Tea Leaf Nation

Should China Declare a War on Terror?

Beijing and Washington's very different response to the latest deadly attack in Xinjiang.

On Sept. 20, 2001, then President George W. Bush addressed a joint session of Congress about the 9/11 attacks in New York City.* "Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them," he said. "Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated."

The term 'war on terror' entered into wide circulation from there, and in many ways defined Bush's foreign policy -- prioritizing crackdowns on violent extremists through legal and extra-legal methods. But Bush's war on terror also helped improve ties with China. China's then President Jiang Zemin condemned the attacks, and pledged to cooperate with the United States in its fight against terrorism. "China's ostensible support for U.S. retaliatory strikes on Afghanistan constituted a significant break from its standard foreign policy line," Nicholas Dynon, a Ph.D. candidate studying China's public diplomacy, wrote in the magazine The Diplomat. It was "the first time since the Cold War that Beijing had condoned U.S. military strikes in another country."

Now that Beijing seems to be fighting its own war on terror, Washington, at least publicly, has been far less supportive.

On May 22, according to Reuters, "Explosives hurled from two vehicles which ploughed into an open market in China's troubled Xinjiang region killed 31 people on Thursday, state media reported, the deadliest act of violence in the region in years."  The attack came just three weeks after a coordinated bomb and knife, also in Xinjiang's capital of Urumuqi, killed three and left dozens injured -- an attack that was all the more galling because it came just after Xi Jinping ended his first trip to Xinjiang as president. And it's just a few months after coordinating knifings at a train station in the southern Chinese city of Kunming left dozens dead. The other attacks were allegedly perpetrated by members of the Uighur minority -- the roughly 10 million Turkic-speaking Muslims who mostly live in Xinjiang. The perpetrators of this latest attack in the Urumqi market remain unknown, but even before the police announce their findings, Uighur separatists are being held responsible in the court of Chinese public opinion.

About six hours after the attack, the official account of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on China's Twitter Sina Weibo tweeted a message expressing sympathy to victims of "violent attack against innocent civilians," but did not describe the act as terrorism, nor did it condemn the act. The omission, intentional or not, inflamed Chinese Internet users. (The White House later released a statement condemning the "horrific terrorist attack" in Xinjiang.*) The tweet has already attracted more than 17,000 mostly negative comments accusing the United States of a double-standard and behind-the-scenes support for a separatist movement in Xinjiang, which many assume are responsible for the recent attacks. Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of the nationalistic newspaper Global Times, asked the U.S. government to "stop supporting Rebiya Kadeer," a Uighur businesswoman living in exile who is the face of the international Uighur movement, "and stop funding her and her separatist organizations through your democracy foundations." (Kadeer, a Uighur businesswoman in exile in the United States, is the president of the World Uighur Congress, a group that calls for independence in Xinjiang.) Freelance writer Yuan Xiaoliang posted a tweet mocking the U.S. Embassy message by expressing sympathy to victims of the "9-11 Traffic Accident," and asked "is it so hard to write ‘terrorism'?"

A similar thing happened in March, after the Kunming knife attacks. As Tea Leaf Nation contributor Yiqin Fu wrote, 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." Chinese Internet users and domestic media were quick to notice this punctuation choice, and a storm of anger against perceived Western bias quickly brewed." Meanwhile, the U.S. Embassy feed on Weibo did not immediately characterize the attack as terrorism, instead calling it a "senseless act of violence."

The situation in Xinjiang is bleak, of course, and Beijing's war on terror may be better served through liberalizing in Xinjiang, rather than the repression and violence that characterizes its current strategy. Responding to this latest attack, Xi called for serious punishments for the perpetrators and an all out-effort to maintain stability in the region -- language similiar to Beijing's response to previous attacks. If Xi decides to call for a 'war on terror,' in Xinjiang, would Washington urge restraint or pledge support? 

*This story has been updated to reflect a statement from the White House. 

*Correction, May 23, 2014: Bush delivered his "war on terror" speech on Sept. 20, 2001, not Sept. 20, 2011, as the article originally stated. 

Return to reading.


Tea Leaf Nation

China's Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Friend Circles

What happens in WeChat's private chats isn't staying there, and it has the government worried.

"Life is just like WeChat: you never know which friend will try to sell you something next." Thus wrote  one Chinese blogger, bemoaning the proliferation of peer-to-peer commercialism on WeChat, or Weixin in Chinese. It's China's hottest social network, a mobile chat application which revolves around small invite-only groups called "friend circles." For users like him, May 21 brought good news when Chinese Internet giant Tencent, parent company of the messaging platform with somewhere north of 300 million global monthly active users, announced new regulations placing limits on users' ability to sell goods through their friend networks. But the move, and the drumbeat of negative state-media coverage that preceded it, hints at increasing encroachment from government authorities determined to clamp down on China's active online sphere.

The wording of Tencent's latest announcement -- that friend circles are composed of "networks based on relationships of acquaintances" and are not "platforms for business" -- closely mirrors that found in a recent state media blitz targeting several of the platform's most important features. A May 3 article on state news service Xinhua implied that WeChat exploited human relationships and "human weakness" to make money off its popular gaming platform, noting that game revenues topped $96 million in 2013. A May 6 article on the service called "WeChat, how much longer can I love you?" claimed that many feel the messaging service has "taken their lives hostage," to quote one pseudonymous user. On May 13, Xinhua weighed in yet again, reporting that netizens had collectively denounced the so-called "WeChat ‘like' trap," in which users become inundated with endless requests for likes, sometimes even falling victim to scams promising prizes such as free travel in exchange. And on May 20, the day before Tencent announced the new restrictions on friend circles, party mouthpiece People's Daily ran two articles: one in its print edition asking whether users would "flee" WeChat friend circles and another online suggesting that users be wary of what have become "commercial circles" where "WeChat merchants" prey on friendships and human relationships to scalp a little cash.

Far more than a messaging platform, WeChat has boosted its revenue by offering public accounts for businesses as well as online payment, elbowing into e-commerce territory dominated by giants such as Alibaba's e-commerce site, Taobao. But individual users of private WeChat accounts have gotten in on the action as well. As state media has reported prolifically in recent weeks, this has contributed to an increasing commercialization of friend networks, with some users feeling bombarded by constant advertising. The practice has its benefits: Some family farms have begun selling their produce via WeChat friend circles, allowing them to fetch a higher price for their produce; one e-commerce analyst wrote on his verified account on Weibo, China's Twitter, that the new restrictions on friend circles may have "killed an opportunity" to challenge e-commerce giant Alibaba. But other users welcomed the new restrictions as a way to limit the increasing commercialization of friend circles. One complained, "Every time I get on WeChat, the marketing is overwhelming." Other users felt that the restrictions represented an unnecessary over-reach, with one user writing it was authority's way of "declaring its status."

Indeed, the new regulations may have political underpinnings. Social media platforms toe a precariously thin line in China, and WeChat is no stranger to crackdown. On March 13, some of the WeChat's highest profile public accounts, often called "self-media" because they allow users to publish uncensored articles once daily to subscribers, were closed without warning, and little explanation other than having "violated rules." While the government views social media as a useful window through which to monitor public opinion, authorities also fear the power of social media to spread politically sensitive information as well as to mobilize dissenters into mass movements. In August 2013, China launched an "anti-rumor" campaign, including rules which make it illegal to post "rumors" - i.e., politically undesirable content -- that get shared more than 500 times.

Chinese state media has already delineated a direct link between WeChat's friend circles and the spread of rumors. On April 16, the People's Daily penned a sharp criticism of the platform, claiming "incorrect speech and social rumors" on WeChat were making it difficult for users to "judge between true and false." The article complained that friend circles, unlike the public and searchable Weibo, made it difficult to gather statistics on how many times a message had been forwarded. "Suppose that every WeChat friend circle has 100 people," went the argument. "If each of these 100 people forwards a message only once, the number of forwards can reach 10,000." That's the inherent power of social media, and it's what seems to discomfit Chinese authorities: What starts in a friend circle may not stay there.  

AFP/Getty Images