avatar
Yi Lu

After Christopher Stevens’ Death, Ugly Talk Abounds on China’s Internet

President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton honor the Benghazi victims at Andrews Air Force Base. By U.S. Department of State via Wikimedia Commons

[Warning: This article contains a graphic image.]

As with the rest of the world, few Chinese knew what J. Christopher Stevens, the former U.S. ambassador to Libya, looked like before his violent death in Benghazi, Libya made international news on September 11. Yet within just 24 hours of the tragedy, a misidentified photo of Stevens had circulated wildly on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, turning a martyr of peace into a ready symbol of American foreign policy.  As waves of unrest from the Middle East convulsed the world, rumors and inflammatory remarks also flared on China’s Internet, revealing not only rising anti-American sentiments in the country but also earnest anxieties about China’s diplomatic challenges abroad.

The wheel of rumor first started spinning on September 12, when @旅法杂谈 posted a picture of a man raising his thumb over a battered corpse whom he identified as Col. Muammar el-Gaddafi. “There is an old African saying,” the netizen wrote. “‘Those who haven’t made it to the other shore should not laugh at those who have already drowned.’ On October 20, 2011, Gaddafi, the son of Africa, was brutally killed. U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, at his side, gave a thumbs-up and cheered. 321 days later, however, his own corpse was pushed and dragged along the streets of Benghazi.”{{1}}[[1]] 【非洲有句老话: 还没有达到对岸的,别嘲笑已被淹死的】2011年10月20号, 非洲儿子卡扎菲被残忍地杀害。美国大使克里斯托弗·史蒂文斯,在其尸体旁边,竖起大拇指, 嘲笑、表示快乐。321天后,他自己的尸体,被反拖在班加西的街头。[[1]]

Among Chinese netizens, however, the African axiom did not register. Instead, their own cheering quickly began. Though the photo showed, even at its highest resolution, only a grainy portrait of a man whose angular features loosely resembled that of Stevens, most people believed that they had found the epitome of American hegemony. Within 24 hours, the post was forwarded more than 3,000 times on Weibo with more than 800 comments. The vindictive tone was unmistakable.

That is Andrew Malone of the Daily Mail over Gaddafi's corpse, not Christopher Stevens

“I was just enjoying the news about the attack on the U.S. ambassador to Libya,” wrote @阳光高杨, who self-identified as the editor-in-chief of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference Journal (人民政协报). “I hope these kind of attacks directed at American officials engulf the world as soon as possible! They could adjust their sights upward a bit. For example: the U.S. President, Secretary of State, Deputy Secretary of State, and every cabinet secretary! All people opposed to the Americans and opposed to the Japanese should take action!”{{2}}[[2]] 【刚才欣闻美国驻利比亚大使遇难,希望这样的针对美国官员袭击尽快席卷全球!还可以将袭击目标往上抬高些,比如美国总统、国务卿、副国务卿,以及各部长!】让全世界反美反日的人民行动起来![[2]]

The comment was quickly removed from Sina Weibo as hate speech, but its residues, as well as the anti-American sentiments that had inspired the comment, lingered and spread. For some, gloating took the form of self-congratulation. “It turned out that ancient Chinese were the smartest,” wrote @HR帝-李晶. “Life is not without final judgment. It’s only a matter of time!”{{3}}[[3]] 还是中国古人有智慧:不是不报,时候未到! [[3]]

There were, to be sure, rational voices. Amid Weibo’s smug and strident climate, many netizens, like @安普若-安校长, pointed out that the man in question was not Stevens, but was a journalist from the Daily Mail in Britain, Andrew Malone, who had posted photographs of his inspection of Gaddafi’s corpse online. In another post, @欢欢在法国, a netizen in France, quickly traced the photo’s misuse to a French news blog. The owner of the blog, Allain Jules, first accused Stevens of posing as a crouching figure over a battered Gaddafi. On his blog, Jules claimed that he was a former researcher on Medieval History at the University of Paris IV, Sorbonne and a student at IRIS (Institute of International and Strategic Relations.)

Despite efforts to bust the myth, the damage was already done. By September 13, the Chinese Internet was aflame. Keywords such as “American Ambassador” (“美国大使”) had ascended to Sina Weibo’s top-10 list. Joining strident anti-American discourses flaring across the globe, many Chinese netizens took advantage of the opportunity to vent their pent-up anger against the United States and its foreign policy.

“The violent assault against a U.S. ambassador and three other diplomats must be condemned, but it was also a direct result of U.S. Foreign policy,” wrote @博联社马晓霖. “The Libyan War, created by the U.S. government, left behind a disintegrating society where rebels sliced up the country and ruled in violence. In retrospect, it was the U.S. assault against Islamic civilization—or in defense of Islamic freedom, as they called it—that sowed today’s seeds of violence. The tragic death of four diplomats was America’s own doing.”{{4}}[[4]] 【自食其果】美国驻利比亚大使及其他三名外交官被攻击使馆的武装暴徒杀害。这是必须受到谴责的暴行,同时也是美国自食其果。美国政府主导的利比亚战争造成战后武装林立,部落割据和治安恶化。美国文化以自由名义而对伊斯兰文明的肆意诋毁和攻击早就埋下仇恨的祸根,终究以4位外交官丧命而付出代价。[[4]]

Some comments took on a less accusatory tone. “I guess elite media will soon publish glowing stories about the ambassador and his family’s loss,” wrote @汪海林, who suggested that U.S. hegemony was hardly exclusive to politics. “These stories will leave you sad, sympathetic, and of course, angry. There is truth in all this hype, to be sure, but for all the Libyans who perished in these conflicts, we will probably never read any sympathetic reports of them on such media. This is what ’the right to speech’ (话语权) means.” {{5}}[[5]] 我预计,很快,精英媒体会采编出美国大使的温馨故事,他的家人的悲痛,让你觉得这是一个好父亲好干部,让人看了以后会难过、同情、悲愤。诚然,这些都是真的。但是,之前在利比亚死去的利比亚人,我们可能永远无法在这些媒体上看到任何一段关于他们的带有一点点同情的文字。 这就叫话语权。[[5]]

On September 14, after an outpouring of anti-American comments over two days, Yahoo China, one of the country’s major news portals, released a new issue of its online magazine, Focus (焦点关注), urging netizens to maintain rational discourse. “Refrain from gloating over U.S. Ambassador’s death,” reads the title page, which ended with a self-referential line: “Foreign embassies and consulates are extensions of a sovereign country, and diplomats are under amnesty from international conflicts—Chinese anti-Japanese protestors should keep this in mind, too.”{{6}}[[6]] 使馆是派遣国领土的延伸,大使享有国际法赋予的豁免权——这句话也转给保钓者.[[6]] On Saturday, violent anti-Japanese demonstrations roiled throughout mainland China. Hundreds of protestors threw rocks and eggs at the Japanese Embassy in Beijing, while smaller confrontations erupted in up to 40 Chinese cities.

But Yahoo China promptly undermined its own effort to promote good will.  On top of the section page, Yahoo created a poll with a simple question: “How do you feel about the U.S. ambassador’s violent death?” The results were unflattering. As of time of publication of this article, more than 3,000 people responded that the attacks were “karma,” the result of the United States acting as the “world policeman.” In contrast, only about 1,300 netizens believed the attack was an extremist event instigated by a few. Fewer than 400, or less than 10% of the total respondents, believed that it was a “tragic clash” between Islamic and Christian civilizations.   

While their content was troubling, recent incendiary comments on Weibo suggested something deeper than mere anti-Americanism. The misleading photograph purporting to show Stevens was a kind of “wish rumor”—a rumor that begins primarily because those who sustain it wish it to be true. Chinese netizens have seemed more willing to fault the U.S. entirely for the crisis in the Middle East than to consider the complex origins of the recent violence. The picture, in this regard, helped to confirm the long-held Chinese assumption about American hegemony in the world.

On the other hand, such rumors thrived because they gave expression to some netizens’ own anxieties about China’s projection of its own power abroad. “The United States planted a new regime in Libya, and that very regime turned its back by killing the American ambassador. At the same time, in East Asia, U.S. foreign policy set off the Senkaku dispute,” wrote @王育琨, who identified himself on Weibo as Director of Entrepreneurship Research Center at Peking University (北大企业家研究中心主任). “By pitting China against Japan, the Americans created an opportunity to bolster its role in the region. But the Americans outsmarted themselves: Taiwan and China are now in a united front, and all Chinese are now awakened with painful memories of the Japanese invasion!”{{7}}[[7]] 美国扶植的利比亚新政权枪杀了美国大使,美中东战略棋局一团糟。在东亚却看似走出了一步妙棋:一改中立立场,发起钓鱼岛纷争,引发中日的敌视,突出了美国人的国家利益。美国没想到,制造矛盾和危机,1、却使中国两岸人(李登辉除外)真正走到了一起;2、唤醒了昏睡中的中国人日本侵华的历史的记忆![[7]]

In today’s increasingly volatile environment, Japan is hardly the only diplomatic challenge confronting the Chinese government. As China continues to expand its influence abroad, so grow its responsibilities. As confrontations between Chinese businesses in Africa and the local populations escalate, the recent assault against the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya seems to provide a telling example of what could shadow China’s presence abroad in future years. “From the day Gaddaffi’s corpse was battered to the U.S. ambassador’s death today, the Libyan people have been waiting for real democracy,” wrote @Kayo_Yeung. “The people long oppressed under Gaddaffi were liberated from their dictator, but they were not liberated from their mindset. Without critical thinking, they are only puppets in power struggles.”{{8}}[[8]] 暴君卡扎菲死了,但他的时代对民众的影响并没有远去,长期处于压迫统治下的人民没有自己主张与意识,终究还是沦为各方势力操纵的木偶,野心者以及地方武装利用的对象。从卡扎菲死去尸体惨遭蹂躏到今日美国驻利比亚大使遇袭身亡尸体被游街示众,利比亚人民都是在渴求真真正正的民主制度![[8]] While rumors about Christopher Stevens served as handy vehicles for anti-foreign sentiment in the short run, China will need to sustain mounting pressure on its own diplomacy abroad once the cheering fades away. 

This article also appears on the Atlantic, a Tea Leaf Nation partner site.

7 Comments
Jump To Comments
avatar

Yi Lu

Born and raised in Shanghai, China, Yi Lu (Louis) is a junior studying History and French at Amherst College. Though fluent in Chinese, English, and French, he never fully feels at home in any. With writing, however, he hopes to weave together dissonant languages and cultures, and create a unifying story of truth and meaning.
  • Guess

    It is a real pity that good men have to die this way. Even more tragic is the fact that one of the security officer killed is a strong advocate of religious tolerence, and the irony is that he was directly and indirectly killed by religious fanatics. May their souls rest in peace.

  • Guess

    It is a real pity that good men have to die this way. Even more tragic is the fact that one of the security officer killed is a strong advocate of religious tolerence, and the irony is that he was directly and indirectly killed by religious fanatics. May their souls rest in peace.

  • Toxoplasma

    Well written article, thanks.

  • Toxoplasma

    Well written article, thanks.

  • Pingback: U.S. Ambassador’s Death Draws Cheers and an Ugly Rumor on China’s Web | Atlantic

  • baopuANDu

    Well done.

  • baopuANDu

    Well done.