Tea Leaf Nation

Chinese Media Jumps on Tragic Virginia Shooting

It happened in the evening, Beijing time, but quickly dominated China’s headlines.

Virginia

On the morning of August 26, a reporter and a cameraman for a local Virginia television station were fatally shot during a live television interview. The alleged gunman, now dead, apparently shot himself before being apprehended by police.

The shooting quickly made national news in the United States, and outlets across the country have provided regular updates. The tragedy occurred shortly after 6:45 in the morning, Eastern Standard Time, or around 6:45 p.m., Beijing time. That’s significant, because despite the evening hour, media outlets across China were quick to provide front-page coverage of the breaking story. State new agency Xinhua featured the shooting among its online list of top ten news items. By 10:30 p.m. in Beijing. Chinese news website NetEase had created a separate live-update webpage for the shootings. By 11 p.m. in Beijing, the state-run, often fervently nationalist Global Times had made a related photo its website’s cover photo, accompanied by a report with details of the shootings.

The United States is a major preoccupation within China, often as a geopolitical rival held up as a kind of foil. It’s a focus for many everyday Chinese, as an object of scorn, an object of desire — even Chinese President Xi Jinping sent his daughter to Harvard to study — or both. Within China, the high rate of gun violence in the United States is widely known and often seen as a flaw in the U.S. political system, a criticism repeated after the Virginia shooting.

Though Chinese media reports on the Virgina incident were strictly factual, the accompanying social media commentary quickly became a domestic political battleground. Around 9:20 p.m., Beijing time, Chinese web giant Sina began live-blogging about the shooting on its official news account on microblogging platform Weibo, with one post garnering more than 570 comments. One user wrote in response, “No wonder I’ve seen so many public intellectuals” — an often disdainful term for Chinese liberals who promote Western values — “posting candle emoticons. When there’s a tragedy [in China], they criticize the government. When there’s a tragedy [in America], they post candles.” Another user mocked criticism directed at the Chinese political system when inefficiency, corruption, or lack of transparency has resulted in tragic accidents there. “How could this kind of thing happen in a free, democratic country?” wrote the user. “So this is to say, China is actually better,” wrote another. “At least we’re not allowed to carry guns. In foreign countries it is legal.”

Other Weibo bloggers remarked, with what seemed a note of irony, the speed with which Chinese media — which has come under fire for delayed or insufficient coverage of major domestic disasters — had picked up reports on the Virginia shooting. “We’re always among the first to learn America’s bad news,” wrote one Weibo user. “CCTV” — state broadcaster China Central Television, which had reported the news by 10 p.m. in Beijing — “can really be counted as a global first tier news outlet,” wrote another Weibo user. “Such timely coverage.” Another wrote that CCTV was likely “eager to provide 24-hour broadcasting” on the shooting.

Information about violence within China is often strictly limited, especially when it relates to ethnic conflict in China’s restive far west. The ruling Communist Party tightly controls both state-run and even non-state media outlets, often seeking to burnish its domestic image or prevent instability through censorship. The Chinese government has not hesitated to punish journalists who push the envelope; in 2014, China jailed more journalists that any other country in the world, according to the annual Press Freedom Index by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders.            

Shootings are rare in China, which largely outlaws private gun ownership. But knifings have occurred there with some frequency in recent years, including an assault at a school in central China in December 2012 that injured 22 children and one adult; a coordinated attack at a train station in the southwestern city of Kunming in March 2014 which killed 29 victims; and another mass stabbing at a train station in the southern city of Guangzhou, which wounded nine.

Image: Fair Use

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy. @BethanyAllenEbr

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