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Yiqin Fu

The T-Word — Chinese are Angry at Western Media’s Portrayal of the Kunming Attack

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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 TimesCNNReutersBBC, 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.

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Yiqin Fu

Born and raised in Nanjing, China, Yiqin Fu is a frequent contributor to Tea Leaf Nation.
  • saf

    “Xinjiang became part of China in 1949, after Communist troops entered the region
    Xinjiang became part
    of China in 1949, after Communist troops entered the region. – See more
    at:
    http://www.tealeafnation.com/2014/03/the-t-word-chinese-are-angry-at-western-medias-portrayal-of-the-kunming-attack/#sthash.rxdMu9AF.dpuf
    (Xinjiang became part
    of China in 1949, after Communist troops entered the region.) – See
    more at:
    http://www.tealeafnation.com/2014/03/the-t-word-chinese-are-angry-at-western-medias-portrayal-of-the-kunming-attack/#sthash.rxdMu9AF.dpuf

    General Tso (yes, the chicken guy was a real person) must be turning over in his grave.

    If Xinjiang only became part of China in 1949, then one can argue that Hainan wasn’t Chinese until 1950 when the Communists took over.

    • poisson

      You can definitely argue that. The ROC only had nominal control of territories outside of Jiangsu/Zhejiang through warlord affiliations in the 20s and 30s and obviously no control during the SIno-Japanese war. Xinjiang, other outer provinces and even some inner ones were effectively independent, i.e. warlord-ruled, from the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 to 1949.The concept of bygone vassal states from previous dynastic eras automatically belonging to whatever current regime, which technically has “nothing” to do with previous dynasties, succeeds in gaining power in the core provinces is a bastardized version of irredentism.

      The key point to take away from all this noise is, tensions between Han and non-Han Chinese will probably never amount to anything. The current CCP version of this incident may very well be a diversion used to mask more sinister developments. There’s simply too many Han people and the recognized minorities have no military resources. However, intra-Han tension has always existed and almost always resulted in warlordism when central rule was weak throughout history. Han Chinese is a modern political denomination that doesn’t reflect the vast cultural differences that exist, and in a different context, say if Chinese were more like Europeans in terms of self-determination, would have resulted in dozens, if not hundreds, of independent states eons ago. The current economic setup of funneling the lion’s share of economic resources to 北上广 certainly does nothing to alleviate this dormant volcano that’s always going to exist.

      • saf

        First, Xinjiang wasn’t a “vassal state” under the Qing. It was made a province. Second, the idea of avoiding one’s home region during official assignments had its origins in the Western Han. Third, Han Chinese is most certainly not a modern denomination. Sure, definitions change, but basing imaginary orders only on the most recent political developments is misguided. If Hans didn’t exist before the modern era, then Jews didn’t exist before Zionist aspirations.

        Of course you can argue anything. The process of national myth-making is recent and constantly evolving, but also rooted somewhat in historical perceptions. Sometimes such narratives are clear cut; most times they aren’t.

        But this isn’t an academic journal, and when most readers encounter statements like “Xinjiang became part of China in 1949,” they aren’t parsing it to themselves with an exact historical context. And when people refer to “Chinese history” in general, it’s assumed to include the various dynastic cycles, no?

        • poisson

          The continuity of various Chinese dynastic cycles (and periods of disunity) is, in and of itself, a historical interpretation. In every era, the rulers and the ruled exhibit vast differences as genocides and assimilation wiped out huge swaths of culture, and continuity was more or less a political tool used to justify rule, which the Mongols and Manchus clearly leveraged, but even emperors like 秦始皇 had barbarian origins. The “Han” designation first appeared between between Han and Sui as a “political denomination” to differentiate from the 北胡. It was never meant to take into account the considerable ethnic differences that existed within “China Proper.”

          To address your specific points:

          1) Xinjiang was a province of the Qing Dynasty only from 1884 onwards. It was either independent, nominally independent or a protectorate (i.e. vassal state) since the Han Dynasty.
          2) Jew is an ethnic designation. Zionism as a political movement, however, is comparable to how pre-ROC nationalists tried to differentiate between “Han” and “Manchu” (even though at that point, hardly any Manchu even spoke their mother tongue, and the Han people had very few unifying qualities, certainly not an unified tongue, other than “not” being part of the Eight Banners, which some Chinese technically were part of), as a blanket political “us vs. them” tool.
          3) Chinese regimes has always been disciplined on reclaiming irredenta, because it’s the pillar of maintaining centralized rule, but that doesn’t mean any territory naturally belongs to anybody without military conquest. Should Vietnam still have some residual claim to Guangdong and Hainan or Germany/Russia/Austria to Poland?

          • saf

            “Jewishness” may designate a lineage (or religion, or ethnicity), but it doesn’t mean that it’s not problematic around the peripheries. Who is a Han certainly has changed a great deal throughout history, but the concept wasn’t invented in the modern era. After all, most ethnic categorizations always carried strong political intents.

            Look, I generally agree with your historical perspective. I just had an issue with the language of this article. If you’re going to put an exact date on things (1949), you ought to use an exact name (PRC). The designation “China”, and we can discuss this ad infinitum, is a nebulous concept that is nonetheless real. Conflating the two is at best sloppy, and much more likely to mislead readers who may not have so much background in the region’s history.

          • poisson

            Just think about how absurd it sounds that a country with 1.4B people has an ethnic designation that constitutes 92% of that population. It’s a political machination designed to limit ethnic strife. It doesn’t work because Chinese culture has 草菅人命 embedded in its DNA. When you really get down to it, people don’t even care about their people in the same county.

          • saf

            If there’s such widespread cultural diversity within the country, how can there be such a thing as a “Chinese cultural DNA”? :)

            As I said, I agree that ethnic delineations are political exercises. After all, all “nations” are made up. We can just as easily decide to divide humanity according to height, such that Yao Ming and his cohort of giants can claim sovereignty from us lesser mortals. But just because they’re imaginary doesn’t mean that they aren’t important or have real consequences. You can argue that China constructed its dominant ethnic group in order to build up a nation; but that hardly makes it unique. In the ashes of empires across the globe, inventing the nation was the thing that EVERYONE did in the modern era.

            You can also argue that Chinese culture(s) only adhere to a tribal/clan-based rule of the jungle (I respectfully dispute that), but centrist states in its history have certainly had successes in at least maintaining some semblance of social order. Granted, the costs of “harmonization” could be woefully high. But you also mentioned Europe; the divergent nation-building enterprises there in the 20th century was certainly no less bloody.

            Anyway, nice chatting.

  • Zen my Ass

    Journalism as the prosecution of war by other means… nobody loves to wash in public their dirty laundry.

  • sm

    Why is that after Boston’s terrorist bombing, Americans didn’t think of caring for what Chinese media said?