Chinese, just as in English, quotation marks can indicate attribution, doubt, or dismissiveness. And just like in the United States, terrorism is a sensitive issue in China, where disaffected citizens have at times used violence for political ends. In such an environment, employing quotation marks around a highly-politicized word like terrorism can be combustible.
On the evening of March 1, a group of knife-wielding assailants dressed in black burst into a crowded railway station in Kunming, the capital of China’s southwest Yunnan province, and slashed travelers, passersby, and police, killing 29 and injuring 143, including children and the elderly. Police shot dead four assailants at the scene, and say they have captured all the surviving suspects. Eleven hours after the attack, China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency announced that based on evidence found at the crime scene, separatists from the northwest Chinese region of Xinjiang are behind the terrorist attack. (So far, no groups or individuals have claimed responsibility, and Beijing released the name of one alleged perpetrator.)
Following the Xinhua report, many major Western media outlets covering the event, including The New York Times, CNN, Reuters, BBC, and CBC of Canada, used quotation marks around the word “terrorism,” some in the article’s headline, some in the body, and some in both. Chinese Internet users and domestic media were quick to notice this punctuation choice, and a storm of anger against perceived Western bias quickly brewed on Sina Weibo, China’s largest microblogging platform.
While some Weibo users interpreted the quotation marks as attribution to the Chinese government’s official statements, which most Western media outlets usually take with a grain of salt, many detected sympathy with separatist aspirations in Xinjiang, or what one called an “obvious agenda.” Another wrote that some of the articles about the Kunming attacks ended “with the Han Chinese’s invasion of Xinjiang’s religion and culture,” which “turned the carnage of civilians into a political game.” (Xinjiang became part of China in 1949, after Communist troops entered the region.) Tech entrepreneur Luo Yonghao tweeted to his 5.8 million followers that “uniformed thugs indiscriminately killing innocent civilians undoubtedly constitutes terrorism.” He wrote that he had always admired the West, but “cannot stand” the way Western media first reported the Kunming attack.
Chinese state media did not sit on the sidelines. The People’s Daily, a Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece, also took to Weibo to demand an explanation from Western media for their “blindness and deafness” and “intentional downplaying of the violence and sympathy toward the assailants.” “China sympathized with the September 11 terrorist attack,” it wrote in a popular tweet. “But some American media harbored double standards regarding the Kunming terrorist attack. Why?”
A post by the official account of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing fueled the outrage. It did not, as many Chinese had hoped, characterize the attack as terrorism, but instead called it a “senseless act of violence.” Almost all of the more than 50,000 comments left on the post accused the U.S. Embassy of a double standard when it comes to violence in China. “If the Kunming attack were a ‘horrific, senseless act of violence,’” the most up-voted comment reads, “then the 9/11 attack in New York City would be a ‘regrettable traffic accident.’” (The United Nations Security Council released a statement late Sunday condemning “in the strongest terms the terrorist attack.”)
Some of the fallout from the embassy’s statement stems from an unfortunate translation. “Senseless violence,” a common diplomatic phrase the Obama administration has also used to describe the 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, which killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya, read as “meaningless violence” in Chinese. Many Chinese web users, likely already attuned for signs of disrespect, took that to mean the U.S. sympathized with the assailants. The violence did not serve its supposed purpose, the message seemed to say, but the assailants’ goals could be achieved by some other means.
Perceived bias from Western media has roiled Chinese public opinion before. In the spring of 2008, Western media drew widespread criticism in China over coverage of ethnic clashes in Tibet and Xinjiang that many Chinese believed underplayed violence perpetrated by ethnic minorities. In the run-up to the August 2008 Beijing Olympics, many Chinese seethed against Western coverage of the Olympic torch relay, which often focused on the disruptions of the relay by human rights activists. In early 2008, some young Chinese Internet users set up a website called Anti-CNN to call out what they believed was biased reporting on China and, according to China’s foreign ministry, to reflect grassroots “condemnation” of some Western media’s “distorted and exaggerated” views.
These developments are troubling for U.S. – China relations, but not entirely surprising. In a digital age, it’s relatively easy for wired citizens of one country to peer into the media environment of another. But old-fashioned cultural, political, and linguistic barriers remain. Even — perhaps especially — at times of tragedy, the combination often spurs more pique than understanding.