Tea Leaf Nation

The 'T-word'

Chinese are angry at Western media's portrayal of a dastardly attack there.

In 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 the People's Republic 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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Tea Leaf Nation

'Enemies of Humanity'

A coordinated attack at a Chinese train station has left at least 33 people dead -- now the country debates who's to blame.

It's already being called "3.01," or "three oh one," a date that will likely burn in China's collective memory for years to come. According to Xinhua, China's state news agency, on the evening of March 1, around 9:00 p.m. Beijing time, ten or more uniformed assailants wielding long knives and dressed mostly in black descended upon the ticket hall at a busy train station in Kunming, the capital of southern Yunnan province. They began hacking indiscriminately at innocent travelers, killing at least 29 and injuring 130, tolls that may continue to mount. Footage from China Central television shows a knife retrieved from the crime scene that looked about one foot long.

Xinhua reports that police have determined that the act was "orchestrated by Xinjiang separatists" based on "evidence left at the scene." As of this article's publication, state-owned television station reports that four perpetrators -- three men and one woman -- have been shot dead, and one female perpetrator had been captured. If the Xinhua report is correct about the attackers' motives, this would constitute one of the worst terrorist attacks outside of Xinjiang, a restive region in western China, in recent memory. There were about 190 violent attacks in Xinjiang in 2012, according to Xinjiang police, but incidents outside of Xinjiang are relatively rare. In October 2013, a jeep crashed in front of Tiananmen Square, the symbolic center of capital Beijing, killing five tourists and injuring dozens, and the police blamed it on Xinjiang separatists. (Kunming is about 1,500 miles from Xinjiang's capital, and is not usually associated with Uighur separatism.)

Although Xinhua's accusation has not been verified, the report itself was almost certainly vetted and approved by central government authorities, and thus fairly evinces the Chinese government's collective state of mind. The accusation of Xinjiang involvement may foreshadow even more severe crackdowns in a restive region that has already seen its share. Chinese President Xi Jinping has issued a statement, which avers that authorities will "strike hard" at all terrorist violence and "guarantee the life and property" of citizens, but he has not yet commented on Xinhua's identification of Xinjiang attackers.

The news first broke on China's social media -- which continues to function as the closest thing China has to a digital public square -- as eyewitnesses inside the Kunming train station started to call for help. Photos posted on Weibo show pools of blood in the ticketing hall, bodies strewn around, and crowds running from the scene.  "I've never been so scared in my life," tweeted one user on Tencent Weibo, another microblogging platform; "I saw blood spilled right in front of me." "I saw a police officer getting stabbed with my own eyes," wrote a Sina Weibo user. A reporter who spoke to a survivor who saved two six-year olds wrote, "The children saw killing at close range and are close to an emotional breakdown."

Related chatter has dominated Sina Weibo since. "Kunming" is the most popular discussion topic by far, with many lighting digital candles, writing, "pray for Kunming" or "we are all Kunmingers," or sharing graphic images purporting to show the aftermath of the slaughter. Several users wrote that the incident "was our 9-11," in reference to the far more deadly terrorist attack on U.S. soil in September 11, 2001.

This attack may also presage a further deterioration in the relationship between the majority Han, who comprise approximately 92 percent of China's population, and the country's approximately 10 million Uighurs, a Muslim minority who predominantly live in Xinjiang. The carnage has "deepened my prejudice against Uighurs," admitted one Weibo user; "don't tell me most of them are good." But online unanimity does not reign. Among the most popular comments on the Xinhua report was a warning: "Let's not say that all Xinjiang people are one way or another, or say the government is one way or another." Another cautioned web users not to "fire cannons based on a map," a phrase that refers to regional discrimination.

Debate surround the attack has turned rancorous, with some accusing others of showing sympathy for the perpetrators. Liberal journalist Luo Changping wrote that in the immediate wake of the carnage, a reporter told him that Chinese press "would never tell you what has really happened," so long as "you blindly hate, inexplicably fear, sleepwalk through life, then die without understanding anything." That post was shared more than 40,000 times, and some accused Luo of demonstrating sympathy for the perpetrators. In another one of the most popular comments about the incident on the massive Weibo platform, one user wrote, "Say it with me now: I oppose all terrorist actions directed at innocent citizens." Those who take innocent life are "enemies of humanity," the post continued, "no matter how lousy their luck, no matter how lofty their motives."

One writer named Han Han, hyper-popular with young Chinese and widely known for his skill in walking right up to the fuzzy red line drawn by authorities without stumbling over, seemed eager to mediate between defenders and attackers of the Uighur minority when he wrote that he condemns terrorism, while also "wishing that we don't place our hatred on an entire ethnicity or an entire religion." That comment has been shared over 200,000 times. But Han has a gift for ambiguity. As facts continue to emerge -- with government pressure on Xinjiang looking likely to grow -- many Chinese will feel forced to take sides.

Yiqin Fu and Bethany Allen contributed research.

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