Tea Leaf Nation

China Sees Islamic State Inching Closer to Home

Chinese media lights up after a Hong Kong weekly says IS aims to expand into Xinjiang.

They've been grabbing headlines nearly everywhere else, but the jihadis of northern Iraq haven't been getting much play in China. But a threat by the Islamic State (IS) of revenge against countries, including China, for seizing what IS calls "Muslim rights" appears to have changed all that. The comments were made in early July, but the news didn't jump the language barrier from Arabic into Mandarin until August 8, when Phoenix Weekly, a Hong Kong-based newsmagazine widely distributed in China, made the IS revenge threats against China its cover story. Since then, the article has been widely syndicated on Chinese news websites and has gained traction on social media as well. Ordinary Chinese who may have felt distant from the carnage now feel it creeping closer to home.  

The glossy cover of the Phoenix issue features a picture of masked gun-toting jihadis advancing through a desert landscape. The piece inside sounds the alarm over a July 4 speech in Mosul, Iraq, by IS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in which he urged Muslims around the world to pledge their allegiance to him. It quotes Baghdadi saying that "Muslim rights are forcibly seized in China, India, Palestine" and more than a dozen other countries and regions. "Your brothers all over the world are waiting for your rescue, and are anticipating your brigades," Baghdadi told his followers. Phoenix noted that China was mentioned first on Baghdadi's list. (The article also includes a map that some news reports have said shows the vast territory IS plans to occupy in the next five years, which appears to include a significant portion of Xinjiang. Although the authenticity of the map, which was widely shared on English-language social media sites in early July, has been questioned, the Phoenix piece reports it as fact.)

Online, Chinese are both agitated and bemused. One Chinese reader wrote on the social media site Weibo: "This is good. It offends all five of the hooligans on the UN Security Council" -- that is, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States -- which means the IS jihadis "are going to be roadkill." Another responded to a photo of Baghdadi: "Looking at this bearded pervert makes me sick. Hurry up and incinerate this kind of trash, and send him to enjoy his 72 virgins in heaven." A third wrote that ISIS seemed to have "a death wish," but that people should be grateful because the jihadist group was giving Beijing "a reasoned and evidence-based opportunity to crack down on terrorist activities."

This may constitute a welcome opening for Chinese authorities. China has been fighting a low-level separatist insurgency of its own in Xinjiang for decades and worries that foreign Islamic groups are infiltrating the region, emboldening the simmering independence movement. Uighur exile groups say China's government overstates its terrorism problem and falsely paints protests that turn into riots as premeditated terror attacks. In any case, Beijing is likely alarmed by IS's criticism of its treatment of the Muslim Uighurs and the group's alleged plan to seize Xinjiang, no matter how far-fetched the idea might be. But just how actively authorities will deal with any IS threat remains to be seen.

Beijing has consistently tried to keep itself removed from the political and military crises roiling Iraq, even as China has poured billions of dollars into Iraqi oil, enough that about 10 percent of its oil imports come from the Middle Eastern country. China's most decisive action since ISIS's surge has been to evacuate 10,000 Chinese working in Iraq. On July 8, Chinese special envoy Wu Sike met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and pledged anti-terror support, but added that Beijing would fully respect the country's sovereignty. When Wu returned to Beijing he briefed reporters about the trip on July 29, telling them that China was a victim of terror with roots in Syria and Iraq. "Solving the conflicts in Iraq and Syria will benefit China and the entire world," he said.

But Beijing's reaction to U.S. airstrikes in Iraq betrays its conflicted allegiances. China usually bristles at or condemns U.S. intervention in global hot spots and has opposed U.S. sanctions against Sudan, Syria, Russia, and Iran. But the interests of Washington and Beijing are unusually closely aligned when it comes to Iraq. On August 8, the official Xinhua News Agency quoted a Foreign Ministry spokesperson as saying that China was "keeping an open mind" about operations that would "help maintain security and stability" in Iraq. The statement came in response to a request for comment on U.S. President Barack Obama's announcement that the United States would carry out airstrikes against insurgents in northern Iraq. Wang Chong, a researcher at Charhar Institute, a public diplomacy think tank in Beijing, wrote on Weibo that he "firmly supported" the U.S. crackdown on IS. Wang added that the United States "ought to send ground troops to wipe out those brutal terrorists" and that if there was a need, "China could also send troops to help and provide training."

That's possible -- within limits. Zhu Weilie, director of the Middle East Studies Institute at Shanghai International Studies University, told the state-run Global Times on July 29 that China believes the United Nations should lead anti-terror operations in the Middle East. "China will be more actively involved in these efforts but will never be as involved in Middle East affairs as the United States," he said.

Sina/Fair Use

Tea Leaf Nation

Months Later, a Cyberattack Still Lingers

Taiwan's Apple Daily, well known for criticizing the Chinese mainland, is still inaccessible to some overseas readers.

Upon hearing that a major gas explosion had ripped through the southern Taiwan port city of Kaohsiung on August 1, killing at least 22 and injuring 270, many of the more than 1.8 million overseas Taiwanese instinctively turned to their favorite Chinese-language news websites for the latest updates. But for some, attempts to access Taiwan's Apple Daily, a newspaper known for its sensational headlines and editorials critical of Beijing, proved futile -- a lingering after-effect of the June 18 cyberattack against Apple Daily, allegedly originating in mainland China. 

In the early morning hours of June 18, cyberattacks allegedly perpetrated by mainland Chinese hackers crippled both the Hong Kong and Taiwan websites of the popular newspaper, owned by outspoken China critic and Hong Kong Next Media founder Jimmy Lai. It was the worst such attack in Apple Daily's history, freezing one of the island's most popular news portals, which in July received an average of 20.2 million page views per day, for almost two and a half hours. The Broadcasting Corporation of China, a private broadcasting company once run by Taiwan's government, reported on June 19 that the attacks were likely in response to Apple Daily's support of pro-democracy street protests in Hong Kong, the former British colony returned to China in 1997, and a measure to allow the public to nominate candidates for its 2017 election for special administrative region chief executive -- a proposal that Beijing has so far rejected.  

Since the June 18 hacking, Apple Daily has redoubled its efforts to bolster its own defenses, leaving some overseas Taiwanese still unable to view the paper's website. In a post two days after the attacks on Facebook, Taiwan's social network of choice, Apple Daily announced that its "website had returned to normal," warning cyber attackers that "you may be able to cripple our website, but you cannot shut our mouths." But from June 20 to July 25, many Taiwanese who live in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia and Japan complained on Apple Daily's Facebook page that they were still unable to access the site, with some overseas users encountering "Server Not Found" messages when attempting to enter Apple Daily's Taiwan website. Daisy Li, online director of Apple Daily, told Foreign Policy in an August 1 email that during the attack some Internet service providers "applied defensive measures to block our domains," which in some cases had not yet been lifted. This is what prevented overseas users from entering its Taiwan portal.

The residual blockages have been felt around the globe. Overseas Apple Daily readers make up between 10 and 12 percent of its total page views, according to Apple Daily's Li. A July 26 Apple Daily editorial, written by Jung-Shian Li, a professor at National Cheng Kung University in Tainan, a city in southern Taiwan, noted that for more than a month, his friends who work in the United States have still been "entirely unable to go online to read the Apple Daily." While the outlet is hardly the only news website in Taiwan's vibrant and crowded media scene, it has built up a devoted following among Taiwanese both at home and oversees who delight in the newspaper's penchant for gossipy news and salacious photos, as well as its unabashed criticism of the Chinese Communist Party.

Cyberattacks are nothing new to Taiwan, which Beijing views as a renegade province that must someday be reunited, by force if necessary. For more than a decade, Taiwan has found itself on the front lines of a cyber battlefield increasingly dominated by China. A July 19, 2013, NBC News article reported that Beijing views Taiwan as a testing ground for cyber warfare techniques carried out by Chinese hackers before they launch large-scale assaults against other countries. The article lists three chief reasons why Taiwan makes an ideal target: the island's advanced Internet infrastructure, a Mandarin-speaking population, and close proximity to the mainland.

For many Taiwanese, the attacks on Apple Daily and the inability of some overseas to access the outlet's Taiwanese website collectively pose a threat to the island's eroding press freedoms. In a June 21 editorial, the pro-Taiwan independence Liberty Times (and an Apple Daily competitor) urged Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou "not to turn a blind eye to Chinese hackers' attacks on Taiwanese media," warning that if the government fails to respond, Chinese hackers will "rampage through Taiwan" and target any media organization or industry critical of Beijing. Li, author of the July 26 Apple Daily editorial, also echoed this sentiment, writing that overseas Taiwanese friends have openly wondered whether being forced to get their news from alternate Taiwanese news websites had already created an environment in which "news was being controlled and freedom of expression blocked." 

Meanwhile, the Apple Daily cyberattack continues to exact a toll on some overseas ISPs and their subscribers. Compiling reader feedback, Li wrote that the list of Internet service providers that encountered trouble accessing Taiwan's Apple Daily website included Time Warner Cable, Verizon, and AT&T. For those still unable to access Apple Daily from overseas, there are some fixes, according to Li. Web users can try switching their Domain Name System; readers can also view synopses of Apple Daily articles on its Facebook page and most of its news clips on YouTube.

To be sure, overseas Taiwanese Apple Daily viewers were never entirely cut off from their newspaper. Besides Facebook and YouTube, viewers could also access the newspaper's Hong Kong website, which features news and editorials geared more toward Hong Kong than Taiwan, as well as a host of other news and entertainment websites owned by Next Media, Apple Daily's parent company. The extent of this cyber breach, however, is disconcerting for a nation increasingly on edge over Beijing's steady creep into the island's politics, economy and media; and the hackers' success in paralyzing the website of a major news outlet known for its anti-China rhetoric has stoked fears of what future attacks may lie ahead.    


Image via Apple Daily/Fair Use