Tea Leaf Nation

Crying Lone Wolf

After explosions in a provincial capital, Chinese debate whether anti-government violence is acceptable.

On the morning of Nov. 6, an unknown assailant or group of assailants reportedly detonated several bombs outside the provincial government headquarters of Taiyuan, the capital of northern China's Shanxi province. China's state-run Xinhua news agency stated that the bombs appear "home-made," with ball bearings and even a circuit board discovered among the detritus, while photographs circulating on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, depict cars and tires riddled with shrapnel. The attack, which reportedly killed one and injured eight, comes at a sensitive time: barely a week after a deadly car crash near Tiananmen Square that Beijing called an act of terrorism, and just two days before Chinese senior leaders discuss the nation's future at a meeting called the third Plenum.

Online responses to the attack highlight the important debate occurring in China between those who sympathize with anti-government violence and those who don't. The attack is big news there: The top three searches on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, all relate to the explosion, and an announcement about the explosion from the local police's official Weibo account is the #2 trending post, with over 8,000 related comments. Among the hundreds of comments sampled, a surprisingly large portion expressed sympathy for the perpetrator (or perpetrators). One Weibo user wrote that under enough government pressure "common people ... are all possible terrorists." Another wrote that "people explode" when the pressure is high enough.

Many users went even further, directly cheering or encouraging the violence. Examples of angry, even violent rhetoric abound: One user asked whether "any of those dog-fuckers inside" the government building had been killed. Another wrote, "No matter how bad it is, you should not hurt innocent people; you should blow up a few corrupt officials!" One reasoned, "Anyone who harms the masses is a terrorist! But harming an official is vengeance." 

Most commenters did not discuss what particular complaint may have given rise to the bombing. Some speculated the attack had to do with Taiyuan mayor Geng Yanbo, who has made some enemies since taking office in February. Geng earned the nickname "Geng Chaichai" (roughly, "Geng Smash-smash") while mayor of Datong, a smaller city in the same province, for his controversial propensity to displace ordinary citizens in favor of ambitious construction projects. After the bombing, one Weibo user joked, "Geng Chaichai, come back to Datong; the big city is too dangerous."

Other users pushed back against the tide of encouragement. Many wrote that it was wrong to harm "innocent people" (although even statements of sympathy often appeared to exclude government officials.) Some confronted cheering netizens more directly. "I don't know what is wrong with people who are praising this," one user wrote. In a widely-shared comment, one user described a lunch-room argument with a colleague hours after the bombing. The colleague was a fenqing, or angry youth, who seemed "extremely sympathetic" to the Taiyuan killer, who the youth thought might be someone oppressed by the government. "I walked over to him," the user wrote, "and dumped my lunch on his head." 

Although the government has not yet named any suspects or motives for the crime, web users have noted that the bombs detonated around the time government officials head to work. A special commission from Beijing arrived in Shanxi just six days before the bombings to investigate corruption, increasing the possibility that someone was seeking high-level attention to air grievances.

The nature of online debate surrounding the Taiyuan bombing recalls other instances where disgruntled citizens turned to violence and web users reacted. For example, in 2008, an unemployed man named Yang Jia killed six police officers in Shanghai, in what some speculated was a response to earlier police brutality. On Oct. 15, authorities sentenced motorcycle taxi driver Ji Zhongxing to six years in prison after he set off a bomb at Beijing's main airport, to protest what he said was a 2005 police beating in the southern province of Guangdong. In both cases, online opinion split over whether to treat the perpetrators as sympathetic (or at least tragic) figures, or as villains. In the case of Taiyuan, a similar, troubling narrative is playing out once again.

Liz Carter and Rachel Lu contributed research. 

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Tea Leaf Nation

All in the Family

How a Chinese local government forced a teacher to help evict her parents.

In what will surely make for years of awkward dinner table conversation, the government of a suburban area of Fuzhou, the capital of coastal Fujian province, tried to force local schoolteacher Lin Xin to assist authorities in demolishing her parents' home, according to an Oct. 28 report in the popular local paper Beijing News. Lin refused, but the consequences were disastrous. Authorities cancelled her classes for 50 days, Lin (briefly) lost her job, and her marriage ended in divorce. 

The news first went national on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter. On Oct. 27, Weibo user and social commentator named Ding Laifeng posted a notice dated Aug. 13 that Lin claimed she had received from the local government. It required that Lin and her husband, also a teacher, report to a nearby town to "assist in the demolition." It's unclear exactly why authorities were so eager to have Lin's parents out of their home. According to China News Service, a Chinese state-owned news agency, the home was 4,000 square feet and illegally built, but no information about the development plans, revenues, or compensation for the residents was available. (A person who answered the phone at the local government office hung up after being told a reporter was on the line.)

Perhaps unbelievably, the coercive tactic does not appear unique. Some Weibo users reported in online debates about this story that authorities had approached them or their families in similar ways. Mainstream Chinese media also reported that a teacher in the inland city of Changsha received a notice on Oct. 25 from local authorities telling her to convince her grandmother to move. Like Lin's notice, this one described the order as a professional "transfer" to a division of the government in charge of evictions and demolition, making compliance a job requirement. (Local governments, which oversee both local education bureaus and divisions in charge of evictions and demolition, have the authority to approve such transfers.)

The story resonated on Weibo because the forced demolition of homes to make way for private developments is a sensitive issue in China. According to official figures, local governments in China depend on land sales for the majority of their income; income from such sales totaled $438 billion in 2012. Local authorities often profit from private development by appropriating residents' land and selling it to real estate developers. The authorities then assist developers in evicting uncooperative residents from old buildings. Residents who hold out against developers are known as "nail households" for their tenacity.

Lin tried to fight the good fight. The Beijing News says that she refused to help with the demolition, claiming she lacked authority to tell her parents what to do with their home. But pressure mounted as she continued to resist. On Sept. 9, the principal at Lin's school told her that she should no longer come to work. By Sept. 18, Lin's marriage was over: In order to ensure that Lin's husband, a schoolteacher named Zhang Xingfa, would not also lose his job, the two divorced. In an interview with the Beijing News, Lin said that she and her husband were doing their best not to let the situation affect their two-year-old child.

The news that a forced demolition had split up a married couple with a young child went viral on Weibo, as users shared Ding's Oct. 27 post over 5,000 times. Many remarked that the government's tactic resembled a throwback to a darker period in China's history. One user wrote that "it is a little reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution," the period from 1966 to 1976 when Chinese authorities encouraged people to report their family members for ideological crimes. Others called the move "inhumane."

While some raged, others expressed resignation. "This happens all over China. It's very common," wrote one Weibo user. At least it's not hordes of scorpions, which one Chinese developer allegedly used to scare uncooperative tenants out of their homes in Jul. 2011. It's also not a kidnapping: On Sept. 24 in Shanghai, a group of men abducted an elderly couple and held them in a courtyard while developers demolished their home, with all of their belongings still inside. "This is the smallest of losses," another Weibo user wrote of Lin's experience. "The alternative is that people might be hurt or killed."

The China Youth Daily, a major Communist Party paper, reported that after her story went viral online, Lin's school informed her that she could return to work on Oct. 30. That's good news -- but the paper also noted that on Oct. 15, Lin's parents' home was torn down. 

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