Even on the country's raucous Internet, users are mourning the journalist's death and criticizing media outlets who do not.
- By Bethany Allen-EbrahimianBethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a Tea Leaf Nation Fellow at Foreign Policy. Before joining Foreign Policy, she lived and worked in China for more than four years, including one year studying at Peking University in Beijing. Allen-Ebrahimian holds an M.A. in East Asian studies from Yale University and a graduate certificate from the Johns Hopkins-Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies.
On August 19, a grisly video of an Islamic State (IS) militant beheading U.S. journalist James Foley surfaced online. The brutal murder of a war correspondent, the latest in the terrorist organization’s string of atrocities, has appalled worldwide observers. That includes many Chinese, despite the fact that one video screen near a subway station in capital Beijing included portions of the video in a larger montage, leading to a recent article on website Quartz headlined, "While Twitter is removing the James Foley execution video, China is broadcasting it in public."
China — being, of course, a massively complex geopolitical entity with over 1.3 billion people — is doing no such thing. At least on Weibo, China’s pre-eminent online discussion platform, users evinced widespread horror on Chinese social media at Foley’s death and anger at the extremists who killed him. A recent Weibo search for "American journalist beheaded" yielded over 136,000 results. Some users posted pictures of lit candles; others wished for peace in the Middle East. Many comments expressed horror at Foley’s murder, calling his killers "monsters" or asking for a moment of silence for war correspondents. The video of Foley’s execution, which inspired an almost immediate campaign on Twitter not to watch or share the gruesome video, is now blocked on U.S. social media sharing sites. While a number of Chinese television reports show portions of the video, the full video itself also appears to be absent from major Chinese video sharing sites.
In contrast to Chinese media’s largely straight take on the horrific news, three outlets did use Foley’s death to take jabs at the United States — only to be clobbered by outraged netizens. On August 20, Beijing-based finance magazine Caijing and Hong Kong-based Phoenix Media both published posts on their official Weibo accounts about Foley. "The American reporter beheaded by IS blamed the U.S. government for the tragedy," Caijing‘s post began. It quotes Foley saying, "I call on my friends, family, and loved ones to rise up against my real killers: the U.S. government," who ordered recent airstrikes targeting IS. Foley did utter those words, but Caijing crucially neglected to add that IS militants had forced him to read them aloud in front of the camera.
Chinese netizens were outraged at the mischaracterization. Of the more than 1,000 comments to Caijing‘s post, the most popular read, "This is just another example of Chinese media creating its own rumors." Another user accused Caijing of lacking "moral integrity." Phoenix Media’s Weibo post echoed Caijing‘s, eliciting a similar response from netizens, with one user declaring, "Phoenix and IS are both shameless." It is unclear whether or not the mischaracterization was intentional, though neither of the news organizations have posted a clarification to their Weibo accounts and the original posts have not been removed.
Two days later, state-run Global Times, known for nationalist editorials, took another tack, intimating on its Weibo account that Foley’s death resulted from U.S. government negligence towards its own citizens. The Times asked rhetorically on its official Weibo account, "No matter where you are, can you always rely on the U.S. military?" and followed with a nose-picking emoticon. (The post referred to a rumor that swept the Chinese Internet in 2011, which falsely claimed that U.S. passports contain the promise of U.S. military protection to bearers.) The post noted that IS had actually offered to release Foley if the United States would give the group tens of millions of dollars in exchange. "But the U.S. government refused," the post concluded.
That attempt to exploit Foley’s death also backfired. "Global Times, how despicable," wrote one user. "All day you use a magnifying glass to look for dirt on other people." Another user asked sarcastically, "I wonder what the Chinese government would do if you, Little Editor, were kidnapped."