Why Isn’t China Censoring Chatter About its Latest Bomb Attack?

Over the past 10 days, two horrific attacks have shaken China — but Chinese Internet censors seem interested in only one. On Oct. 28, five people died and dozens were injured when an SUV plowed into a crowd right near Tiananmen, the massive public square in the heart of Beijing. Authorities called it an act of ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Over the past 10 days, two horrific attacks have shaken China -- but Chinese Internet censors seem interested in only one. On Oct. 28, five people died and dozens were injured when an SUV plowed into a crowd right near Tiananmen, the massive public square in the heart of Beijing. Authorities called it an act of terrorism by Uighurs, an ethnic minority mostly located in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang, and censors clamped down hard, scrubbing virtually any mention of the incident from online discourse.

Then, on Nov. 6, an unknown perpetrator, or perpetrators, detonated what appear to have been home-made bombs outside a government building in Taiyuan, the capital of northern Shanxi province, killing one and injuring eight. That bombing, however, triggered a flurry of candid, often vitriolic online discussion lauding violence against the government and speculation about possible links to the first attack. Mei Xinyu, an economist and columnist, wrote on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, that the explosion "was rather expertly done, probably the work of a terrorist organization." Another user invoked a recent U.S. tragedy: "Was this a terrorist attack like the one in Tiananmen? I am beginning to get a taste of how the evil Americans felt after 9/11 happened." Yet the censors appear to have done little to halt the discussion. 

What does the divergent reaction say about what the Chinese government may be thinking? It's almost impossible to divine the thoughts and motivations of an apparatus so opaque and multifarious. But the stark contrast between the reactions of the propaganda apparatus to the two incidents suggests Chinese authorities probably do not think Uighurs were responsible for the Taiyuan incident. In the case of the Tiananmen attack, Beijing worried anti-Uighur chatter could go viral, potentially raising ethnic tensions that have turned deadly in the past. With Taiyuan, however, censors have allowed thousands of comments to flow, even those speculating about Uighur involvement. If the authorities believed the two attacks were connected, they would have subjected chatter about the Taiyuan bombing to a much stricter fate.

Over the past 10 days, two horrific attacks have shaken China — but Chinese Internet censors seem interested in only one. On Oct. 28, five people died and dozens were injured when an SUV plowed into a crowd right near Tiananmen, the massive public square in the heart of Beijing. Authorities called it an act of terrorism by Uighurs, an ethnic minority mostly located in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang, and censors clamped down hard, scrubbing virtually any mention of the incident from online discourse.

Then, on Nov. 6, an unknown perpetrator, or perpetrators, detonated what appear to have been home-made bombs outside a government building in Taiyuan, the capital of northern Shanxi province, killing one and injuring eight. That bombing, however, triggered a flurry of candid, often vitriolic online discussion lauding violence against the government and speculation about possible links to the first attack. Mei Xinyu, an economist and columnist, wrote on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, that the explosion "was rather expertly done, probably the work of a terrorist organization." Another user invoked a recent U.S. tragedy: "Was this a terrorist attack like the one in Tiananmen? I am beginning to get a taste of how the evil Americans felt after 9/11 happened." Yet the censors appear to have done little to halt the discussion. 

What does the divergent reaction say about what the Chinese government may be thinking? It’s almost impossible to divine the thoughts and motivations of an apparatus so opaque and multifarious. But the stark contrast between the reactions of the propaganda apparatus to the two incidents suggests Chinese authorities probably do not think Uighurs were responsible for the Taiyuan incident. In the case of the Tiananmen attack, Beijing worried anti-Uighur chatter could go viral, potentially raising ethnic tensions that have turned deadly in the past. With Taiyuan, however, censors have allowed thousands of comments to flow, even those speculating about Uighur involvement. If the authorities believed the two attacks were connected, they would have subjected chatter about the Taiyuan bombing to a much stricter fate.

That doesn’t mean information has flowed freely. Local papers in and around Taiyuan did not carry front-page coverage of the news in their Nov. 7 editions. But when Weibo users mocked these omissions, their comments made it onto the Chinese social web — and stayed there. 

David Wertime is a senior editor at Foreign Policy, where he manages its China section, Tea Leaf Nation. In 2011, he co-founded Tea Leaf Nation as a private company translating and analyzing Chinese social media, which the FP Group acquired in September 2013. David has since created two new miniseries and launched FP’s Chinese-language service. His culture-bridging work has been profiled in books including The Athena Doctrine and Digital Cosmopolitans and magazines including Psychology Today. David frequently discusses China on television and radio and has testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. In his spare time, David is an avid marathon runner, a kitchen volunteer at So Others Might Eat, and an expert mentor at 1776, a Washington, D.C.-based incubator and seed fund. Originally from Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, David is a proud returned Peace Corps volunteer. He holds an English degree from Yale University and a law degree from Harvard University.

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