Late Friday afternoon at the Hengshan Road Starbucks in Shanghai's French Concession, most of the customers were browsing iPhones, laptops, and -- in the corner -- an iPad. A few hours earlier, news of the devastating Japanese earthquake had ricocheted across Chinese sites, becoming the third-ranked trending topic of the day on Baidu, the country's leading search engine, with 2.5 million searches for "Japan earthquake" as of 5:30 p.m. -- just a few hours after the event, and, according to a tweeted account, racking up more than 8 million mentions on the country's leading microblogging service, Sina Weibo. "Anything like this is going to trend," said Kaiser Kuo, director of international communications for Baidu in a call from Beijing. "Chinese user behavior isn't different than anywhere else. But the reaction to the news can be, of course, quite different."
At Starbucks I tapped the shoulder of a thirty-ish young man in a dark suit whom I noticed switching between his email, Chinese news sites, and a stream of microblogged comments on a relatively new Lenovo laptop. His family name is Cai, he told me, and he works for a machine parts manufacturer with clients in Japan. "I feel bad for my customers," he said in extremely polished English. "This is really going to hurt their orders and probably us too." When I asked him if he sensed sympathy from the Chinese netizens he was following on his screen, he laughed uncomfortably. "Not everybody in China has such warm feelings for Japan." How about you, I asked. "I feel for my customers!"
Though it's nearly impossible to characterize how the world's largest population of Internet users feels about a particular event, even a brief, afternoon trawl through the comments left on the country's vibrant and chaotic forums shows two most predictable strains: first, a strain of tender sympathy that was so movingly expressed in the aftermath of 2008's devastating Wenchuan earthquake (often appended with a call to "pray for Japan"); second, a darker, celebratory strain frequently invoking variations of the phrase "Warmly welcome the Japanese earthquake." To an extent, both of these reactions are quite predictable, especially -- in the last case -- considering the deep ambivalence toward Japan felt at all levels of Chinese society.
But what was not predictable, or -- to use Kuo's phrase, "quite different" -- was a reaction that began to pop up in various parts of China's Internet toward the very late afternoon and early evening. In part, it's a reaction against the nakedly inappropriate nationalism that marked some of the earliest reactions to the tragedy; but buried in that nationalist critique is an unflattering national critique as well. Take, for example, a message that was lifted to Weibo's front page late in the day (similar to Twitter's front page of popular tweets), that read, in part: "How many Japanese would write, ‘Congratulations on the Wenchuan earthquake?'" It's an uncomfortable question that was, in a sense, revised and extended onto Twitter by a Chinese user who, tacitly invoking the crumbled buildings in the aftermath of the Wenchuan quake, pointed out, late in the day: "The casualties from an 8.9 event in China would be hundreds of times higher than in Japan." That kind of comment, most likely, wouldn't last long on China-based Sina Weibo, which is heavily "managed." Indeed, as some began to point out on local and international microblogging platforms late in the day, natural disasters -- whether in China or elsewhere -- are politically sensitive events from the perspective of the leadership. This one, like Wenchuan, is increasingly becoming so.
Meanwhile, back at Starbucks, two young Chinese women in their twenties, one with iPhone, and the other gadget-less, overhearing my English-language conversation, brashly reached out to me. "We Chinese people feel very badly for Japan," one said, while declining to give me her name. "We know that Japan cared very much for China after our earthquake. So we will want to help them." When I asked if either one would consider donating to the Red Cross, just as Chinese had done in droves after the Wenchuan quake, they looked at each other, then back at me. "Why not?," answered the one who already done all of the talking. "China is becoming a great nation these days. We should."