In the aftermath of this weekend’s lethal attack on Chinese civilians by knife-wielding assailants, Chinese netizens have directed their anger in an unlikely direction: toward the American government and the Western media, castigating them for failing to brand the rampage as an act of terrorism.
Ten attackers dressed in black converged on passengers at a train station in the southwestern city of Kunming on Saturday, stabbing bystanders indiscriminately with a range of long knives, taking the lives of at least 29 people and injuring 143 more, according to state-run Xinhua News. Local authorities reported that four of the assailants were killed and three captured.
Chinese state media quickly affixed blame for the attack on ethnic Uighur separatists from the restive northwestern province of Xinjiang, underscoring suspicions shared by many observers outside of China.
Located north of the Tibet Autonomous Region of China and east of Kazakhstan, Xinjiang has long been a hotbed of tensions between local Uighurs and the Han Chinese majority that dominates the rest of the country. Over the last five years, conflict has been particularly acute, with hundreds dying in racially charged riots.
China’s political leadership asserts that an influx of state capital financing major infrastructure projects has brought long-delayed prosperity to the region. But Uighurs nurse complaints that plum jobs have been taken overwhelmingly by newly arrived Han Chinese, who are accused of discriminating against Uighurs and diluting local cultural traditions. Infrastructure projects have been largely targeted at boosting the energy industry, enabling Xinjiang’s vast oil and gas stocks to be transferred to major Chinese cities for the benefit of the Han majority while leaving Uighurs confronting poverty.
Yet despite the horrific attack that seemed designed to ignite that powder keg of ethnic animosity, Chinese netizens saved much of their vitriol for an alleged double-standard in the way the American government and Western media define “terrorism.” While Chinese media outlets were quick to label the bloody rampage a “terrorist attack,” many American news outlets such as Fox, CNN and The New York Times have largely avoided using the word “terrorist” without quotation marks.
The United States Embassy in Beijing stirred up some of the most strident backlash when it skirted the “terrorism” label in a message on its official Sina Weibo account, China’s Twitter-esque micro-blogging service. Though the message condemned the “terrible and senseless act of violence” and extended condolences to the families of the victims, the decision to duck the T-word angered Chinese netizens who see the choice as indicative of U.S. sympathy for the Uighurs’ cause.
“I’d like to express my condolences for the traffic accident that occurred in Manhattan 13 years ago on 9/11, as well as for the kitchen-appliance accident in Boston last year,” sneered one Chinese netizen in a widely imitated attack on the embassy’s phrasing.
As of Monday morning, the embassy’s message had received nearly 50,000 replies, including many accusing the U.S. of secretly backing Uighur separatist groups.
Some Chinese citizens limited their comments to quoting former President George W. Bush: “For every nation or region, there’s a choice to make, either you are standing with us, or with the terrorists.”
Perceptions of U.S. sympathy for Uighur separatists groups have occasionally been fueled by the U.S.’ willingness to grant asylum to celebrity Uighur dissidents like Rebiya Kadeer, a businesswoman-turned-dissident who has been celebrated in the U.S. but accused of inciting ethnic riots by the Chinese government.
Chinese netizens did not limit their commentary to attacks on the U.S. Many messages on the Sina Weibo service attacking Chinese government policies were quickly deleted by government censors, including some critical of the Han Chinese presence in Xinjiang and of the massive diversion of police resources to Beijing for a national political gathering this week. Past flare-ups have taught the government to strictly control messages that are anti-government and that could incite ethnic violence. With inter-racial tensions running high, attacks on American media can serve as a unifying force across ethnic lines.
Chinese state media has helped advance the “terrorism double-standard” narrative with both editorials and graphics. The Communist Party-run People’s Daily ran an infographic on Monday saying that Western publications widely referred to an attack on a British soldier with a meat cleaver last year as a “terrorist attack” but called the Kunming incident a “knife attack.”
Accusations of bias in Western coverage of ethnic unrest in China crop up periodically. When street riots rocked Tibet in early 2008, Chinese netizens lambasted CNN for allegedly cropping a photo so as to eliminate more violent Tibetan demonstrators from view, leaving only a Chinese military vehicle bearing down on unarmed civilians.
The ongoing perception that Western media sides with those fomenting violence provides fodder for one of the Chinese government’s default narratives on domestic unrest: The violence is fueled by “outside forces” looking to weaken China. The threat of external meddling is often used in China to justify harsh crackdowns on minority groups such as Xinjiang’s Uighurs or ethnic Tibetans. Western analysts and exile groups often pin the blame for ethnic violence on what they describe as repressive policies designed to steamroll local minority culture.
But following traumatic events like the Kunming rampage and an attack earlier this year in which a jeep drove through crowds near Tiananmen Square in Beijing, many Chinese are in no mood to look for the sociological roots of terrorism. On the highly nationalist “Strong Nation” online forum, a teacher wrote: “To the dead give a moment of silence, to the injured give sympathy, to those from Xinjiang carefully inspect each one of them, track those who leave the area, and severely punish those who murder innocent people.”
Finally, one poster argued that faster urbanization — China’s cure-all solution for social and economic woes — could be applied to terrorism as well.
“Seeing as most of the terrorists come from the Xinjiang countryside, we should greatly elevate Xinjiang’s level of urbanization … The smaller Xinjiang’s rural population is, the easier it will be to exercise comprehensive monitoring and control.”