria / Reuters

"Calm down, you are being stupid," the policeman screamed at me. Seconds before, out of the dark, he'd run up to me and grabbed me by the arm. He started to pull me towards the gates of a government building which had been the focus of protests for days. Hundreds of riot police were milling around the entrance. They'd just forced the crowds demanding the government scrap plans to build a chemical plant near the city of Ningbo away into side streets.

I had just walked towards the gates to take a photo (below). To the right of the photo you can just make out a bus, to the left are the ranks of riot police, their helmets glinting in the bright lights. Now, four officers had hold of me by both arms and were dragging me towards that vehicle. I thought I was about to get a beating. I know of three foreign reporters who've been roughed up by the authorities in China and I thought this was my turn. After all, we'd been the unlikely and reluctant 'heroes' of Ningbo throughout the day of protests.

With a domestic news blackout imposed by the government on coverage of the chemical plant protests, we found ourselves the only TV broadcast crew filming the demonstrations. There was a cameraman from the AP news agency as well, but that was it. The Chinese state media had been told to stay away. The internet was blocked as well - an attempt to stop photos and videos getting out.

In less than two weeks China's new leaders will be appointed. There's a consensus that the new President and Premier will have to bring in long awaited political reforms. Changes, it's believed, have to include giving people more of a say in government decisions.

Here was an example of how people feel they have had a decision made to build a chemical plant without their consultation. What did they want to say to their new leaders? We spent 12 hours covering the march to the government offices and the standoff between protesters and the police which lasted into the night. The crowds cheered us and applauded, thousands of people parted and helped us, offering food, water and saying "thank you", "help us" and "please don't leave".

Almost everyone had a smartphone, hundreds of photos were taken of us and posted on Chinese Weibo, a cross between Twitter and Facebook. An estimated 300,000,000 people use social media in China. The photos were reposted thousands and thousands of times with some people adding messages like "Chinese media should be ashamed of themselves" and "protesters weep as they see foreign media at protests in Ningbo".

This was not what we wanted. No reporter wants to become the story. We are not heroes or saviours, we just wanted to report what was happening. We'd filmed the local officials try to speak to the crowds through a loud hailer only be drowned out by the singing of the national anthem. This was a patriotic protest. No one wanted to change the government, they wanted the government to change. We'd interviewed protesters talking about their hopes and their desire to be heard.

The photos now circulating and the massive roar from the crowd whenever we appeared made us uncomfortable. We were being seen as supporters of the protest. "Thank you for supporting us," people said to me. There's a fine line between being a foreign reporter in China and being seen as a troublemaker, stirring up people and inflaming the situation. Politely, I asked people not to draw attention to us. It didn't work. We were greeted like rock stars throughout the day. More than a dozen people came up to me and claimed that as long as we were there, the police would not use violence.

Now this newfound, unwelcome fame on the streets of Ningbo was being used against me. I had just been dragged, against my will, onto the bus. The officer screamed "you have been very stupid, you have been making the situation worse". Nose to nose the officer shouted in my face. "Where are your photos?" "What is your password?". My phone rang - my producer trying to find me - and the phone was pulled from my hands. "You trying to be stupid?" he screamed. "What is this?" he pulled at the radio microphone clipped to my shirt. "It's a radio microphone," I replied. "It's a recording device," he shouted back. He pulled the wire from out under my shirt. The main unit was in my back pocket and I handed it over.

Photos of Angus Walker reporting spread rapidly through Chinese social media.

"I'm a journalist," I said in Chinese. He and the other five officers standing now around me in front of the bus glared at me. I looked down the bus, a row of sullen, nervous faces stared back at me. About 10 protesters, who'd been arrested.

"Women qu nar (Where are we going)", I asked. "The police station?"

"Be quiet" I was told.

The bus started moving but crowds of protesters were blocking the street. Lines of riot police ran past the bus, their aim: to clear a path. I watched as the snatch squads dragged around 10 people from the crowds. They were slung through the doors of the bus, pushed and shoved, screamed at and forced onto the seats. The buses still couldn't leave, scuffles had broken out. Protesters had been forced back but there were still hundreds refusing to disperse. I kept catching the eyes of young protesters, grim faced, resigned to a night in the cells. Maybe worse.

Suddenly the officer who had first grabbed me, the one who'd been shouting, came back on the bus. His voice was quieter. "So you are a journalist? Can you show me some ID?" I was taken off the bus and met the man from the local foreign affairs office. He said I will take you away from here, back to your hotel. We warned your producer to be careful about your safety, he said. As we walked away I glanced back at the bus, guiltily.

I was made to write a 'confession', for want of a better word. I was told to write that I had not been hurt. "I was not beaten," I wrote. I also said that throughout the day we had no interference from the police, which is absolutely true. They also wanted me to add that we had been reminded by the local foreign affairs office to be in a safe place. I was told to write a balanced report. Which is always the intention.

To be fair, the government had met protesters on Saturday and by Sunday evening the decision to build the chemical plant producing the feared PX compound, used in plastic bottles, had been scrapped.

Outside the gates of the local government HQ, minutes after the U-turn was made public, the people I spoke to didn't believe it. Many refused to leave the gates after the announcement was made because they were demanding the release of people arrested. Many were accusing the police of beatings and showing us photos of bleeding protesters. One person messaged me saying: "The Chinese Communist Party always do that, they will beat and arrest protesters after they deliver a compromise claim".

Now the protesters wait to see if the compromise reached after days of often violent confrontations will last. The project to expand the state run chemical plant was going to bring almost £5.5 billion worth of investment to a new industrial zone near Ningbo. A costly climb down.

This protest is just one of a recent series of so called 'mass incidents' against projects which people claim will damage the environment. Official figures suggest Chinese people are increasingly worried about the impact of massive rapid economic growth on their land and lives.

During a national people's congress seminar on October 26, Yang Zaohui from the China environmental science study said protests related to the environment had increased by 29% year on year since 1996. Fewer than 1% of the cases have been settled by consultation between people and Party.