Tea Leaf Nation

Crying Lone Wolf

Crying Lone Wolf

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.